A Ballplayer Illuminates Immigration

We are living in a time of record-shattering immigration, both legal and illegal. This concerns many Americans for several reasons. Contemporary immigration is overwhelmingly unskilled and semi-skilled, which means that incomes of working class Americans, especially African-Americans, have been and will continue to be depressed. Worst of all, perhaps, is the fact that we have lost the will to integrate immigrants into American society. High schools populated by immigrants used to teach classes in “Americanism”; just try that today. We are becoming an increasingly bilingual (or multilingual) society, with all of the social fragmentation that implies.

Which brings us to Kennys Vargas. You probably haven’t heard of Vargas, as the Minnesota Twins have been lousy for a few years. But Vargas was a rookie with the Twins last year. He is a big guy–6′ 5″ and 275 pounds, if you believe the program. More if you don’t. Vargas is from Puerto Rico, and he can hit the ball a long, long way. This is his rookie highlight reel, from last year:

The Twins have been leaders in bringing Latin players into the majors since the 1960s. This Fox Sports article talks about the Twins’ current crop of Latin prospects and the efforts the organization is making to develop them. Vargas is one of those quoted:

The always-smiling Vargas is quick to greet teammates and media members alike with an enthusiastic “Hola!” but he’s also proud to show off his ever-improving English skills.

My job is in the United States. I have to speak English,” Vargas said. “The fans want to listen to you and be part of their life. If they can understand you and you can talk to the fans, you can create a lot more Twins fans. . . .

Ultimately, a professional athlete’s job is marketing. Vargas is smart enough, at a young age, to understand that. Is his insistence on learning English the result of some kind of xenophobia on the part of Twins fans? Of course not:

“I always tweet English, but when I tweet Spanish, the fans ask me, ‘Hey, what does that mean?’ They go, ‘Oh, I want to know, I want to know.’ That’s cool.”

I don’t know whether Kennys Vargas is technically an immigrant. He may return to his native Puerto Rico when his career is over. But his intelligent approach to assimilation into a new culture isn’t new; it harkens back to the immigrant experience of centuries past. What worked then, works now.