Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Intense Beauty of Bloomberg's Crappy Spanish

I find Mayor Bloomberg's efforts to offer Spanish language advisories in his emergency news conferences heartbreakingly beautiful. If you'll look beyond his impassive face to the heart of what he's doing, you'll see it, too.

Yes, Bloomberg's Spanish is poor, and his accent is horrendous. So why does he do it? Why would a billlionaire - who could be playing golf or throwing parties, who's been up for days handling an emergency while New Yorkers jeer at him because they want their power back on, who has nothing to prove to anyone, who faces no reeelection and therefore has no reason to pander to Latinos - put himself out there, in the hot lights, drawing ridicule by offering his crappy Spanish?

Even Rachel Figueroa, the ridiculer-in-chief, who writes the (pretty amusing) "@ElBloombito" Twitter feed, asks this same question:
"I don’t know why he does it....You get this sense that he thinks we should be honored that he would even attempt to speak Spanish"
The article's writer describes these efforts as "stilted stabs at multiculturalism".

I enjoy Figueroa's Twitter feed, but I really abhor her comment. Interestingly, she doesn't speak Spanish, though she has a Puerto Rican father. She understands it some. So I'm not sure she'd be the proper person to assign any such honor. The mayor's not speaking to you, Rachel.

He's speaking to the very large number of city residents who speak only Spanish, and who could especially use the steady, soothing reassurance from their mayor in a time of crisis that the rest of us enjoy. Even during good times, non-English-speaking immigrants feel marginalized and neglected. It's that much worse in times like these.

I feel like a fully enfranchised New Yorker, but, like everyone else, it makes me feel better to see a Bloomberg (or, god help me, even a Guiliani) on TV telling me it's all going to be ok, projecting the aura of competent authority, and offering me detailed information. It helps. It's soothing. It's part of what a mayor does. Millions listen raptly to transistor radios during these news conferences.

So he's addressing Dominican waitresses and hard-working Mexican young men and the isolated grandmas of busy Peruvian yuppies. They are as worried as the rest of us, but also confused and feeling very much out of the loop. New York City's two million Hispanics need a mayor's personal assurance more than anyone.

In order to reassure them and make them feel remembered, connected, and looked after, this hugely successful billionaire, who could easily be in a resort somewhere sipping mai tais, puts himself out there on television, letting everyone see him doing something he knows he's not good at. His sole motivation: kind compassion and earnest sense of duty. He thinks it's important. It's love.

How often does one see such a thing? Did mayors like Abe Beame, John Lindsay, or even David Dinkins give a rat's ass about personally reassuring Colombian families after a terrifying event, much less putting themselves on the spot to do so? And would any of them have kept their compassionate motivations to themselves, letting contemptuous assumptions stand unrebutted?

Bloomberg is too modest and high-minded to point out any of this, or to lash back at the criticism. His sole response to the ridicule was this:
"Tengo 69 años. Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma." (Translation: I’m 69 years old. It’s difficult to learn a new language.”)
This sort of selfless compassion and courage could stem only from shakti. That's why it's heartbreaking and beautiful. It doesn't appear often. As with Steve Jobs, people will only notice the shakti contrails once he dies.

In that same article, Figueroa concedes that, in light of her own lousy Spanish, "I would not be able to give a press briefing in Spanish." Oh, really? But what if you were the mayor, Rachel, and a couple million people might feel soothed in a time of crisis if you rose above your inadequacies to make a heartfelt effort to speak directly to them; to make them feel that they, too, have a mayor? Would you willingly make yourself vulnerabile on TV so you could be of service beyond the call of duty? Could you, an anonymous chick in Brooklyn, even come close to the egolessness of the city's most successful person in order to reassure a population you're related to and he's not?


Tom Meg said...

I realize he has a funny accent (though he speaks clearly enough that I could jot down every word if I had to, which is not something that I would be able to do with many native speakers, FWIW) but is the mayor's Spanish actually poor, as in unclear or distractingly incorrect? I'm honestly wondering because my own HS Spanish is too rusty for me to tell.

Jim Leff said...

It's nowhere near as bad as the satires make it seem. It's not, like, ridiculous incomprehensible pidgin spanish. It's not the Spanish rich guys use with, like, their pool guys.

But it's only a few notches better than that. He makes clunky beginner mistakes. But it's comprehensible. And therefore it's sufficient for him to connect...which is, of course, the point.

rajeev joshi said...

i agree with you - its a very nice gesture on bloombergs part.

but i'd disagree with the bit about being too old ... i think its the lack of exposure to different languages as a child.

my last name - joshi - is composed of two very very common english syllables: 'joe' and 'she'. but 99% of americans will pronounce my name as 'jah she' even if they've just been told my name verbally, and not reading it out!

its odd and i cant explain it - other than no practice early on with other languages.

Jim Leff said...

Hi, Joshi

Well, scientists have shown it's vastly harder to learn a new language past a certain age. Plasticity of the brain, etc.

Anyway.... I actually think his Spanish announcements are more than a nice gesture. You're an accomplished, successful guy, and you kinda/sorta fool around on guitar a little. Would you ever go on TV and attempt, say, a Beatles tune, with all your work colleagues (and the rest of the world) watching and smirking? If you weren't FORCED to? Just because you (and ONLY you) realized it would help a bunch of people nobody thinks about much? If it wasn't your job?

That's just COMET rare.

The same's true of Bloomberg's mayorality, generally. He doesn't need to be doing this. People say it's an ego thing. Those people are insane. It's nothing of the sort; it's clearly pure civic-mindedness and giving back. I met Ed Koch once, so believe me, I've seen what "doing it out of ego" looks like! :)

I understand he quietly fills in with his own money on shortfalls for programs he deems important. But he never takes credit. For any of it. He just does it and takes the hits as his motives are impugned. Never fights back, never gives up. As a yogi, I'm extraordinarily impressed, and I think people are missing it.

Same for critics who say he lacks the common touch; that he's a snobby elitist. A dude butchering Spanish just to extend reassurance to Dominican grandmas (and understanding way better than half-Puerto Rican snarky bloggers how important that is to them) is an elitist!

I don't love all of Bloomberg's policies, but I've developed a profound respect for him. I think we've been blessed (not a word I use a lot) to have him as mayor. And I don't think we deserve him.

Forgive my rant....


Jim Leff said...

Tom (and others), this will give a sense of his language problems:

In that quote he gave the Times, "Tengo 69 años. Es difícil para aprender un nuevo idioma." (I’m 69 years old. It’s difficult to learn a new language), the correct version would have been "Tengo 69 años de edad. Es difícil aprender un nuevo idioma"

The "de edad" ("of age") might be deemed optional, but the "para" insertion is a typical newbie blunder. "Para" means "to", so while mentally translating word-for-word, he used "para" for the "to" in "it's difficult to learn".

But the infinitive verb form includes the "to" sense. That is, "aprender" means "to learn", with the full sense of "to".

A rough analogy of the error in English would be for someone to say "It's difficult for to learn a new language". We'd all find that perfectly understandable, and can sense where the speaker went wrong....but it's real klunky.

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