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Bernadete Piassa

Los Gringos And Us

Ines tells me that this is not the first time she lives in the United States. When she was fifteen, her mother sent her to Ohio to stay for six months with an American family and learn about the American way of life. One year later, when Ines was back in her home country, Colombia, she invited that family to go visit her in Bogota. “I wanted them to see the best of my country,” Ines confides me. “I took them to museums, to fancy restaurants; I did my best to show them all the sights which I was proud of. But they didn’t seem interested at all. One day, while I was driving through a crowded avenue of Bogota, we happened to see a cow grazing on a hill. The father of this American family who was with me shouted at once for me to stop the car. Then, he got out and started to take pictures of the cow. Only then did I understand that the family had gone to Colombia hoping to find a poor and undeveloped country, not the civilized place I was trying to show them. Los gringos like to see the misery of our country,” Ines shrugs.

I already noticed that Ines is not very fond of Americans or “El gringos,” like she always calls them. While we eat lunch at the Hope. Inc. cafeteria, where we work in the International Department making long distance phone calls to do research about computers, Ines always finds something funny to say about Americans. I can’t understand why she chose to marry an American and come to live in this country for good.

“Most men in my country are the macho kind,” Ines finally explains to me. “They don’t respect women and are always betraying their wives. When I met my husband, who had gone from United States to work for a few months in Bogota, I was surprised to see how different he was.”

Ines’s love story finishes with an unexpected end. “I’ve always told my mother and friends that if one day I were to marry, I would marry dressed in black,” she tells me. “For my wedding, my fiancée and I took a plane to Nevada, spent the day playing in a casino in Las Vegas and afterwards got married. My dress was the darkest black.” she laughs.

Although Ines has always some funny story to tell, there is a sadness about her, an unquietness. In her booth, between phone calls, she applies a bright red lipstick, traces her hazelnut’s eyes with black lines. “Master, I want to go back to Colombia. Can you buy me a ticket?” she asks.

“Sure I am going to buy you a ticket to Colombia,” Leonardo, the phoneroom manager, teases her. “A one way ticket, if you don’t stop whining and go back to work.”

“Master, you really slave us,” Ines laughs and turns back to her phone.

Leonardo stares at her back, raises both hands to the sky and turns his eyes as if asking God for help. He is smiling and everybody in the department smiles too. We all agree that the two best things about this job are the opportunity to call our country and talk with people over there in our own language, even if it is only about computers, and to have Leonardo as our boss. Leonardo is from Brazil and he handles the International Department in a way very different from the way the Americans handle their department. The Americans are supposed to arrive and start immediately making phone calls. They are not supposed to talk with the person sitting at the next booth, they can’t eat or drink while in the phone room, and there is always a monitor listening to their calls. Leonardo thinks his team is more productive when everybody is happy. He is the first to eat M&Ms in the phone room, he doesn’t care if people stop dialing from time to time to talk, and he laughs so loud at jokes that he is famous in the whole company for his good mood.

One day, a supervisor from the American department hears Ines calling Leonardo “master” and can’t control herself. “Don’t you know that there aren’t slaves any more in the United States?” She grumbles.

Leonardo and Ines look at each other astonished, as if saying, “Can’t this lady take a joke?” Ines even starts to open her mouth but decides wisely to stay quietly. Only when the supervisor is gone she murmurs, “These gringos. They’ve got no sense of humor.”

Leonardo doesn’t have time to agree with her because a lady from Puerto Rico is frantically gesturing to him, trying to catch his attention while on the phone. When he comes close to her, she explains that the person she has on the line doesn’t know the answer for any question. He is the owner of the company she is calling. Should she go on with the interview? Leonardo says that if he is the owner, he should be the one answering the questions. Now, a gentleman from Israel who is also on the phone has a question about callbacks and Leonardo hurries to help him. There is always something happening in the International Department, and Leonardo looks like a firefighter, trying to keep the fire under control with a small bucket of water.

Since there are so many people from different countries in the department, Leonardo had the idea of buying small flags from the countries and placing them in front of the booths. We have flags from Italy, Germany, France, Holland, Israel, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and several other countries. The Europeans work only in the mornings because of the different time zone. We call Latin America throughout the day. The calls for Asia are placed in the evening. The American department is separated from the International, and people from the different departments rarely talk. Even at lunch break the Americans sit at one table while the foreigners group together at another side of the cafeteria. If one of us happens to be sitting by ourselves at one table, all the Americans go to another, even if it is crowded.

As for us, we live in our own world. We feel comfortable coming to this work and being able to speak in our native language and make friends with people who also know what it means to be a foreigner. There is a special bond among us, and we try to help each other. When Maria Jose declares that she is unable to translate the questions from Spanish to English at the end of the interview, Pilar, an elegant lady from Venezuela who just married an American and has very good English, offers to do the translation for her. Like Ines, Maria Jose is from Colombia. But while Ines is a lawyer and is trying hard to find a better job in this country, Maria Jose has the soul of an artist and never knows what is going on around her. She does beautiful sculptures and paintings, but loses her paycheck every other week, has many accidents with her car, and is able to injure herself somehow even while talking on the phone. Leonardo doesn’t know if he should be afraid for her or of her. She is like a walking accident. “Oh, Leonardo,” Maria Jose complains. “Yo soi muy azarada.” Leonardo laughs and can only agree with her that she has bad luck.

In the International Department, everybody has a story to tell, a misfortune to remember, a mistake to regret. Most of us are overqualified for the job we are doing. I’m a journalist from Brazil. Leonardo and Fininho, who are also from Brazil, have Business degrees and used to have very well-paid jobs in Brazilian companies in the United States until these companies went down. By then, Leonardo had been here for a long time and didn’t want to go back to Brazil. Fininho had already married an American and decided to stay. Fininho is kind of a joke in the department. His father is a wealthy Brazilian and Fininho works only when he feels like it. He is more interested in organizing soccer tournaments and trying to charm all the women in the department.

Diego is an engineer from Argentina. When he was in his twenties, he came to New York with his wife looking for a better life. They had two kids and things looked great for them. But Diego’s son was killed in a car accident when he was only eight-years-old. Heartbroken, Diego sold everything and went back to Argentina. He is now in his sixties and is back in the U.S. because his daughter works in Philadelphia as a doctor. Diego and his wife came back to be close to her and help her with her son, but he can’t find a better job than doing telemarketing.

Helen is also overqualified for her job. She used to work as an executive in Switzerland, where she was born and raised, and traveled the world on fancy vacations. Once, on a trip to the Bahamas, she met Tyrone, an American executive for a big company. They fell in love and decided to get married and live in the United States. However, since moving here Helen had to face many problems. She is white and Tyrone is black. His family doesn’t accept her. Helen has four children and can work only part-time. Her husband, after losing his job, also lost his self-esteem. Helen sometimes comes to work looking so tired that she almost can’t talk. In the International Department, everybody understands and sympathizes with her struggles.

Jean Francois is the opposite of Helen. A Frenchman, dressed always in elegant clothes, he talks nonstop on and off the phone and always greets everybody with a cheerful “Bonjour.” Jean Francois is the terror of Leonardo, who can’t convince him to stick to what he is supposed to say on the phone, instead of making long conversations in French. Sometimes he asks the people who he is supposed to be interviewing about computers about the weather, and if the grape crops are going to be good or not. The crops interest him because Jean Francois is a wine specialist. When he is not working at Hope Inc., he teaches waiters in restaurants what kinds of wine should be served with which food.

Silvia is always making jokes about the other interviewers or talking about Brazil—her country and her favorite subject. Leonardo teases her, saying that she is the only true Brazilian in the department. The others eat American food, watch American movies, and prefer vacationing in the United States. Silvia cooks rice and beans every single day. In the evenings, she watches Brazilian soap operas taped by a friend. Silvia would like to go back to Brazil where she used to work as a psychologist. She came to the U.S. to get a master's degree in psychology, but then met her husband, a Brazilian, and stayed here. Silvia’s husband doesn’t have an education like she does. Here he makes a good living as a truck driver. In Brazil, he would be in a bad shape. He doesn’t plan to go back, and Silvia can only dream of her country.

Today we are collecting money to buy a wedding gift for Dinorah, a Portuguese interviewer who prefers to speak in English. Dinorah’s father used to work in Portugal’s army and was sent to Africa, to Angola, where Dinorah was born. In Luanda, Dinorah grew up in a spacious house, with many servants and huge trees. Then the war for Angola’s liberation broke. Dinorah’s family started dining while the bombs fell over the city. Eventually, they had to flee to Portugal, leaving behind all their possessions. Now, many years later, Dinorah’s parents are moving to Portugal to retire. Dinorah is staying. She likes the United States. Besides, her fiancée is a Brazilian whom she met here. In the morning, Dinorah works at Hope Inc., making calls to Portugal. In the afternoons and in the evenings, she works in a hospital as a nurse. If the day had more hours, Dinorah would still have another job. She likes to keep herself busy—just enjoy life and forget the war, forget the servants, and the shadowy trees of Luanda.

We don’t know yet what to give her as a present. Hers will be the first wedding we will be celebrating at the International Department. We already have had many birthdays, which we celebrated with surprise parties in the American style. Sometimes we gather the whole department together for lunch, and each one of us brings food from our own country—arroz con polvo from Colombia, feijoada from Brazil, biscottos from Italy, and other specialties. We are like a big family, celebrating our happiness, crying together for our past, just trying to survive one day after another. We live with one foot in our new country and the other in the place where we were born.

At lunchtime, we make jokes about el gringos and talk with longing about our countries. We complain about the U.S., even though we are thankful for this country which received us with open arms. Sometimes our hearts oscillate between our adoptive and native country like a fragile tree that bends in the direction of the wind. We feel that we don’t belong anywhere. Our children are Americans and don’t understand our constant talk about our past that, for them, is just past. But in our dreams we still go back very often to our native country, for our souls are forever marked by its distant flavors, emotions, and magic.

* All the names and places in this story are fictitious.

©2011 by Bernadete Piassa

Bernadete Piassa’s essays have been published by McGraw-Hill, Amsco School Publications Inc, and Townsend Press Books. Her short stories have appeared in Latino Stuff Review, Gemini Magazine, and Musa Calíope. Bernadete is a Brazilian journalist who has been living in the U.S. for the last 25 years. She edits the Portuguese version of, an international site of culture and literature, and writes the bilingual (English-Portuguese) blog Brazilian Soul – Alma Brasileira. Bernadete lives in Newtown, Pennsylvania, where she is at work on a novel.

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