Espanol? Yeah, we'd better get in on that

May 27, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

Walter Carr was one of my best buddies at Harlem Park Junior High School (now the soon-to-be-defunct Harlem Park Middle School). We both went to City College after Harlem Park. After high school, I took a number of jobs before becoming a curmudgeonly columnist. But Walt did something really important.

He became a cop.

After a hitch in the Navy, he joined the police in San Diego, Calif. While at a conference in San Diego nine years ago, I made it a point to see Walt, but I took a little trip to Tijuana first. Standing on the Mexican side of the border, I had trouble locating the entrance to return to the American side. (My sense of direction is terrible; I got lost in my room as a child.)

I went up to a Mexican border guard. I knew little to no Spanish, but I decided to see if the guard knew any English.

"Habla ingles?" I asked him. He shook his head no.

"OK," I said to myself. "What do I do now? Oh, yeah, hand signs."

Somehow, more by dumb luck than perspicacity, I managed to find the American entrance. Later, at Walt's house, he told me the simple Spanish question I needed to know.

"Donde esta la entrada por Estados Unidos?" he said.

I've remembered that sentence ever since. It's the second most important lesson Walt ever taught me. The most important was when he left me sprawled on his kitchen floor -- dazed and contemplating words that rhyme with "factotum" -- after giving me a side kick during a karate sparring match. That lesson was that hand-to-hand combat is simply not my forte.

Whether Walt just picked up Spanish because he lived in a city with a large Latino population or took a course in it, I can't say. But I know he didn't learn it at Harlem Park. We took the same foreign language class there, and it was French.

The bottom line is that Walter Carr the cop saw the need to learn Spanish to serve a Latino population. Now Baltimore police honchos have the same idea. They want to go to Puerto Rico to recruit officers who speak Spanish to serve our growing Latino population. There's only one hitch in this plan: Most Puerto Ricans are in their right minds. Why would they willingly come to Baltimore?

Historically, most Puerto Ricans bypass Baltimore to settle in cities like New York, Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa. Yeah, I know. Go figure. I don't see them packing up in droves to move to Baltimore, a city called, for some mysterious reason, one of the most dangerous in America.

So the one brain cell I have left managed to come up with an idea. (This happens about as often as Halley's Comet appears.) Why not take the next recruiting class to Puerto Rico for maybe two months and have them learn to speak Spanish in a full-immersion Latino environment?

The inspiration for this brainstorm came from my experience in Cuba. While there, I visited a medical school in Havana that trains American students -- mostly black and Latino, but some whites -- to become doctors. For free. Most of the American students go there speaking no Spanish. But after a six-month immersion course, they're not only speaking Spanish, but reading and writing it as well.

Since our goal is to get police officers to speak Spanish, not necessarily read and write Spanish, we could conceivably cut the time to two months.

But Officer Troy Harris, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said that "cost-wise, it would be kind of impractical. We'd have to pay the cost of housing them." Harris said there was also a time factor: police cadets already spend six months in the academy.

OK, so I'll buy the time factor. The money part I just ain't feelin'. If we have money to pay some folks $500,000 to come up with a goofy slogan like "Baltimore: Get In On It," we clearly have money to burn.

So we can't send people to Puerto Rico or any other Spanish-speaking nation, where they'll pick up the language faster? How about this: Why not offer financial incentives to Baltimore officers who learn Spanish? And I'm not talking about a pittance. I'm talking $15,000 to $20,000 raises for those officers who, through their own efforts, become fluent in Spanish.

"I've been taking Spanish," Agent Donny Moses, another police spokesman, said. "That would be a beautiful thing."

Beautiful and practical. Moses, on his own, has come to the (correct) conclusion that he needs to know a language other than English. So do the rest of us. The most logical one is Spanish. Those who don't learn Spanish might find themselves in my position when I called the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, to talk to Lazaro Herrera, the former head of that section.

Hoping I would luck out and get Herrera, whose English is actually better than mine, I got a woman speaking Spanish.

"No hablo espanol," I told her.

"No hablo ingles," she answered.

End of conversation.

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