It Might Have Been Thomas

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  Thumbnail image for thomas paine.jpg Some anti-immigrationists point to what they like to call the early "forefathers" of the United States of America as examples of the kind of people we want to represent -- so different, they tell us, from those who leave their homelands to come here today.  Consequently, I found it interesting to read that this week in 1776 marked the publication of Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," a pamphlet that is largely credited with being responsible for selling the idea of breaking away from Great Britain.  The vast majority of the colonists at the time, if not totally loyal to the crown, were disinterested in becoming an independent nation.  Nevertheless, Paine's arguments were so persuasive that he managed to sell 120,000 copies of his treatis, going from tavern to tavern in town after town to do so.

So who was this Thomas Paine, this "forefather" we should emulate?

He was a working class stiff who, after bankrupting one business, being fired from a subsequent job for lying to his bosses, bankrupting another business and losing another job for being absent without permission, sold all his possessions, such as they were, and left his wife and England.  When he arrived in the colonies, nearly dead of typhoid fever contracted on the voyage over, he managed to find and lose yet another job and had been here less than two years when he started traveling around as an unemployed immigrant spreading ideas most people didn't want to hear.

This was the story that popped into my mind yesterday when I walked past a Latino couple in front of my grocery store.

"Hola." I said, before I realized it had come out of mouth.

"Hola." the man replied with no particular expression.

You never can tell.  His name might be Tomas.  It's only common sense to speak.


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5 Comments

kyledeb said:

I don't have the quotes before me right now, but many of the founding fathers of the U.S. were actually very sympathetic to immigrants. This isn't the best quote, but I've seen many George Washington quotes along these lines:

Happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter, who have contributed any thing, who have performed the meanest office in erecting this stupendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire on the broad basis of Independency; who have assisted in protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.

Regarding the whole, "Hola", thing. I've always wondered whether it's appropriate to speak spanish to someone that looks Latino. The whiteness in me sometimes makes me feels as if I might be unfairly stereotyping someone when I do that, but then I realize that spanish is something to be proud of, not something to be embarrassed about. The denigration of that language certainly plays a big part in racism against latinos.

Changeseeker said:

Since all the original European "settlers" of the U.S. were immigrants, I'm sure they perceived things quite differently than present day anti-immigrationists do. Still, leaving aside the fact that the land mass of the U.S. was stolen in the first place from the indigenous civilizations inhabiting it, all the very early Presidents were slave holders, most colonists were very, very poor, and women (half the population) weren't even included in the Constitution. Unfortunately. Still, it's good to look back and remember who these folks really were.

As for speaking in Spanish, I understand what you're saying, but in this case, as I mentioned, I didn't even expect it. And the man's response was so knee-jerk as to be perfunctory. It was an interesting encounter. It reminded me of being in Mexico.

I do know that not all people who look Latin@ are and that not all people who don't look Latin@ aren't and that not all Latin@s speak Spanish, but I have always thought that knowing -- and using -- more than one language is cool. I stand in awe of a friend of mine who packs a skill set of eleven languages. :^) And I often acknowledge people who look indigenous in various ways, if only to look at them and smile. It must get wearing to be at the center of such negativism all around you 24/7. I've had some impromptu and very pleasant moments by making unexpected contact with immigrants from many cultures. But always with great respect and no assumption on my part that they "owe" me that contact.

janna said:

I know EXACTLY what you mean.
There are times when I screw up and respond in Spanish to latinos who address me in fledgling English. I try to be ever mindful of their desire to practice their new English with me, but sometimes my selfish desire to practice my Spanish with them wins over :) But there was also the time I was in the drug store minding my own business when a Mexican man asked me, in Spanish, if I could help him find something. I was blown away, wondering if there was a sign on my lily-white forehead that says, "Se habla espaƱol." We had a very pleasant exchange, but I still wonder how he knew he could speak to me in Spanish, & that I would respond. It was truly flattering.
I too tend to respond with genuine interest to "ethnic-looking" people. Just the other day as I was walking in to work, I passed a woman who appeared to be south Asian, and made eye contact. We exchanged a smile, and I did wonder how often that happens to her because of her exotic looks, and if such exchanges are more often positive or negative.
The sentiment behind this post rings so true, it was a real pleasure to read. "You never can tell. His name might be Tomas" reminds me of Hebrews 13:2 and Matthew 25:35-40, two beautiful guidelines for interacting with people no matter what your religious beliefs may be.

janna said:

It took me all morning to remember where I had read this, but I thought you'd appreciate it:
http://www.amren.com/mtnews/archives/2007/11/biding_their_to.php

Changeseeker said:

That's an interesting article, janna, and brings up a number of issues. I'm afraid my tiny bit of Spanish is such that these kinds of problems haven't reached me yet. I do know that lots of indigenous people speak their own language (neither Spanish nor English) and I hadn't thought of that. But my little "Hola" or "Gracias" is so humble, I've been received kindly to date. For which I'm grateful, needless to say.

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This page contains a single entry by Changeseeker published on January 13, 2008 6:45 PM.

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