Millers book in four words: 'How I Learned English'  
Arizona Daily Star
Nov. 19, 2007

By Brady McCombs

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

 The concept for Tucson author Tom Miller's latest book had been simmering inside his head for years, but it didn't come into focus until an encounter while walking his dog about three years ago.

He ran into Eliane Rubinstein-Avila, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Arizona, who had seen him at a book reading. Her first words were what had become a dreaded opening line for Miller: "I have an idea for a book for you."

He usually cringes and runs the other way because people pitch books they want, not that he wants. But this would be different.

"She said, 'How I Learned English,' " said Miller, 60. "So I said, 'Keep talking.' When she said those four words, the whole idea of this book crystallized. It had been on my mind so much, but I hadn't thought of it in those simple four words."

A book was born.

Miller spent about a year and half compiling and editing stories from 55 accomplished Hispanics whose first language was Spanish and who learned English as a second, third or fourth language. The book include stories from Hall of Fame baseball player Juan Marichal, professional golfer Lorena Ochoa and TV personalities "Don Francisco" (real name Mario Kreutzberger) and Cristina Saralegui, among others.

The English version, "How I Learned English," hit the shelves in late August, and the Spanish version, "Como Aprendí Inglés," came out in mid-September. He'll be discussing his book Tuesday night on the University of Arizona campus.

Miller, who has been writing about Latin America and the Southwestern United States for more than 30 years, sat down last week to discuss the book and the current the political climate surrounding immigration.

Q: What prompted you to do this book?

A: "Over the 35 or so years that I have lived in Southern Arizona and traveled in Latin America, I have watched people whose second or third or fourth language is English and just marveled that it's more than learning language. There is an enormous amount of baggage that goes with learning English. Some of it's cultural; some of it's political, social. And it has always impressed me. Initially, these were people I was writing about. They may have been copper miners or farmworkers or other union organizers or even other journalists in Latin America. But more and more, they became less subjects and colleagues and more friends. And then eventually I married into a Spanish-speaking family, so I got to witness intimately the process of learning English from the beginning. To watch it on a daily basis is fascinating."

Q: What is your favorite account in this book?

A: "I don't know if I have a favorite, but there are some that stick out. For the writing, Gioconda Belli (a Nicaraguan author). I just didn't have to change a word. Just put it in there; it was just lovely. There is a lovely piece by one Brazilian in the book, Patricia de Santana Pinho. She and her family, when she was very young, lived in small towns in England because her parents were in the medical field, and their accounts of learning English in England are interesting and stand apart from a lot of the others. For its militancy, Rubén Martínez (a Los Angeles-based author). His piece stands out. And also Quique Aviles (a Salvadoran-born poet and performance artist).

Q: How has the book been received in this polarizing climate surrounding illegal immigration?

A: "The people who don't like immigrants don't show up at my events. I'm ready to duke it out, but they don't come."

Q: How has the immigration debate changed since you first started covering these issues more than 30 years ago?

A: "There are any number of ways to say that. One is that when I was writing about the Border Patrol in Cochise County, in Douglas in the mid-'70s, at the end of every day they would take out this cardboard. Essentially it was the bottom of a cardboard box that had put in lines and squares. And at the end of the day, in pencil or pen, they would write in how many people they picked up that day — 38, 22, 12. I think there were 12 people at the time assigned to the Douglas station. And I got to know most of them, and they would take me out and they would spend two or three hours cutting sign, following one guy and not to make them sound like good guys, but as often as not they would catch up to somebody, hand them their canteen and say: 'All right. Let's go.' They would spend the morning tracking down one person, and it was almost always on foot. I'm not trying to make this seem like the good old days, but the difference between that and today is . . . there is almost nothing in common, not even the uniform, not even the agency."

Q: How about politically? How has it changed?

A: "Politically, it was completely off the scope, and now it's dead center. I remember I was covering Congressman Morris Udall in one of his re-election campaigns, and somebody went up to him once and said, 'My brother works a construction job and they hired a Mexican at a lower rate.' Udall turns to his aid and says, 'We ought to look into that.' I think this was the early '80s. So you can see how there has been such an enormous change since then."

Q: The back cover says this collection "speaks to — and for — all of us, and goes directly to the heart of the national debate on language and immigration." Do you agree with that?

A: "Yeah, it does, although I don't. There is not one piece in there except for Ray Suarez's introduction that mentions the immigration debate, the politics of it. It's all personal. It's all from the heart, all from the brain. But none of it has to do with politics. The book just sucks the jingoism right out of the immigration debate."

Q: But without mentioning it, do you think it's still relevant with what's going on today?

A: "It's the massive subtext of the whole thing."

Q: What can we expect from your next book?

A: "My next book will be one that I write that I don't edit. At this point, there are two possibilities, but they are both so vague I wouldn't even go into it."

● Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or

Tom Miller

If you go

A presentation by Tom Miller about his new book, "How I Learned English."

Where: University of Arizona Library, special-collections reading room, 1510 E. University Blvd.

When: Tuesday at 7 p.m.

What: After Miller talks about the book, a few people from the university will talk about their experiences in learning English as a second language. Then they'll open it up for questions and discussion.

For information on the event, call 621-6423.

For more on Miller, go to