Trinidad and Tobago

Terry's beach banner

The Spanish Inquisition

By Terry Joseph
October 10, 2003

Oxford University Press defines inquisition as: "a prolonged period of questioning or interrogation," presumably (if only in duration) not unlike the extant scenario involving imported Cuban doctors and nurses who, antagonists say, are yet to master English.

The original Spanish Inquisition was, of course, infamous for its misguided attempts at mono-spiritualism, forcing subjects to become Roman Catholics or, in lieu, having them face terrible consequences including death.

Although later independent research discovered that the level of cruelty in the 15th and 16th Century descriptions of the Inquisition far outweighed actual events, Hollywood faithfully followed a series of writers of the period by exaggerating the condition.

"Any death but that of the pit," wrote Edgar Allan Poe in his famous reference to the Spanish Inquisition in The Pit and The Pendulum, where the imagery included a gleaming and fearful swinging guillotine and the idea of a red hot poker, still sizzling from recent contact with human flesh and waiting in the hands of a sadist for its next victim, was not far-fetched.

Actor Rex Harrison, as Prof Higgins in My Fair Lady-a lift from Shakespeare's Pygmalion-- responds to a hint he may be falling in love with Eliza Dolittle by saying: "I'd prefer a new edition of the Spanish Inquisition than to ever let a woman in my life," comparing apples and oranges, perhaps, but doing so in a way as to suggest a preference for swiftness of agony if that was the only available choice.

We were therefore bred to believe that anyone who spoke Spanish was less than a person. Long ago, Venezuelans were seen as a dirty people, all coming from the Barrios, demonstrating poor etiquette and held up as the reference position for anti-social behaviour. It was not uncommon to hear someone derisively described as "Pah-yol" (a corruption of the Spanish-Espanol-they spoke), particularly where that person's behaviour included spitting.

In the instant consideration, it is at least puzzling how a country that up to 40 years ago boasted "Aqui se habla Espanol" in every storefront of its capital city, could now seek to pillory its Latin neighbours on the premise that they do not speak English well.

Complainers insist this is not a case of purchasing commodities but could well involve matters of life and death on a daily basis, if doctors and nurses can neither speak English nor understand instructions from consultants or responses from wincing patients. Somehow, that didn't seem to be a problem when we had an influx of Nigerian doctors, perhaps because racist implications would have followed.

The cost of El Doctor's accommodation became a sidebar issue as well, with (one suspects) local counterparts bringing television crews to lodgings used by the visitors, comparing theirs with having to sleep on couches when on call in the emergency room. Interestingly, there was little mention of the compensatory housing allowances enjoyed by the Trini medics.

With Trinidad and Tobago seeking to establish itself as the capital of new-found Caribbean groupings and trade alliances and Port of Spain promising to go completely bilingual in five years, it is more than a bad joke that we should find ourselves complaining about the inability of locals to at least understand Spanish, since more than 300 million of our neighbours to the south speak the language, which is taught at every secondary school here.

Not that many of us can effectively debate sensitive issues with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or Cuban counterpart Fidel Castro, but Trinis have long warmed to Latin music, embraced the cuatro and guitar, developed parang, have no problems with arepas and tortillas and at Carnivals of long ago, routinely opted for Aztec and Zapata mas, while calypsonians often infused a little Spanish to capture wider audiences.

In the latter-day, Trinis freely picked up and went to Cuba and Venezuela for cheaper surgery, while doctors here continued to complain about everything under the sun, shutting down operating theatres and other services at will, flexing muscle at every opportunity, trying to bring the Health Ministry to its knees; succeeding at increasing public anxiety.

But, they would now have us believe we'd all be dead in the short shrift if the Health Ministry did not rescind the decision to bring in supplementary staff, although conceding that many of our doctors have either migrated to ostensibly greener fields or dedicated themselves to private practice, sometimes ushering patients at public institutions to their private clinics for treatments available at both levels.

Last week, a National Broadcasting Network (NBN) newscast cited a case in which one such nurse assigned to San Fernando General Hospital couldn't understand instructions from a local doctor during a resuscitation procedure.

Perhaps fearing litigation in clearly printed English, the station emphasised that losing the patient had nothing to do with the communication problem it highlighted, but the epilogue saying "one of these days she will be working alone" is pregnant with life-threatening implications.

The practise of medicine is rendered easier where people speak the same language but not impossible where they don't. Interestingly, whenever there is an emergency in a public setting, one never hears the voice on the speakers demanding language preference, saying: "Is there a doctor in the house who speaks English?"


Terry's Homepage