Soy/Somos: "I never studied flamenco or played the guitar."

From my blog Soy/Somos, a series that celebrates the multiple identities of Latinos in the USA.

He looks like a professor from a mid-western American city. Quietly dressed, silver-rimmed glasses, lace-up shoes. He guides me to an armchair and sits opposite me, allowing a comfortable distance between us. He's pulled bulletins from his file. "For you to read or toss. I have hundreds of these."

"Women and Minorities on Fortune 100 Boards"
"White Paper on the Latino Consumer"
"Tips for Interviewing the Hispanic Workforce"

They keep coming. The papers are forming a small tower at my elbow.

I met Manuel at a party a year or two ago, and I've asked him if we could have a chat about his work. He tells me that he's lived in the United States since 1972. Forty-eight years. Studied law. Arrived from Spain with his wife (a newly minted doctor) and twin babies.

Why the US? I ask. You and your wife had a fine education, could have practiced law or medicine in Spain or anywhere in Europe.

"It was about the twins. My wife's family was living in the Bronx at the time, and they would take care of our babies while we worked. We thought of our move as as an exposure to a new country, something temporary. But then we set down roots.

"Our kids grew up to be American. And we got older. And then, why take a chance and leave for something new?

"The ability to buy a house (then more than now) was meaningful. Mortgages. In Spain this was inconceivable. And in the United States if you worked hard and were good at what you did you could succeed. Your last name didn't matter."

Manuel and I spoke mostly in Spanish but every now and then he would offer to move to English. (I tend to mix the two.) "No se preocupe. In conversation my wife and I will switch from English to French to Spanish." I found myself hurriedly translating his words into English in my notes.

Let's talk about your work.

"When I arrived in the l970s I worked in the personnel departments of two mid-size American firms. After fifteen years I decided to create my own executive search firm to find and recruit Hispanics. I would get this call many times, 'We've been looking but can't find any candidates.' Of course, they weren't really looking. I visited universities, talked to professors about salient candidates, advertised in Hispanic magazines, bought data bases. There were job boards even then such as Not all Hispanics have Spanish-sounding names. It was a different time.

"Me sentí orgulloso (I felt proud) when I had 200 good resumes. By the time I left my business, I had 50,000. I did this until I turned 70. Also my existence was no longer as necessary."

What happened?

"Companies hired in-house English-speaking Hispanics to help them recruit. Or they'd bring in a single firm to help them recruit different minorities."

Manuel and I spent two and a half hours talking. Now retired, he's working in schools and with organizations that help Spanish-speaking people in need. He interprets between teachers and parents, teaches immigrants how to behave and speak during an interview.

"I know a man--hombre digno y honrado--who works in a nursery. Lives simply. Sends everything he makes to his wife and children in Mexico. His brother's wife lives under a corrugated tin roof, no running water. His wife now has a brick house with running water and electricity. It's happened in this country over and over again. Es la historia humana.

"If I could wake up in one hundred years, my greatest curiosity would be to see if human society has evolved into one race. I would hope to find no barriers or prejudice. In Europe I see English lawyers practicing in Spain--and Spanish lawyers in England. I've listened to Chinese speaking to other Chinese in English. Isolated places like Moldava and Mongolia are becoming accessible with travel and with the communication possible via the internet. Marriages across race, ethnicity, and culture are all around us.

Then he smiles, "I never studied flamenco or played the guitar."