11 September 2006

Illegal hero

I was talking to friend the other day about how aggravated waiting for help on the phone make us.

“What I really hate is when I get someone who can’t even speak English!” she said, and launched into a story about calling about her telephone company and having to speak with a customer service rep who had a very heavy Asian accent.

“You’d think,” she said with disgust, “that at least if they aren’t going to hire an American, they could get someone who can speak the language!”

It’s not the first conversation like that I’ve ever had, and I guess it won’t be the last. But her intolerance bothered me. It wasn’t malicious – she’s a nice person – and she has no real animosity that I know of against immigrants or foreigners. Instead, it was her attitude of entitlement that got to me.

As Americans, we do tend to think that way. We irks us when we hear a foreign accent over the phone, particularly when we’re not expecting it. For some reason, we feel that people who immigrate to America should step off the plane or over the border already fluent in English. And when we travel to countries where English isn’t spoken, we expect that people will speak it for us anyway.

Relatively few Americans can speak a foreign language or bother to learn one. It makes for a very narrow world.

Just how narrow came home to me a few weeks ago. In the town where I edit the newspaper, a paraplegic man and his small son were driving along, headed out to get haircuts. It was a lazy Saturday afternoon in this quiet bedroom community.

As he drove, his van, which had been modified so that he could drive it and get in and out in his wheelchair, inexplicably caught fire.

He was able to pull over and stop -- in spite of the transmission and brakes failing -- by running the van halfway into a ditch. His made his son get out. But the door on his side of the van wouldn’t open, and he was unable to move himself from driver’s seat to his wheelchair. Even if he’d been able to, the ramp he needed for entering and exiting the van wouldn’t work, either.

People stopped when they saw burning van, and some tried to get to him, but the fire was too intense. He was trapped in the van as the flames grew around him, as his small son watched, screaming. He described, later, how it felt to watch the van melt around him as he tried to breathe, his face between his knees. He knew he was going to die and said he felt terrible that his son was going to witness such a terrible thing.

A Mexican landscape worker on his way home from work saw the burning vehicle and stopped, too. Without hesitation, he picked up a big rock, ran up to the van -- which was now completely enveloped in flames -- smashed out the window, and without any regard for his own safety, reached inside.

The victim saw his hand through the smoke. He grabbed it, and with phenomenal strength, the landscape worker dragged the helpless man out of the fire to safety.

Miraculously, neither of them were injured. Someone called the disabled man’s wife, who came to pick him up as the local firefighters arrived. The Mexican landscape worker – the hero -- gave his business card to one of the onlookers, got into his car and drove home.

When we got wind of this amazing and dramatic story at the paper, tipped off by the witness who’d been given the business card, we went after the story. We talked to the paraplegic man and his son. But when we tried to talk to the hero about his bravery and what had compelled him to take such a grave risk, to do such a brave and selfless thing, we were stopped in our tracks.

He was willing to talk to us, but he couldn’t speak English.

We couldn’t speak Spanish.

Eventually, we were able to find someone fluent enough in Spanish to ask him questions for us over the phone and to relay back to us his translated answers. I knew it had to be inaccurate and I hated having to tell his story second-hand, but it was the best we could do with a tiny staff, other stories to write and edit, and a deadline looming.

He told us he thought that there were children in the van, and that they were going to burn to death unless someone did something. He said he wouldn’t have been able to sleep that night, knowing that he’d only watched while children died. And he was glad he’d been able to save the man’s life.

He hadn’t stayed at the scene because he wasn’t hurt, the victim and his son were being tended to, and there didn’t seem to be anything further he could do.
Later, we learned through the fire department, which very much wanted to honor his act of heroism and bravery with a public ceremony that would include the press and the disabled man, that the hero was an illegal immigrant. Because of that, they were not allowed to do it.

The disabled man got in touch with his rescuer privately to thank him.
We’ve considered pursuing the matter further in the paper – if for no other reason that such an act of selflessness and bravery deserves public recognition -- but we don’t really want to draw more attention to this good man. It could well lose him his home and his livelihood, if it hasn’t already.

As of today, I don’t know if he’s even still in the area. He hasn’t returned our calls.


Kevin Wolf said...

It may be that, due to the current climate in the US, he feels less safe speaking to you than reaching into a burning vehicle.


Wil Morat said...

I would say this is the chance for your newspaper to address the issue of immigration.

Perhaps before you didn't want to delve into the controversial and politically-charged subject - but this would seem to warrant a separate look (perhaps a series?) about the immigration issue and how it affects the community.

As for the overall "speaking English" thing...Here in Japan I am surprised at how many people speak a little English. It is mandatory for Japanese students to take English classes in school from the age of 12 to 17. Everyone knows at least a little...how much better would the world and the US be if every American knew a little Spanish?

Great story...made my morning.

roxtar said...

Kevin nailed it. Does your paper print letters to the editor? This point should be made publicly....it might make for an interesting debate.

Mike Kretzler said...

Excellent story, telling story and, as Kevin has it, embarrassing.