Saturday, January 16, 2016

Immigrant Prejudice Goes Both Ways

I complained on Facebook recently about a "speak Portuguese or get out" rant I received. I was never the type of brash American that looked down upon immigrants or had the "speak English" attitude. Even before I met my husband. One of the things that I love about America is the conglomeration of people, culture, and language. I love walking into Target and seeing a Muslim couple from Turkey, a gay white couple, a black hipster, and a Latino family [true story]. I love hearing ten different languages as I go about my day. I should probably mention that I lived in the northeast, outside of Philadelphia, so your cultural experiences in the US may differ. There was very little "majority" where I lived. I want to travel the world, but I appreciate a world experience in my backyard. 

Which brings me to Brazil. Imagine my surprise to be on the receiving end of anti-immigrant sentiment? The first incident, summed up, occurred when we picked up our CPFs (something like a Brazilian social security number). The woman at the desk was visibly annoyed with our US documents and tried to make us leave before giving all of them to us. She wanted us to obtain a waiting number for each document, although other people were picking up multiple CPFs on one ticket. When I thanked her for giving us all the CPFs, she turned and left her desk with silence and a scowl. Okay, message received.

The second incident cut a bit deeper. We took our one year old to the clinic to receive immunizations. I've been working with our old pediatrician in the States, the US immunization schedule, and the Brazilian immunization schedule to try to make sure the kids don't receive the same immunization twice or miss anything. At the clinic I was speaking to my husband in English and he to the doctor in Portuguese. It's easier for us this way, because I don't want to miss anything, and with medical and technical terms, my Portuguese is not up to snuff. Also, when a lot of people are speaking or speaking quickly (as they do), I get lost quite easily. The doctor rolled her eyes at me and said (in Portuguese), "She doesn't speak Portuguese? You better learn it if you want to stay here. No one here speaks English. I don't know why you're coming in here if you can't even talk to us." Instead of being rude in return, I slunk back and held my daughter while she received her shots. Anyway, it was more important that I comfort my screaming infant at that point. 

I've been learning Portuguese for seven years. Completely on my own. On my own time, while also working and raising two children. It's. Not. Easy. My husband doesn't correct me when my grammar is wrong, as I've recently found out. I speak like a child. A child raised in the country by hillbillies. But I'm trying. I'm fucking trying. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to live in a country that communicates in a way you can only scratch the surface of? To be in a conversation and think you get it, only to have your contribution dismissed and be told you're way off? To have something to say and be completely unable to say it? To speak to someone and hear, "I can't understand anything you're saying." But... I'm speaking Portuguese. How do you not understand? To have to spend twice as long on every conversation because in your head you're translating what was said and what you're going to say? It's exhausting. Frustrating. Disappointing. And then to be told "Speak Portuguese or get out." It makes you feel devalued as a person. 

If you are of the "Speak English or get out" variety, understand that the immigrant you're belittling might just actually be trying to speak/learn English. But the belittlement and lack of patience is discouraging. Instead, try to speak with them. Use language that you would use with a child. Speak slowly. Allow them time to digest the words and search for the right ones to respond. Save your frustration for something more important.

*And I haven't even touched on the difficulty of pronouncing sounds that aren't in your native language. There is no "th" or "r" sound in Portuguese, no rolling "r" or "ão" in English.


  1. Thank God I haven't had any negative experience in this case. Most people who hear me speak ask me where I'm from, think it's "chic" that I'm a foreigner, then compliment me on my "great" Portuguese. Sometimes I want to laugh about it because a lot of Brazilian born people have very bad grammar and often a very strong accent themselves. Luckily the anti-immigrant sentiment is a vast minority here in Brazil. Hang in there, these people are just jealous! :)

    1. I live in Governador Valadares which has, by reputation, the largest number of Brazilians in America - which I think kills the "chic" aspect for the locals. Everyone has a cousin that lives in the U.S. Oh the Brazilian grammar. When we came back from Vitoria on the train someone corrected my "Obrigada" vs "Obrigado" and there was a big debate among the Brazilians about which was appropriate to use and if obrigada was even used anymore. *sigh*

  2. And here I thought Spanish was hard...