Boston mayoral candidate looks at her accent

BOSTON – Mayoral candidate Annissa Essaibi George was bolstering her supporters, who had gathered at an Italian restaurant on the waterfront in South Boston, a bit impactful after a long day out of the vote.

As she moved towards the climax of her speech, a promise to be “the teacher, mother and mayor” the city needs, her accent unfurled like a banner. Those in the crowd were in a good mood, so they sang it together a second time and then a third.

“I will be the teacher! they cried, at a boisterous celebration. “The moth! (Cheers.) “And the mayah!” (sustained cheers) “to do it!” “

In this slogan, which she also has featured in two TV commercials, Ms. Essaibi George clarifies several things: that although she identifies as Arab-American, she was born and raised in the heart of Irish American Boston. That in the midst of an influx of well-to-do professionals, she would stand up for Boston’s working class – not just police and firefighters, but electricians and construction workers. That his neighborhood, Dorchester, is etched in his DNA.

Boston is a city that cherishes its accent – an accent that ignores Rs in some places, inserts them in others, and extends the A sound as if opening its mouth for a dentist.

In the second half of the 20th century, linguists say, as New Yorkers began to despise this region’s R-free accent, Bostonians continued to revel in theirs. They were not embarrassed; it conveyed toughness, good humor and authenticity. Candidates with strong accents have won the last 10 municipal elections.

But this campaign comes at a time of change, as growing populations – young professionals, Latinos, Asians – are redrawing Boston’s electoral map. Ms Essaibi George’s opponent, Michelle Wu, who moved to the area to study at Harvard, talks about the concerns of many of these new Bostonians. Slowly but surely, like the polar ice caps, the core of Boston’s working class is shrinking.

When Ms. Essaibi George speaks up, dropping references to her parish (St. Margaret’s), her favorite teacher (Sister Helen) and her football grudges (Jimmy Garoppolo’s profession), she effortlessly conjures up that Boston.

“I will say we had a bit of fun with the accent,” she said in an interview. If you look the first TV commercial to feature the phrase, she said, “you can see I’m doing everything I can not to laugh out loud.”

When asked if this conveys political advantage, she verbally shrugs.

“I don’t think about it at all,” she said. “This is how I think. This is how I speak.

The two candidates, both Democrats and general city councilors, differ in particular on issues of law and order and development: Ms. Wu, who placed first in the preliminary elections, pushed for bigger cuts to the police budget, while Mrs. Essaibi George pleads for add hundreds of additional officers to the force. Ms. Wu supports the stabilization of rents and the dissolution of the city’s main town planning agency, who she says favors politically connected developers, while Ms Essaibi George, who is married to a developer, warns such measures could bring construction “to a near screeching halt”, slashing the city’s budget and jobs of the working class.

But it was Ms. Essaibi George’s declining accent that sparked the most heated discussions. A local filmmaker who recently celebrated an anniversary received a card saying, “You are my SISTAH, you are a PRODUCAH, and now you are OLDAH.

Many of Ms. Wu’s supporters roll their eyes, claiming Ms. Essaibi George named her Dorchesterese for the occasion. Either way, they say, the solidarity conveyed by the Boston accent – truly a white working-class Boston accent – is one that excludes much of the city. Recent census data found that only 43 percent of Boston’s population was born in Massachusetts.

“It’s a message of belonging,” said Mimi Turchinetz, a community activist who supports Ms. Wu. “That unless you’re from the neighborhood, you don’t have deep roots and can’t represent this city. . It is a declaration of belonging, as opposed to the other. This is the quiet suggestion.

Ms. Wu, the child of Taiwanese immigrants, was raised in a Chicago suburb; his speech does not have a strong regional flavor.

Last week, asked by Boston Public Radio if Ms. Wu’s lack of roots in Boston should be a factor in the raceMs Essaibi George said it was “relevant to me” and “relevant to a lot of voters”, causing such a backlash on social media that she spent much of the next day trying to explain . The perpetual contrast between the old Boston and the new Boston, she said, is “such a stupid and stupid debate.”

“It’s not about being born and raised here,” she said. “So many Bostonians weren’t born and raised in the city. Both my parents immigrated to this country, not to mention the city. And for me, that’s what makes this city special.

Accents have long been militarized in Massachusetts politics, generally identifying their owner as the most genuine champion of the working class. James Michael Curley, who served four terms as mayor of Boston, starting in 1914, once mocked his opponent, telling him he had a “Harvard accent with a South Boston face.” .

Senator Ed Markey took advantage of his accent last year, when in a debate with then-representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, he turned to Mr. Kennedy and said: ” Tell your dad you don’t want money going to a Super PAC that runs negative ads. The blow was clear: Mr. Markey, the son of a truck driver, contrasted with the offspring of a political dynasty.

Almost instantly, “Tell ya fatha” became a meme, for sale on T-shirts on Mr. Markey’s campaign websites. It was so popular that Robert DeLeo, then president of Massachusetts House, posed with a “Tell ya fatha” t-shirt without realizing what it meant, then apologized privately to Mr. Kennedy. , Politico reported.

It’s an accent that can go both ways, said Marjorie Feinstein-Whittaker, a speech-language pathologist who has spent 20 years helping Massachusetts residents change their accent.

Often clients look for his company, the Whittaker Group, because they fear that in business circles they will be seen as “working class, or not so smart.” Sometimes they’re just tired of being told to ‘park the car at Harvard Yard’ all the time, which makes them feel ‘like a circus act’.

But there is also something positive about the accent – something intangible, an emotional attachment. “It’s hard for me to answer because I’m not from here, but I think it’s: ‘I support you, you protect mine, we have this bond that no one can break'”, a She said, said Feinstein-Whittaker, “It’s like a family affair. It’s solidarity.”

Ms. Essaibi George’s story makes her both an initiate and a stranger to this tradition. His father, Ezzeddine, grew up in a Tunisian village and fell in love with his mother, a Polish immigrant, while they were studying in Paris. He followed her to the Savin Hill section of Dorchester, then predominantly white and Irish Catholic.

As an Arab and a Muslim, he never felt fully accepted, Ms. Essaibi George said, and scoffed at the idea that her daughter could be elected, telling her “an Arab girl, with a name Arab, will gain nothing in this country “. That she did it – winning a city council seat three times – represents “my 15-year-old inner self” trying to prove her wrong, she said.

“I am very proud of the neighborhood I grew up in,” she said, although “I was sometimes seen as a little different kid as I don’t come from a traditional white Irish Catholic family. . “

This combination of attributes – a callback to traditional Boston that also represents change – helped her place second in last month’s crowded prelims.

“We need someone who has been in our shoes,” said Michael Buckman, 38, a janitor who fears the rising cost of living will force him out of south Boston, where his family lives. for nine generations since immigrating from Ireland.

“It goes back to the roots of Boston,” he said. “It was a working-class town. It went in the direction of skyscrapers, hospitals and universities. I understand that cities evolve. On the contrary, Boston has evolved a little too much.

As for Ms Essaibi George’s accent, that’s a plus, said Douglas Vinitsky, 45, a sheet metal worker who was waiting to meet her during a campaign stoppage.

Although he “was not raised with aplomb,” he said, his mother tried for years to train him to pronounce his R’s, warning him that he would be considered uneducated. Mr. Vinitsky disagreed so much that he leaned deeper into his accent just to make a point. And it never cost him.

“No one else in the world cared how I spoke,” he said. “It didn’t even matter in Boston.

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