Magazine Feature

'Why Do They Always Do Outside Work?'

Talking to kids about immigrant stereotypes.
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I've always teased my rambunctious 10-year-old son about his ability to make noise. The boy even whispers loudly. Until last fall, I thought he surely was the only person or thing capable of rousing me first thing in the morning with a racket equivalent to a sonic boom. I learned, however, that there is at least one thing on this Earth that makes my son seem as quiet as a church mouse in comparison — construction.

Building by building and over the span of several weeks, my apartment complex underwent major renovations last fall. Pounding, hammering, banging and clanging became my new alarm clock, along with the voices of the men working just outside my windows who spoke to each other in a language that, aside from a word or two, I did not understand.

"Señorita," one of the men called to me from outside my patio door one morning. He motioned for me to open my kitchen window where he was replacing a section of rotted wood.

"Señorita, señorita," my son laughed. "Why is that man calling you señorita?"

I explained that "señorita" is simply the Spanish equivalent of miss. "Are those men Spanish?" my son asked.

I told him that a person from Spain is Spanish, but that many people from many different countries speak Spanish as a language, and that I was not sure what country the men were from.

After announcing that he also intended to learn Spanish, my son asked a question I didn't quite expect.

"Why do they always do outside work?" he asked.

"Who do you mean?" I replied.

"You know, the people who speak Spanish," he said. "They always do work like building houses or cutting grass and stuff like that."

I explained to him that many of the people he was referring to come to the United States from countries where money and work are hard to come by. Hard labor — "outside work" as he called it — is often the fastest route for people who may not have a college education or who may not speak the language to earn a living. I then explained that while many immigrants do perform "outside work," there are many others who are business owners, doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.

I also cautioned my son against making blanket statements about entire groups of people, and reminded him about how much he dislikes it when he hears others remark that "all boys" do this or "all black people" do that.


Stereotypical Images, Stereotypical Ideas

Given the images of immigrants we regularly see portrayed in the media, it's not difficult to understand the origin of my son's thoughts about the kinds of jobs such men and women hold.

Given most images we see, I'm sure my son and many other children have adopted various stereotypical ideas of what it means to be an immigrant in this country.

Regardless of the angle, it's pretty likely that any TV news story regarding the topic of immigration will highlight one of a few images: the man climbing a fence at the border, the family navigating the ocean by raft, the group huddled in the back of a vehicle — all with hopes to build better lives in the U.S. than the lives they left behind, and all doing so "illegally."

These images paint a picture of immigrants as nuisances who refuse to abide by the law, and they fail to provide a deeper look at the human suffering and bleak conditions that drive many immigrants to risk their lives for a chance in this country. Moreover, these images fail to convey the true picture of people who work hard, pay taxes, care for their families and share common human values.

Stereotypical images not only distort, but often are accompanied by harsh rhetoric that extends beyond the television screen. On more than one occasion, my son and I have witnessed supermarket clerks making rude remarks to or about the "foreigners" who don't speak English. "At least learn the language if you want to live here," they mutter.

I've waited my turn at a local bank and witnessed tellers visibly agitated because a group of immigrant day workers entered the branch to cash paychecks. "Why do they always have to come at the same time?" they say under their breath.

As parents, it's important that we challenge these occurrences whenever possible and take the time to dispel myths and misinformation that our children undoubtedly pick up from such occurrences.

Most importantly, we must teach our children that we all have an immigration story in our families — some proud, some painful. Teaching kids about such history can help them see that across countries and continents, we are more alike than we are different and that the desire for safety, opportunity and happiness for our families is truly the thread of our humanity.

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