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Immigrant embracing America: ‘It’s a tough journey for all of us’

The Examiner
Michael Olesker
June 2, 2008

I’m waiting for the next misguided patriot to tell me about keeping immigrants out of America, and the pressing need to make English the official American language because these modern foreigners for some reason don’t want to embrace the English language the way our own immigrant grandparents did.

And then I want to introduce them to my friend Angelo Solera, who took a one-way street from a boyhood in Spain to the streets of East Baltimore and has a newly published autobiography — in English — that makes its debut this week at the Creative Alliance on Eastern Avenue.

And then I want to introduce them to a bunch of American kids who just marched across my television screen. Their names are Hernandez and Deng, and Grimaldo and Gunawan, and Ursua and Shekhar and Aouad.

Their parents arrived here from every distant corner of the Earth. You think these families aren’t interested in learning English? You think they don’t want to embrace the full American experience? Then tell me why these are the kids, with all these funny-sounding last names, who marched across our TV screens last week as finalists in the National Spelling Bee.

But first let’s talk about my friend Angelo, who arrived here 28 years ago, when he was 17, from Salamanca, Spain. Angelo spoke no English. He did housework for $2 an hour for German immigrants who spoke only broken English. They spoke with hand gestures and nods and mutual patience. They were all inching their way toward America.

Angelo lived in a friend’s apartment in the 2900 block of St. Paul Street and one day took the wrong bus home. He was lost and didn’t know how to ask where he was. He saw a sign. It said “One Way.” He thought it was the name of the street.

“I thought, ‘All the streets got the same name here?’ ” he said.

Now he thinks of it as a metaphor: his eagerness to take the most direct route toward a sense of belonging.

Every newcomer wants to belong. You look at those kids in the spelling bee last week and know it right away. The names alone tell you: Quezada and Kao, Caballes and Tsai, Malayappan and Janhari, Kangeyan and Nakamoto, whose families embraced the language a syllable at a time and passed this on to their children.

And you listen to Solera, who learned the language bit by bit, and found a little work here and a little there, until he became a community activist, and then a liaison between City Hall and Baltimore’s growing Latino population. He was vice chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Hispanic Affairs under Kurt Schmoke, and Hispanic liaison for the health commissioner under Martin O’Malley.

A few years ago, he ran for a City Council seat out of East Baltimore. Some would call it an unsuccessful campaign, because he lost. They miss the point. It was part of the journey toward the full America.

His new book is about some of this. It’s a 245-page autobiography called “The Journey: El Camino.” (Visit angelosjourney.com.) It’s about a literal journey Solera took in 2005, when he returned to Spain to see his family. While there, he walked a 400-mile pilgrimage across the country.

The book is about that journey — and about the larger journeys, from Spain to America, and the journey to find himself.

“Translating emotions from Spanish to English gave me language and cultural challenges,” he was saying the other day, lunching at Jimmy’s Restaurant in Fells Point. “I just held the pen and listened through my soul.”

His son, Juan Antonio Solera, 22, who just graduated Howard University’s journalism program, edited the manuscript. Yeah, Juan must be one more child of an immigrant who doesn’t care about the English language, and doesn’t care about embracing the full America.

Like those kids in the final round of the National Spelling Bee last week, with the names Pineda and Zung, and Janhari and Malayappan, and Grimaldo and Vavilala.

“It’s a tough journey for all of us,” Solera said. “We’re all human, and we all want to be somebody and feel like we belong.” He comes from Spain, but now he belongs to America. He’s written the whole story in the English language he has embraced.

Just like those American kids in the finals of the national spelling bee, whose names are Tsai and Guzman, and Chung and Nawaz, and Chatrath and Ursua. They come from families that embraced the language a syllable at a time, and America was embraced simultaneously.

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