Politics & Policy


Talking BASURA — I mean, TRASH

Folks, this will be a very, very unusual Impromptus today — but I think you’ll think it worth your while. I’m going to offer a little fiesta of language, sociology, and politics.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an item concerning basura. What’s that? The Spanish word for trash. How do I know that, not being a Spanish speaker?

Well, let me repeat what I wrote:

“I was steaming recently over bilingual education, that crock. A lot of it is not bilingual education, of course: It’s monolingual education, in Spanish.

“I used to work at a biggish firm, and when we put boxes and things out that we wanted thrown away, we were to write ‘BASURA’ on them — that’s the Spanish word for ‘garbage.’ The throwers-out, of course, would be Hispanic.

“And this infuriated me. So we’re going to keep them in a linguistic ghetto? How will they ever be more than janitors, then (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld and his friends might say)? They’re in this country: Let us write ‘BASURA’ in Guatemala. And let us write ‘TRASH’ in America.

“Never got anywhere. And the amazing thing is: These white liberals thought they were being kind to Hispanics. I think I took to writing ‘BASURA/TRASH’ — a regular Berlitz, me! And a Schweitzer, too!”

Well, this little screed provoked an avalanche of mail, and I’d like to share some of it with you, for what it says about our country and our opinions. We do this in Impromptus now and then. (Remember the sprinkle of columns on the honorific “Dr.”? Go here, here, and here.)

Anyway . . . enjoy.

“Here in Chicago, in large offices, they distribute stickers to be placed on garbage items. The stickers read: ‘GARBAGE / BASURA / SMIECI.’ That is English, Spanish, and Polish.

“I agree with you that the demands by some non-English speakers to be accommodated in their native language for all public services are offensive and wrongheaded. But this small accommodation for the mutual benefit of office workers and cleaning staff is not in that category.”

“Dear Jay: I got quite a chuckle over today’s Impromptu concerning basura. My brother used to work for NEC (remember the ‘N’ is for ‘Nippon’) and saw ‘BASURA’ written on boxes and things left in the hallway to be thrown away. Even though he lived in Plano, Texas, he thought basura was Japanese. It was with great glee that I told him it was Spanish and that, having grown up in Texas, he should’ve known better. Did he think NEC was importing janitors?”

“Mr. Nordlinger, you say, ‘I think I took to writing “BASURA/TRASH” . . . ’ Alas, you have spent too much time in Canada, where everything is written twice, said twice, probably thought twice. What a waste of time and resources! You are a man of principle. In America, TRASH means TRASH. Never ever EVER give up!”

“Mr. Nordlinger: My wife is a middle-school administrator in Orange County, Fla. We share your anger with bilingual education. In Orange County, Spanish-speaking students are put into the bilingual program from K thru 8th grade. Theoretically they are supposed to be given the benefits of learning in their language . . . I’m sure you’re well aware of the theory.

“What I cannot understand is why learning to read and write English in kindergarten would be any more difficult than learning to read and write Spanish! They don’t know either language! The English-speaking children and the Spanish-speaking children are in exactly the same boat. Bilingual education here is a complete and utter (yet very expensive) failure which serves only to allow the Puerto Rican population to maintain their ‘cultural identity’ at the expense of the taxpayers and the education of the children whom they purport to help.”

“Jay, I laughed out loud reading your column on language and your ‘adventure’ with the word basura.

“Several years ago, one of the fellows in our office was working on recycling (another eye-roller for me), and he wanted the cleaning staff to leave his recycling alone, because it looked just like trash!

“He wrote basura on the trash boxes, but the recycling still disappeared. Several days later he found out the cleaning crew was Chinese!”

“Dear Jay: I just wanted to relay my experience with ESOL education. I am Puerto Rican, born on the island, but from age 5 through 12 lived in the Dominican Republic. Halfway through 7th grade my mother knocked some sense into my father and we moved to Orlando. To make a long story short, I ended up in the ESOL program despite the fact that I quite clearly spoke English and despite the fact that my mother wanted me to be with all the ‘American kids,’ as she would say.

“My first day of school in an ESOL class was the most amazing and disturbing thing I had experienced up to that point in my life. Almost every kid was Hispanic (mostly Puerto Rican, which didn’t help my self-image) and didn’t speak English. Most of them were from the mainland and some of them had been there three years already. My cousins in Puerto Rico spoke English! Making matters worse, all of our teachers were Hispanic and spoke Spanish with us all the time. As a matter of fact, I sort of felt sorry for an Asian kid who was also in the program because he would go around all the time without a clue, since six out of his seven classes were really in Spanish.

“I hated that ESOL for two reasons. First, I thought that all that time I spent learning English would be wasted if I didn’t get to speak the language. Second, I felt segregated from all the ‘American’ kids. Four weeks into my whole ESOL experience I decided I had enough and pleaded with my teachers and school administrators to put me in the regular curriculum. At the end of the nine-week term, they agreed after calling my parents.”

“Jay: I had to chuckle over your frustration at having to write basura on trash, as it reminded me of an incident at my workplace. Our janitorial staff is Russian, and I had a large bunch of boxes in my office that needed to be thrown away. Since they came in after I left for the day, I taped a big note to the boxes, which said, ‘TRASH — please throw away.’ When I arrived at work the next morning, they had thrown away the note and left the boxes!”

“Nord (my friends and I call you Nord. Hope you don’t mind. After all, it’s good enough for Derb): I used to manage custodial crews in the Phoenix AZ area about a decade ago. The basura/trash argument is an old one for me. I once spent a few months trying to convince people in the corporate offices of a major insurance company that my employees didn’t need orders in Spanish. Just because they were willing to do menial labor for minimal wages (although it was a king’s ransom from their point of view) it didn’t mean they were stupid people and it was condescending to them to think that they couldn’t learn a simple five-letter word in the English language. If memory serves, they ended up just creating designated trash areas on each floor for boxes and items that wouldn’t fit in a regular garbage bin. Of course the sign said ‘BASURA/TRASH.’ I still don’t know why it couldn’t have said ‘TRASH/BASURA’ instead.”

“Jay — An acquaintance once told me that years ago when he was preparing for a job that involved supervising an office cleaning crew, the guy he was replacing suggested that he come in a half-hour early each day of the following week so he could learn enough Spanish to deal with the crew. The new guy replied: ‘I’ve got a better idea: Why don’t you have them come in a half-hour early each day to learn enough English to deal with me?’”

“Mr. Nordlinger: On the subject of writing ‘BASURA’ on the boxes of trash: I don’t think the intent was so much to be kind to the cleaning staff as to simply get the frickin’ trash removed. Writing ‘TRASH’ might be a very good way of educating the cleaning crew in English, but that really isn’t the responsibility of office workers. Writing the note in Spanish probably just seemed like a quicker and easier way of getting their offices cleaned, which is their responsibility.

“(What your former co-workers may not have realized is that their approach only works if the cleaning staff can actually read Spanish. I understand that this isn’t always the case, that more than a few Hispanic immigrants aren’t any more literate in Spanish than they are in English. For them, it may not make a whole lot of difference what you write on the boxes.)”

“Mr. Nordlinger: I have a classic ‘BASURA’ story. I used to work for one of the large defense contractors in their headquarters in Herndon, Va. When I started working there I was informed by several people that I simply had to write ‘BASURA’ in large letters on anything I wanted the janitors to throw away. The gave me the standard ‘They don’t speak English, basura means “trash” in Spanish’ explanation.

“A few weeks later I struck up a conversation with one of the cleaning ladies (how politically incorrect of me to call them that) in my broken Spanish. Between my broken Spanish and her broken English, we had a half-decent conversation. I asked her whether she knew what the word ‘trash’ meant. She answered that of course she did. She also pointed out that when she first came to this country and started working at her job she found it insulting that all the boxes had ‘BASURA’ written on them. She thought that even if she didn’t know what trash meant, if she saw a bunch of empty boxes sitting in a hallway with ‘TRASH’ written on them, she would figure out that it is the English equivalent of ‘BASURA.’ She found it degrading that Americans didn’t think Hispanics were smart enough to put 2 and 2 together.

“I asked her if she would pick up my trash labeled ‘TRASH,’ and she answered no. She explained that those who work in janitorial services now use the entire ‘BASURA’ label as a joke. They simply refuse to pick up anything labeled ‘TRASH,’ not because they don’t know what it means, but because it is too funny making all us gringos write ‘BASURA’ on our trash. She said that this is pretty much universal, most Hispanic immigrants in that field knowing what trash means after about a week of work.

“I thought that was hilarious.”

“Dear Jay: I’m with you in principle on the basura/trash thing, with one exception: If I have a stack of boxes that needs to be saved, I hate to say it, but I’ll risk keeping the janitors in their linguistic ghetto and write ‘No es basura.’”

“Dear Mr. Nordlinger: This reflection is occasioned by your complaint about the use of basura for garbage generated by English-speakers.

“A true story. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Segbwema, Sierra Leone, a smallish (6,000-person) town in the Eastern Province of that country. Apart from the two high schools, the most important institution in the town was a hospital founded decades before by English Methodist missionaries.

“Well, in the late 1970s the time had come for some necessary expansion and improvements to the buildings. One decision concerned the latrines: Should they be outhouses with holes in the ground or should they be modern ones?

“Two of the Westerners on staff suggested the holes-in-the-ground design, on the assumption that this was the technology that the local people were accustomed to. At this, the Sierra Leoneans on staff objected, ‘What, do you not think that we want to enjoy the hygiene and ease of the flush toilet? Do you think we want to sh*t in a hole in the ground forever?’

“Ah, human nature is the same all over.”

Ciao, amigos.


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