Learning Spanish as a tongue-tied imposter

Nearly every language learner I’ve met – whether an English-speaker learning Spanish, or a Spanish-speaker learning English – feels the same anxiety. Have you had that experience – the reluctance if not fear of using our second language in front of people who are bilingual? At its best , our hesitation may be a decent form of modesty to prevent a presumption of appearing to be more than we are. Or so we tell ourselves. Or, it may be our fear is more primal than that.

The ‘imposter syndrome’, as it’s called, hits me most noticeably when I encounter Spanish speakers whose English is at least as good as my Spanish. My first instinct is to stick with English. Yet, I’m not afraid to speak Spanish with Mexicans who don’t speak English. It’s utterly irrational but somewhere, in the back of my mind, a little voice tells me bilingual Spanish speakers will ask themselves: ‘Who does this naco (idiot) think he is?’

When I was a schoolboy, I sometimes had nightmares of standing naked in front of my classmates while they pointed, giggled and taunted as I imploded before them. Over the years, as I matured and gained self-confidence, the dreams went away – or so I thought.

Why not? I passed into adulthood and then middle age as a highly competent if not accomplished adult. I overcame a lackluster high school education to earn a PhD, write a book and receive a book award, then hold a professional slot in a multinational corporation followed by a stint in state government. In short, when I put my mind and will into it, I did everything I thought possible to do and even things I thought no possible to do. Experience showed me that my professional effectiveness rested on my integrity because people knew me to be who I claimed to be.

When I took up Spanish in my 60s, and stepped outside my customary social and professional world, the fear of standing naked on a stage returned, and I again feared exposure as a fraud. I know the ‘imposter syndrome’ is a common occurrence to various degrees but it’s not one we talk about. We cover it up behind a bluff front, or we dismiss these dire visions as irrational fantasies outside reality. As a middle-aged language student, the fear of exposure often dogged me by day as well as by night.

Learning Spanish in Mexico wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing grammar and vocabulary, as I thought. No. Language immersion entailed learning and living within a cultural mentality that was different from my own. The anxiety didn’t arise when I began the language because I knew so little. Anxiety increased as I learned to move into the culture and became acute toward the end of immersion, as I became bilingual. Mexico isn’t Minnesota and our inner ways of life differ. Unfiltered expressions of opinion and emotion are marks of authenticity in Mexico but we Minnesotans mask these things with opaque friendliness. As I internalized this aspect of the Mexican cultural mentality, I started to think, speak and act in Mexico in ways at odds with how I thought, spoke and acted in Minnesota. Before long, I felt as if I had two personalities and wondered which was the authentic one.

Near the end of my language study, I was riding high, full of myself, floating on the affirmations of teachers and friends who said how much I had changed during immersions. To them, I had become ‘something of a Mexican’ in thought and habit as well as speech. When I took a bus to visit a friend in a distant town, I shared the four-hour journey with a campesino. When he discovered I grew up on a farm, we talked about agriculture in great detail, questioning each each other about the practices in Mexico and Minnesota. If I can do that, I thought afterward, then I must be truly ‘something of a Mexican’.

After a day of walking around in the tropical heat, and feeling ill, I passed a wretched night with my inner critic, trapped between slumber and consciousness. Like a prosecuting attorney, this dark voice reviewed every error I ever made during Spanish immersion, it doubted my affinity for Mexican culture, and questioned the authenticity of my identity as ‘something of a Mexican’. Who was I to think I could be bilingual and culturally competent? I was a fraud, a pretender, un pendejo (a jerk).

I rose early in the morning, physically and mentally exhausted, convinced I didn’t speak much Spanish, that the affirmations of my fluency were lies, and my affinity for Mexico was illusory. At that moment, I wanted to return to Minnesota immediately. Feeling hungry, I went to the posada’s deserted dining room for breakfast. The waiter greeted me cheerfully and asked for my order. I answered automatically in fluent Spanish, adding the details of how I wanted my eggs cooked, and could he bring me coffee right now. Hearing me speak in rapid-fire Spanish, he asked more questions, we chatted for a moment and then he took my order to the kitchen. As he walked away, I wondered: What happened last night?

That is the crux of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. At its core, the ‘imposter syndrome’ identifies our insecurities and poses questions that test if not challenge what we believe about ourselves. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge toward self-examination and self-definition. At other times, as in my case, it acts like the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials demanding proof that its negative accusations aren’t false. Looking back on it, I realize my subconscious was warning me not to confuse my high aspirations and expectations with my current reality. Yes, I’m bilingual, and yes, I’m culturally competent, but that night the syndrome taught me the importance of humble self-acceptance as the heart of authenticity.

Day of the Dead – A day out of time

November 1, the cusp of winter, marks a season of longer, darker nights in Minnesota. This is a chilly season of damp, gray clouds. Against the gloom of a twilight sky pierced by the black limbs of bare trees, it is easy to think of death.

November begins with All Saints Day, a celebration of the martyrs, apostles, and other exemplars of the Christian faith whose souls have ascended to heaven. All Souls’ Day follows it with remembrance of faithful, ordinary people who have died. In Mexico, and among Mexican communities in the United States – including mine – November 2 is el Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a day I try to observe with reverence.

Why do I, a well-educated Anglo, celebrate a day that is a fusion of Christian All Souls’ Day and an ancient indigenous Mexican celebration of ancestors. Do the spirits of the dead really return?

A decorated tomb.

A decorated tomb.

Yes, I think the spirits return if we want them to. For me, el Día de los Muertos is a time in which I break out of the linerarity of modern chronological time and return to something older and deeper – the cyclicality of life where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously (as it also does in quantum physics).

Viewed from fleeting acquaintance with Mexican culture, Day of the Dead conjures up images of skeletons, crania or skulls, and people dressed for a party. It is that but it’s much more than that. The ubiquitous tableaux of skeletal figures eating, drinking, walking skeleton dogs, and copulating convey the idea that, whatever your status, death isn’t final but makes all equal. The day takes death seriously without becoming macabre, yet it is celebratory without being trivial.

Decorated family graves.

Decorated family graves.

I celebrated this day in Oaxaca with the family where I was living. They cleaned and decorated the family grave on November 1. Most families leave flowers and candles but they didn’t. The extended family’s ofrenda or altar in the home stood bedecked with flor de muerto, a tall, pungent marigold in vases next to a photo of the deceased family patriarch. Around the photo were things the man loved in life: bowls of beans and chocolate, a bottle of mescal and a pack of cigarettes, candles and loaves of pan de muerto (bread). The family put out these symbolic offerings to invite his spirit to visit them again.

The family ofrenda.

The family ofrenda.

We spent the day together – much like American families do at Thanksgiving – sharing memories and telling stories, drinking mescal and agua de jamaica (hibiscus flavored water), and feasting on mole con pollo, chicken in mole that Estela, my host, prepared in a ceramic pot over a charcoal brazier in the courtyard.

El Día de los Muertos exhibits both the carnal and spiritual aspects of human life and death because we are both. This day would be meaningless – at least to me – if it were so spiritual as to be devoid of any material or visual expression. As Thomas Merton wrote, “The spiritual life is first of all a life … to be lived… If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men [mortals].” [i] In short, the spiritual and mortal part integral parts of each other and not opposites.

Estela cooks the mole.

Estela cooks the mole.

I’m a historian by training and avocation. Nature and education imbued me with a sense of the past, the multiple intricacies of cause and effect, the importance of facts and documentation, the dynamic of analysis and synthesis. At first glance, my professional attributes would not seem to lead toward accepting an idea that the spirits of the dead return. How do I hold these seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time?

It’s not as difficult as it looks. By a return of the spirits, I mean I a fleeting sense of their distinct personality that endures in memories infused with emotions tied to particular times, places, and people.

Those I’ve known and loved, and who have died – like my parents – return to me from time to time in particular moments. No, I don’t see them as visual phantoms or hear their voices, nor do I try to communicate with the dead. It’s more subtle than that. I listen. There is so much we don’t heard because we aren’t listening.

An ofrenda to my parents.

An ofrenda to my parents.

As our family’s historian, I’ve read reams of letters written by my parents, aunts, grandparents, and ancestors dating back to the 1840s. I’ve come to know each correspondent by their distinct “voice”, or style of expression. Through their words, I’m acquainted with them, and know their personalities, their souls. They are present to me through their writings, putting what is in their hearts on the pages. Isn’t that a kind of visitation by the dead? And don’t they still live as long as their words endure?

This brings me back to el Día de los Muertos. Some Mexican families hold vigils before the ofrendas in their homes, praying for their difuntos and awaiting the return of their spirits. For years, I spent evenings spent pouring over 170 years’ worth of old letters, teasing out the details of our family’s story. At the time, I had thought of it as historical research, Then, in Mexico, it occurred to me these hours were also a kind of vigil with the dead. And doesn’t telling their stories bring them if not their spirits into momentary being? I think so.

My parents have died, physically. I don’t know if they now “live”, as I understand conscious living, in some other dimension presently inaccessible to me. It’s an open question science can’t answer. Some fundamental questions – like those of faith and meaning – lie beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry because the spiritual doesn’t conform to physical laws. I think of my parents as living in what orthodox Christian creeds affirm as a “communion of saints”, a unity of the living and the dead in a relationship with God as they know God.

A wall in the alley.

A wall in the alley.

When I lived with a family in Puebla several years ago, my host asked for my impression of Día de los Muertos. Our conversation unfolded as I explained some of the differences between American and Mexican concepts of death. Then I described how my mother had died several years before, at home, in her house, as she had wished. As I described her, I drew on memories of her face, her voice, and her mannerisms. The description of my mother’s character and virtues, like the flowers, pan de muerto, cigarettes, and bowls of chocolate, created a verbal ofrenda every bit as real as any physical items. In speaking of her aloud, I invited and then felt something of her presence in the moment.

These are subjective and personal experiences but I believe they are accessible to anyone who pays attention. My understanding and observance of this day is a fusion of my rationalist training and religious formation. For a day, I can pass beyond the limits of linear time and spend a moment in the eternal.

I published this post a year ago, but repost it for you because it aptly sums up my experience and understanding of life, death and what comes after.

[i] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, (Shambhala, 1993), p. 10.

Walls, Deportation, and Trump’s ‘Final Solution’

Immigrants aren’t ‘real Americans’, are they? I mean, if we let them stay, they’ll change the character of the country. It won’t be America anymore, will it?

That’s the visceral feeling of many who rally to Donald Trump, and nativist organizations, like NumbersUSA, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and others. Many who affiliate with white nationalist groups see immigrants as an existential threat. Do you?

President Obama and the Republican Congress agree the United States has a dysfunctional immigration system. Unfortunately, they don’t agree on the parts that are broken or the fixes it needs. That leaves a policy vacuum. Nature and politics abhor vacuums and Trump is ready to fill it with a simple, comprehensive ‘final solution’. So he says.

If elected, Trump says he’ll keep immigrant families together and then deport 11 million of them – including their U.S. citizen children. He would build a wall along 1,900 miles of the border and force Mexico to pay for it. In addition, he would rewrite the long-established meaning of the 14th Amendment! Should we take Trump’s ideas seriously?

Yes! And here’s why. What he proposes has happened many times in U.S. history at the hands of a xenophobic minority and a passive majority. To understand what is going on, it’s important to step away from the rabid carnival barker on television and consider the history of forced removals in American history. It’s an ugly picture, largely ignored in our public education, and exposes the racist skeletons in our national closet.

From time to time, especially during economic downturns, U.S. policies have taken two approaches to non-whites and immigrants – exclude them or remove them.

Excluding immigrants begins with The Naturalization Act of 1790 that prohibited the naturalization of non-whites. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution effectively overturned it. After intense lobbying from Californians, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese. Chinese laborers arrived to work in the 1850s gold rush, and later on the railroads. When economic times got tough, Californians claimed the Chinese took jobs that white men could hold. The Act remained in place until 1943.

The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas limiting annual immigration from each nation to 2 percent of immigrants from that country resident in the U.S. in 1890. During the recession following WWI, some Americans agitated to stop immigration of southern and eastern Europeans (Italians, Poles, Jews,) because they competed for jobs. The Act banned immigration of Asians and Arabs. The eugenics movement was at its peak and pushed hard to ban those they considered ‘racially inferior’. This pseudoscience regarded poverty as a sign of genetic inferiority, promoted forced sterilization of the mentally ill, and pushed laws prohibiting interracial marriage in order to improve the original ‘American stock’. The Immigration Act of 1924 remained in force until 1965.

Those whom Americans didn’t want, they proposed ‘repatriating’ or deporting to another country. In 1821, the American Colonization Society, an organization founded by Northern abolitionists and some Southerners, who believed free blacks wouldn’t fit into a white society. They set up a colony in West Africa that became Liberia but relatively few slaves were freed when Whitney’s cotton gin spurred cotton production and increased the need for slaves.

Whites wanted Native Americans land and, beginning in 1830, the government forcibly removed the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations from the southeastern states (to expand cotton and slavery), and relocated them in what became Oklahoma. Among them were many European Americans, black freedmen, and slaves. Thousands died on the ‘Trail of Tears’ west from exposure, disease, and starvation, including more than 2,000 of the 16,000 Cherokee. After that, the U.S. used treaties, military and economic force to ‘relocate’ indigenous nations on ‘reservations’ of lands deemed worthless to whites, and even these were whittled away. Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924!

After the U.S.-Mexican War, Mexico ceded vast territories to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexicans residents became citizens of the United States, but on paper only. Once socially and economically prominent Mexicans were pushed aside, abused, and defrauded by white settlers rushing into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Soon, the ‘Jim Crow’ laws applied to Mexicans as well as blacks in Texas and elsewhere.

Mexican immigration wasn’t formally restricted and, during the Mexican Revolution from 1910-1920, millions of Mexicans fled to safety in the United States, settled in Los Angeles and other cities, found work, created communities, and started families.

As the U.S. slipped into economic depression, and unemployment approached 25 percent, white Americans demanded the removal of Mexicans to free jobs for white Americans and reduce relief roles. From 1930 to 1936, U.S., state, and county governments in California, Texas, and Colorado, rounded up and deported to Mexico, without due process, as many as two million people, including an estimated million U.S. citizen spouses and children of Mexican immigrants. Esteban Torres was a three-year-old boy when he father was ‘repatriated’ in the 1930s. He never saw his father gain, but Esteban gained his citizenship and served in Congress from 1983-1999.

In 1942, with the U.S. at war in Europe and Asia, the U.S. and Mexican governments established a formal guest worker program – braceros – in lieu of undocumented immigration to work on farms and railroads in place of the men in the armed services. The program continued until 1965. Mexican farm workers could earn more in the U.S. than working in Mexico; American farmers wanted low-wage workers and brought them in illegally rather than deal with the rules of the guest worker program. Mexico farm owners and businessmen protested the loss of workers to the U.S. and, beginning in 1954, the two countries launched ‘Operation Wetback’ to capture and deport over a million undocumented Mexicans. The tide of Mexican immigration has ebbed and flowed depending on the economy.

Are immigrants just one more commodity in a throw-away economy?

Anti-immigrant xenophobia is surprisingly consistent across cultures and centuries. Its proponents see immigrants as different, of less value as humans, less civilized, or capable of becoming ‘true Americans’. In words both coarse and polite, they call immigrants economic parasites, bottom feeders, and the cause diseases and crime that will drag down the nation.

These sentiments greeted the Irish, who arrived in the U.S. during the 1840s, and the Slavs and Italians in the early 1900s. Nazis used similar arguments against the Jews, the Hungarians make similar claims for not admitting Syrians trying to reach Germany today. The ignorance behind eugenics still casts an ugly shadow.

Xenophobes seem always in search of a ‘final solution’. The means have varied over the years – forcing indigenous nations onto reservations, passing laws to exclude the Chinese, ‘repatriating’ Mexicans, incarcerating U.S. born Japanese, and sending Jews to gas chambers.

As for walls, they haven’t worked throughout history. Perhaps there is something comfortable in the idea of wall, but it is false security. The Chinese built its Great Wall to block nomadic invaders – it didn’t work. The Romans built Hadrian’s Wall to keep out the Scots – it didn’t work. The Berlin Wall fell in our lifetime. People find a way over, under, or around.

What are the facts? Immigrants have always been at the core of American history and economic growth. Deporting all of them would remove six percent of the U.S. workforce, reduce GDP by six percent, and cost $400-600 billion. Given low U.S. birthrates and an aging population, immigration is essential and can raise GDP by one percent and reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion in 20 years. Unauthorized immigrants make up half of California’s farm workers. Americans would feel the effect immediately in a scarcity of fruits and vegetables.

Are immigrants a drag on the economy? No! The economic drag comes from a person who makes campaign contributions to secure business favors from government officials, bends the bankruptcy laws to advantage and sticks someone else with the bills, and asks for tax abatements and incentives instead of putting his own assets at risk.

Can repatriation happen again? Yes! If we’re silent in the face of intolerance.

Polls consistently show a strong majority of Americans favors giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. But a poll response isn’t a commitment; it isn’t the same as stepping up to put pressure on lawmakers and demand a reform of immigration laws.

A majority of Americans isn’t opposed to granting immigrants a path to citizenship but it’s not their priority, either. At most, it’s passive support that can melt quickly unless we act. If you believe immigrants are vital to our economy, a dynamic in our way of life, and support the American credo on the Statue of Liberty, then demand immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Your ancestors were once immigrants. Don’t let your silence support xenophobia. Honor your heritage. Speak out.

 

 

Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

Have you ever tried writing from scratch in your second language? A letter, a post-card, an essay? What was your result? Too hard to think of the words? Frustration with the grammar? You wrote it in English and then tried to translate it to Spanish? Writing in a second language is challenging but so rewarding if you want to learn.

I treat all writing – in English or Spanish – as thinking on paper. It’s thought in a visual form. When I lay down the words where I can see them, it’s easier to watch what they do in the company with other words. Writing in Spanish, however imperfectly, also sharpens me for writing in English.

Good writers are also good readers and reading is a good place to start. Try reading a familiar English passage in another language. Chances are it will illuminate something you didn’t notice in English. For example, St. John’s Gospel starts with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” I always took this as a poetic but abstract statement about the Divinity. I understood the passage differently when I heard it in Spanish. “En el principio existía el Verbo y el Verbo estaba con Dios y el Verbo era Dios…” Verbo means verb, it denotes a word to express action. The English ‘word’ denotes a part of speech and can be a noun, adjective, preposition as well as a verb. In other words, ‘Word’ is rather generic, even passive.  God as verbo is a different image than God as ‘word; a God of actions rather than categories.

Try this:

Read in Spanish (or your second language) a book you already know well in English. Preferably, choose one with familiar passages as in the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, Goodnight Moon, or others. As you read, look for shades of meaning in Spanish language you missed in English. What new insights or meanings do you take from this?

I began writing in Spanish during immersion. The teacher asked only for random sentences to practice verb tenses, prepositional phrases, etc. As an inveterate writer, however, I turned the requisite sentences into a short, coherent story I might tell socially. I was tempted to write it in English and then translate it but I’m glad I didn’t. The point of immersion is learning to think the language. Writing Spanish from scratch wasn’t easy at first, but became easier with each essay and oh so satisfying!

Writing forced me to think the language, and my tutor identified the habitual mistakes. That became an agenda for practice and improvement. In short, writing Spanish showed me where to focus my efforts. Writing helped me acquire the rhythm of Spanish. I wrote about things that interested me, thereby building a useable, personal vocabulary connected to my life and interests. Ultimately, I developed a writing and speaking style natural to me.

I habitually wrote English in an emotionally restrained style sometimes bordered on terseness. When I wrote in Spanish, however, I was surprised to discover my natural style was more emotional and affective than in English. Part of this I ascribe to the transforming effects of languages and cultures. Second languages and cultures tend to draw on aspects of personality that may be subordinate or invisible in your native culture.

When I started writing Spanish, I focused on words and phrases I wanted to learn to use well. I began by writing them across the top of a page. Then I studied them for their possibilities until I had a story line. It was a process like arranging and rearranging the magnetic words and phrases on the refrigerator door until a sentence or paragraph emerged. In time, reading and writing moved me closer to thinking and speaking with the economy of a native speaker. You will find, as I did,  writing can embed in your memory useful words and phrases that will easily roll off your tongue when you need them.

After the immersions, I continued to write short stories for my own amusement and to practice Spanish. I created stories with dialogues between the characters because this is a good way (in my opinion) to learn the kinds of phrases most likely to come up in conversation. It is especially useful in learning the slang or modismos.

In the fragment below, I created an author with a case of writer’s block the night before a crucial deadline. He hears a voice in his garret and is confronted by a tiny man standing on his typewriter. It is the writer’s inner voice but he doesn’t yet recognize it as his own:

“¿Quién? ¿Quién eres,” le pregunté, frotando los ojos con mis puños con incredulidad.

“¿Tú no sabes?”

No. No idea. No conozco a cualquier hombrecitos. ¿Eres tú una invención? ¿Alguien que me imaginaba?“

Sabes ya mi nombre. Es el mismo de tuyo.”

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

“Aquí. Siempre aquí. Vivo dentro de ti.”

¡Aquí! ¡Siempre! ¡Dentro de yo mismo! Me sentí más y más confundido. Cuando traté poner un dedo en el hombrecito, mi dedo pasó por su cuerpo como sí él estaba el aire. ¡Carrumba! ¿Por qué estoy platicar con un hombrecito imaginario? Él es una alucinación. ¡Ay, estoy fatigado!

Now try writing a story on your own. Keep it simple, on the level of a story you would tell a child. Keep it short and manageable. Play with it. If you write on your computer with Microsoft Word, you can go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar and set the proofing language. When you right click on a word, there is a link to synonyms. It’s a great way to sharpen your writing and expand your vocabulary.

Try this:

Choose a dozen words – verbs, prepositions, phrases – and write them across the top of your page. Next, look at the words and phrases and note the words, thoughts, actions, or events they suggest. Use them as the basis for a story. Use them naturally, in your particular way of speaking. Watch what happens.

Try this:

Create several characters and put them into a conversation in your second language. Try to inhabit each character, and give each one a distinct way of speaking. You may find yourself writing short, punchy phrases – the kind we say all the time. The dialogue will suggest the vocabulary.

If you have a native-speaker friend, or one who is highly fluent in your second language, engage them as a critical reader to give you constructive criticism. Two things will happen: 1) Your use of the language will improve, and 2) you may detect a subtle but distinct aspect of your mind you hadn’t noticed before.

Buena suerte!

 

 

Donald Trump, the Confederate Flag, and the Fourth of July.

 

Juan and his family are transforming a tumbledown farmhouse into a seasonal  ‘cabin’ on six acres of pine and oak forest, and invited me to join them on the Fourth of July. Cabins are common among residents of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The drive from Minneapolis takes me through rolling, wooded hills, past lakes, farms with red barns, and quaint towns decked with American flags and hazy with backyard barbeque smoke. What is more ‘American’ than this?

On the drive, I had time to think about what this day means in light of Donald Trump’s diatribe against Mexicans, and the defense of the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of ‘Southern heritage’. Both Trump and the flag defenders said they didn’t hate anyone. I don’t believe them.

The Confederate battle flag and the trumpeting from ‘The Donald’ negate our national credo affirming humankind’s inalienable rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

Trump launched his bid for the GOP presidential nomination saying the U.S. was the dumping ground for the problems of everyone else, and then singled out Mexicans , saying they bring diseases, drugs, crime, terrorists, – they’re rapists. They don’t represent the ‘brightest and the best’ Mexico can send. Lies!

My friends came from Cuautla, Mexico, in the mid-1990’s after the sudden devaluation of the peso wiped out savings and threw back into poverty many about to join the middle class. They are among the brightest and best people I know in Minnesota. Juan is a construction supervisor, his wife is a bookkeeper; one daughter graduated from college and wants to be a doctor, the other is studying criminal justice to be a police officer. We belong the same church, and we speak English and Spanish equally. I’m considered ‘one of the family’ – a primo or cousin by adoption. I take Trump’s words as personally as if he smeared my daughters.

Trump represents a small but intense subset of rancid-minded Americans. After his blast, most of the other GOP Presidential wannabe’s said little or waited to criticize. What does the public think? A recent national poll shows three-fourths of U.S. citizens favor some form of legal residence or a pathway to citizenship. Trump doesn’t speak for them.

Let’s look at the facts . Mexico doesn’t ‘send’ anyone to the U.S.; my Mexican primos took great personal risks to pursue their vision of a better future, as did my Puritan ancestors and, probably, Trump’s, too.

Two-thirds of the Mexican immigrants (64%) arrived in the U.S. between 1995 and 2000, and a majority are relatives of U.S. citizens. They didn’t bring diseases – Mexico’s inoculation rate (99%) is higher than that of the U.S. (92%). Hispanics aren’t ‘taking over’ the country. Immigrants make up only 13% of the U.S. population, although Hispanics are the largest group. The net immigration rate has fallen to zero since 2010 with as many returning to Mexico as arrive.

Immigrants are an economic engine. They account for nearly 15% of the total U.S. economic output, and own 18% of all small businesses –a source of new jobs. As for crime, a study of violent crime among immigrants revealed homicide rates fell just as immigration rose. Cities with high Hispanic populations – New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, and El Paso – saw sharp drops in violent crime. A closer look at Hispanic neighborhoods in Chicago revealed that, despite greater poverty, Hispanics were 45% less likely than native-born Americans to commit a violent crime.

These facts are easy to obtain. Even an intellectually lazy person could learn this by spending 30 minutes on-line at the Cato Institute, Migration Policy Institute, the Economic Policy Institute, and the Pew Research Center, to name a few.

When I lived a block of Lake Street, Minneapolis, as a student in the 1970s, businesses after business folded up, and houses stood vacant or in decay. Then,  Latino immigrants began arriving in the late 1980s. They opened new businesses, renovated houses, and resurrected commercial and residential life along two miles of Minneapolis. Only the brightest and best are capable of transforming a city. This is ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ in action.

Letting Trump and the Confederate battle flag go unchallenged is dangerous. While we are guaranteed freedom of speech, it isn’t a license to lie, and lies must be challenged. We must act on our moral conscience when the truth is violated.  If we don’t, someone will act on the lie, thinking it truth. The youth who shot nine people in Charleston intended to incite a race war because he believed African-Americans ‘were taking over.’ Trump’s lies about Mexican immigrants is a variation on the same theme. Hatred of the ‘other.’  It played out in Germany as a ‘Final Solution’. Unchallenged lies are a threat.

The Charleston killings shocked the conscience of even the most conservative white southerners. Social media postings of the killer with the Confederate flag exposed the banner for what it was and is – a symbol of struggle to preserve the institution of human slavery, an emblem of white resistance to racial equality, and hatred. It was never a benign symbol of ‘Southern heritage’ and to say otherwise is to deny the core truths in the Declaration of Independent – that all persons are equal. That flag has lasted as long as it has because people North and South share a willful amnesia about the true causes of secession and Civil War – human slavery.

The Fourth of July celebrates the Declaration of Independence, a supreme defiance of the idea that kings and nobles – rich and well-born – know best, and in its place, the Declaration proposes the radical, self-evident truth  ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. This is an unqualified declaration because it says all are equal, not just some – ALL.

The battle flag has come down, the victims’ survivors offered forgiveness from their hearts  but, what about ‘The Donald’? He wants attention – and is getting it from a narrow base of GOP activists. He says aloud what a  class of fearful, white Americans – many of a certain age – who believe ‘THEY’ – non-whites – are taking over THEIR America. They ‘want their country back’. Trump was their voice in 2009 when they didn’t believe Obama was born in the U.S. – despite the public records. Trump is again their mouthpiece for a new, set of lies. Sadly, our human nature is afflicted with the capacity to believe prejudices in the face of truths to the contrary. What can we do about it?

Vigilance. We must be vigilant that the ideas and values expressed in the Declaration of Independence do not become dead words because we don’t act in conformance with their truths. We must take a hopeful view of the future, as our ancestors did.  America’s greatness was built by people who looked ahead believing tomorrow could be better than today. Immigrants still do. What’s wrong with the rest of us? Have we forgotten what it means to be an American?

Juan greeted me from under a 200-year-old pine tree where he cooked pork or carnitas in a large kettle over an open fire. His brother, wife ,and nieces were there;  and then more of the family arrived until we made an extended clan of siblings, parents, grandparents and a ‘primo.’ We ate carnitas with guacamole, tortillas, rice, and fruit. We spoke English, Spanish, and Spanglish. The kids played games. We are equal, whether we are U.S. citizens, ‘Green card’ holders, or have no papers at all. It doesn’t matter – we are equal. We are all Americans!

 

 

Beach Books

 

The list of ‘beach books’ is already out and the weather isn’t the only thing that’s steamy. What is your reading pleasure this summer? In this case, what are you reading for pleasure – in Spanish?

Am I kidding? No. For most of us short of native speaker fluency, the idea of pleasure reading in Spanish sounds like an oxymoron – hard work! True. So – why am I writing about this?

I’m writing about it because when reading is a pleasure you learn deeper and faster. Reading doesn’t become a pleasure until you learn to read well.  I learned to read in grade school with the ‘Dick, Jane, and Sally’ stories. At some point – I must have been eight or nine – I began reading other things because I enjoyed the stories. I read for pleasure.

Think about how much of your adult reading serves only a functional or transactional purpose. You read to accomplish something else. You read road signs, repair manuals, newspapers, and office memos. Any pleasure you derive from this kind of reading is purely secondary. It is not the reading itself that pleases you but reading provide traffic directions, how to operate a dishwasher, your major league team’s standing in the Central Division, or word you just received a promotion.

Reading for pleasure is simply that. It is reading for the sake of reading because doing so gives you immense pleasure, it feeds your spirit. In pleasure reading, you lose yourself in a world of imagination and find yourself in an imaginary world. You learn about and through the experiences of others in ways that illuminate and animate your own. Why limit yourself to only one language?

If you are new to Spanish language literature, reading for pleasure will seem daunting – far more work than pleasure. Summers are short enough, why load up with ‘homework?’ Just as you learned to read for pleasure as a child, be your younger self again and rediscover yourself in a Never-never-land of Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, or Spain through the words and phrases of the original language. Why the original? Wouldn’t it be better to simply by an English translation, or open a popular English book translated into Spanish. No. Please don’t.

Some of the ‘juice’ in a story may be lost in translation. Turning a Spanish story into English is an art, not a science. Writers work within their culture and use emotional urgency to animate their work and connect with readers. They choose words and phrases to resonate with their readers through shared connections and experiences. Words trigger memories of times and places that move you, transform you. The cultural context of time and place make the figures of speech powerful. A translation is only as good as the translator’s sense of language and sensibility. Translating a work to replicate faithfully an author’s sensibility can be difficult. Something gets lost in translation.

What to do? Dual language anthologies are a good place to start your summer reading . Short stories offer excellent literature brief enough to read in a day. Sometimes, finishing a story is its own satisfaction. An anthology offers you a variety of authors, stories, and styles; and these often span the culture across time. Ready for summer reading in Spanish?

I like the dual language short story anthologies published by Dover and Penguin books. The stories will introduce you to Spanish and Latin American literature with short author biographies – in English – and story introductions to give you the historical, social, and political context in which the author wrote. Both series print the stories in Spanish on one page and the English translation on the facing page. You can go at reading them by one of several ways.

You can start reading the story in Spanish and glance at the English translation when you don’t understand a word or phrase. Another way is to read the story through in Spanish, read it in English for clarification, and then re-read it in Spanish.

Personally, I prefer to read the story in English to understand the author’s narrative arc – the big picture. Then I cover the translation with a piece of paper and read it in Spanish, using the story’s context to lead me to an understanding of new vocabulary. If I’m stumped, I underline words or phrases and look them up later. I like this approach because the overview gives me a sense of direction but covering the translation keeps my mind immersed in Spanish, and working through and absorbing unfamiliar vocabulary.

If you are ready to try, consider any of the following resources :

John King, ed., Short Stories in Spanish (Penguin), a collection of short stories by modern writers drawn from the ‘boom’ period of Latin American literature (1950s and 60s), including pieces by Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes. The editor arranged the stories in order of difficulty, beginning with the easiest.

Stanley Applebaum, ed., Mexican Short Stories/Cuentos mexicanos (Dover), a collection of Mexican stories written between 1840 and 1920 and reflect literary romanticism and modernism. The volume includes author biographies, historical, and social notes.

Angel Flores, ed., Spanish Short Stories/Cuentos españoles (Dover), offers a wide range of Spanish language literature from Spain and Latin America. Stories range from the 1300s to the 1950s. Stories from Spain focus on the struggles of daily life, values, and behavior. Latin American writers use prose as a weapon to attack corruption and despotic rulers.

Anna E. Hiller, ed., Great Spanish and Latin American Short Stories of the 20th Century (Dover), includes a wide range of writers from Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, and Ecuador. Both Spain and Latin America produced prolific writers perhaps because the cultures experienced great political upheaval and social changes with issues of class, race, and power.

If you interest goes to biography or memoir, try Francisco Jiménez, Cajas de Cartón (Cardboard Boxes), a memoir of his boyhood as a migrant Mexican child in California, and its sequel, Senderos Fronterizos (Border Trails) about his education. Written simply and directly, they provide a richly detailed picture of the family’s struggles in the late 1940s and 50s. You will emerge from the books with a deeper sense of the past and current realities of undocumented immigrants and their drive to find a better life.

If your interest goes to current events, try Jorge Ramos. This well-known journalist, writer, and Univision commentator writes clearly and simply. La otra cara de America (America’s Other Face) includes stories of Latin American immigrants in the United States, and La ola Latina (The Latin Wave) explores the impact of Latinos on American politics.

My ‘beach books’ for this summer include La muerte es un sueño (Death is a Dream), 15 short stories by writers from Puebla, and the novella, El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel) by Gabriel García Márquez.

So, wherever you spend your summer vacation, take some time by the pool, the beach, or the lake, sit back and lose yourself in a short story that suspends reality long enough to transport you to another time and place. ¡Vale la pena!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll always have Puebla

It is Mother’s Day. Since 1911, the Mexican Mother’s Day falls on May 10 regardless of the day of the week. In the United States (and much of the world), Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. This second weekend in May is also the opening of fishing season in lake-spangled Minnesota, the land with the most boats per-capita, where many mothers feel abandoned by husbands and sons off pursuing walleyed pike, the state’s fish.

Mother’s Day misa or Mass in the Mexican congregation of Santo Niño Jesús, where I am a member, ends with music and a special blessing. Well-dressed women arrive with husbands and children in tow. Afterward, las madres gather for a group photo in front of the altar and the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Then all adjourn downstairs for cake before going to their family celebrations.

My mother died 15 years ago but I offer a silent prayer of gratitude. My greetings for this day go to my daughter, who is a mother herself, and my wife, every bit as dedicated to being a grandmother as a mother. My mother, raised in an upper class household outside New York City, cheerfully accepted and surmounted the challenges of life on a small Minnesota farm. She died before I took up Spanish but I know she would have encouraged me. Encouraging others was one of her greatest virtues. She believed in possibilities. Seeing me take up a new language, she might have glimpsed herself at age 13, becoming fluent in French. I wish she were here to see her son’s late in life achievement.

It is 9:30 p.m. Central time, and 7:30 p.m. Pacific time. I punch a Los Angeles area number into my cellphone. A phone rings several times in Anaheim before I hear an unmistakable woman’s voice.

“Lupita!” I say.

“¡Ay! ¿Cómo estás?” she replies, her voice ringing with excitement, as if she has been waiting all day for my call. She recognizes my voice instantly, as I do hers.

We haven’t seen each other since 2012 but we stay in touch. Lupita is the woman whom I have adopted as my madrina or godmother insofar as I have one. Godparents play a formative role in the lives of Mexican children more so than with American children.

Her role as my padrina  began eight years ago when I boarded with her and Julián, (my adopted padrino) during my first Spanish immersion in Puebla, Mexico. She began drilling me in the pronunciation of accented words. Over the course of three years and five immersions, I lived in their home until it became my home away from home, and our relations deepened from acquaintances, to friends, to family.

“¿Cómo está tu nieta hermosa?” Immediately, she wants to know about my lovely granddaughter, a toddler, who has assumed great importance in our conversations. I tell her I just returned from visiting her and she is well and growing fast. Lupita keeps track of my family, asks after my wife, and after my other daughter, the actor in New York. I tell her my wife and I saw our daughter in an off-Broadway play in February. At our ages, (she is 85 and I am 71) our successor generations become important signs we haven’t lived in vain.

She says Julián just turned 90. He and Lupita, married at the ages of 23 and 16, and I remembered they were about to celebrate their 67th anniversary. At some point in their lives, their children took up residence in California and became naturalized U.S. citizens. I have never met their children – now grandparents as well – but I know about them just as Lupita knows about my daughters.

A year after I finished immersion classes, they sold their house in Puebla, and rented a smaller house in nearby Atlixco to spend summers near her sister. I saw them there in 2012 at a reunion she and friends arranged for me, and to meet my wife. Travel and two residences took energy and last winter they gave up the house in Atlixco. Now they travel only for shorter visits with her sisters and friends.

Our charla or conversation rambles on with small talk. Will they return to Mexico this summer, I ask. She says yes, in July. Am I returning to Mexico? I say yes, but not until January. I plan to spend much of the winter teaching English in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, we will miss each other, again.

The cellphone distorts her voice now and then, and I can’t understand everything she says but no importa. It is enough that we reconnect to fan the embers of friendship and rekindle familial connections.

We last talked in November. She called from Atlixco while I waited for a friend outside Oaxaca’s Iglesia Santo Domingo. She had missed me when I was in Puebla, and Atlixco is a six-hour bus ride from Oaxaca. I couldn’t travel there before they return to Anaheim. ¡Qué lástima! What a shame. Our conversation flows on for a while as I pace the sunny plaza in front of the exquisite Baroque church.

Beside board and friendship, I owe much of my cultural education to Lupita and Julián, whose off-hand examples taught me mexicanidad or Mexicaness – the daily courtesies, gestures, and phrases that define Mexicans. It was a labor of love on their part, the work of godparents or padrinos.

As our November conversation ended, she switched to English to say – unmistakably – ‘We love you.’ I replied that I loved them too. Then she said, ‘hasta luego,’ or see you later but never ‘good bye.’ After the call, I stood in the empty plaza feeling blessed and wiped my eyes.

Given our ages, limited opportunities, and the miles between, I doubt we will see each other again (but I’ve made that mistake before). We are both old enough to accept this reality and cherish the memories and limited contact. For that reason, there is no need to talk about it. Love never dies.

Our Mother’s Day call ends, as they always do, with ‘hasta luego, ten cuidado,’ see you later and take care. It is still too soon in life to say ‘good bye.’

The call reminds me how human love, intimacy, and friendship are realities occupying places of their own. No one will ever replace my mother in my memory or usurp my love for her. However, the heart is a great continent with territory enough for others to reside there in a community of affection. Lupita and Julián have acreage in my heart. We may never see each other again but, to rephrase a line from Casablanca, ‘We’ll always have Puebla.’

Memorias – Lugares en el corazón Memories – Places in the heart

[Este es un puesto bilingue – This is a bilingual post. English is below.]

¿Hay un lugar en el mundo, diferente de tu hogar o residencia actual, que ha enraizado en tu corazón? ¿Qué es el lugar y cómo te ha afectado? Creo que todos nosotros llevan en nuestros corazones un lugar especial donde no podemos vivir sino sólo visitar de vez en cuando o tristemente una vez en nuestras vidas. Para mí, lo es Puebla, México. ¿Qué es tuyos?

Cuando era estudiante de español, viví con una familia en un barrio de Puebla. Viví con la misma familia cada vez, una pareja casada de muchos años, llenada con el fuego de vida. Siempre, viví con ellos durante el fin de abril y el principio de mayo. Durante el período de cuatro breves inmersiones en español, me enamoraba con la gente de la ciudad.

Juntos visitamos sus amigos en el campo, compramos vegetales en los abastos, disfrutamos visitas con los vecinos, celebramos Cinco de Mayo y el Día de la Madre. Ellos me introdujeron a sus amigos y vecinos así que, después cuatro años, ellos vinieron a ser mis amigos, también.

Nosotros formamos los lazos de amistades que lo hacían imposible olvidarles. Mientras, ellos me ayudaron aprender español y las costumbres de la cultura. En tiempo, me sentía como un habitante de Puebla.

Puebla es una ciudad de una primavera perpetua igual una chica que no llegar a ser vieja. Los árboles de jacaranda florezcan y sus ramas produzcan las nubes de flores lavandas. Cada día, cuando caminaba yo a lo largo las calles residenciales hacia el Centro histórico, pase los arbustos podan en las formas de conejos, espirales, canastas y – increíblemente – uno como una casa de pájaros

Hay un gran Zocalo – una plaza central – donde comienzan las calles y avenidas principales según al plan de los españoles. Aquí está donde la ciudad – la gente poblana – encontrarse para negocios, conciertos, protestas, entretenimientos, amores y diversiones. Un domingo, con mi familia anfitriona, pasamos una tarde en los sombras de los árboles mirando la escena y leyendo La Reforma. Aquí está donde me siento como poblano.

Al lado el Zocalo está la Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada, un edificio masivo de piedras grises. La piedra primera estuvo puesto en 1575 y la última en 1690. Los torres de campanas son los más altos en todo de México. A pesar de la apariencia severa, la interior es un espacio de luz – no solo la luz del sol pero un sentido de luz espiritual, también, que afecta cada persona que visita.

Una vez, con un amigo – un sacerdote y estudiante de español – paramos en la catedral para orar en la interior tranquila. Mientras me arrodillé en el banco, mi compañero endecha propensa en el piso en una acción de mucha humildad. Después pocos minutos, una docente me tocó en el hombro.

“¿Está el hombre enfermo?” ella pidió.

“No. Él es un sacerdote y él ora en esta manera,” contesté.

Ella se encogió sus hombros y salió.

Tenía muchas experiencias simples, mundanas pero memorables como esto. Ellas son eventos pequeñísimos, ordinarios y comunes que formaron la fábrica rica de mi cariño para Puebla.

A pesar de los grandes edificios de Puebla, los museos, ruinas e iglesias, en el fin lo es la gente que viva en mi corazón. Ahora, cuando voy a México, mi ruta pasa por Puebla. Es el sueño del viajero tener la libertad sin cualquier obligación y compromiso. Para mí, es difícil sino imposible amar un lugar sin amando primera la gente que viva ahí.

¿Qué es tu experiencia?

Memories – Places in the heart

Is there a place in the world, different from your home or your current residence that has sunk roots in your heart? What is that place and how has it affected you? I think that we all carry in our hearts a special place where we can’t live but can only visit now and then or, sadly, only once in our lives. For me, that place is Puebla, México. Why do you have a special place in your heart? What is it?

When I was a student of Spanish, I lived with a family in a Puebla neighborhood, an older married couple filled with the fire of life. I always lived with them during the end of April and the beginning of May. During four, brief Spanish immersions, I fell in love with the people of the city.

Together we visited their friends in the country, bought vegetables at the huge outdoor market, visited with the neighbors, celebrated Cinco de Mayo and the Mexican Mother’s Day. They introduced me to their friends and neighbors so that, after four years, they came to be my friends, too.

We formed bonds of friendship that make it impossible to forget them. Meanwhile, they helped me learn Spanish and the customs of the culture. In time, I felt like a resident of Puebla.

Puebla is a city of perpetual spring like a girl who never grows old. The jacaranda trees bloom and their branches produce clouds of lavender flowers. Each day, I used to walk along the residential streets toward the historic center, passing bushes pruned into the form of rabbits, spirals, baskets and – incredibly – a birdhouse.

There is a large Zocalo – the central plaza – where the streets begin according to the Spaniards’ plan. Here is where the city – the people of Puebla – meet for business, concerts, protests, entertainment, love affairs, and diversions. One Sunday my host family and I passed the afternoon in the shade of the trees watching the scene and reading La Reforma. Here is where I feel like a poblano – a person of Puebla.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is next to the Zocalo, a massive building of gray stones. The first stone was laid in 1575 and the last in 1690. The bell towers are the tallest in all of Mexico. Despite its severe appearance, the interior is a place of light – not only the light of the sun but a feeling of spiritual light, also, that affects every person who visits.

Once, with a friend – a priest and Spanish student – we stopped in the Cathedral to pray in the tranquil interior. While I knelt in the pew, my companion lay prone on the floor in an act of great humility. After a few minutes, a docent tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is the man ill?” she asked.

“No. He is a priest and he prays this way,” I answered.

She shrugged and left.

I had many simple, mundane but memorable experiences like this. They are small, ordinary, and common events that make up the rich fabric of my affection for Puebla.

Despite the great buildings in Puebla, the museums, ruins, and churches, in the end the people stay in my heart. Now, when I go to Mexico, my route of travel passes through Puebla. The traveler’s dream is liberty without any obligations or commitments. For me it is difficult if not impossible to love a place without loving the people who live there.

What is your experience?

¿Hay un lugar en el mundo, diferente de tu hogar o residencia actual, que ha enraizado en tu corazón? ¿Qué es el lugar y cómo te ha afectado? Creo que todos nosotros llevan en nuestros corazones un lugar especial donde no podemos vivir sino sólo visitar de vez en cuando o tristemente una vez en nuestras vidas. Para mí, lo es Puebla, México. ¿Qué es tuyos?

Cuando era estudiante de español, viví con una familia en un barrio de Puebla. Viví con la misma familia cada vez, una pareja casada de muchos años, llenada con el fuego de vida. Siempre, viví con ellos durante el fin de abril y el principio de mayo. Durante el período de cuatro breves inmersiones en español, me enamoraba con la gente de la ciudad.

Juntos visitamos sus amigos en el campo, compramos vegetales en los abastos, disfrutamos visitas con los vecinos, celebramos Cinco de Mayo y el Día de la Madre. Ellos me introdujeron a sus amigos y vecinos así que, después cuatro años, ellos vinieron a ser mis amigos, también.

Nosotros formamos los lazos de amistades que lo hacían imposible olvidarles. Mientras, ellos me ayudaron aprender español y las costumbres de la cultura. En tiempo, me sentía como un habitante de Puebla.

Puebla es una ciudad de una primavera perpetua igual una chica que no llegar a ser vieja. Los árboles de jacaranda florezcan y sus ramas produzcan las nubes de flores lavandas. Cada día, cuando caminaba yo a lo largo las calles residenciales hacia el Centro histórico, pase los arbustos podan en las formas de conejos, espirales, canastas y – increíblemente – uno como una casa de pájaros

Hay un gran Zocalo – una plaza central – donde comienzan las calles y avenidas principales según al plan de los españoles. Aquí está donde la ciudad – la gente poblana – encontrarse para negocios, conciertos, protestas, entretenimientos, amores y diversiones. Un domingo, con mi familia anfitriona, pasamos una tarde en los sombras de los árboles mirando la escena y leyendo La Reforma. Aquí está donde me siento como poblano.

Al lado el Zocalo está la Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada, un edificio masivo de piedras grises. La piedra primera estuvo puesto en 1575 y la última en 1690. Los torres de campanas son los más altos en todo de México. A pesar de la apariencia severa, la interior es un espacio de luz – no solo la luz del sol pero un sentido de luz espiritual, también, que afecta cada persona que visita.

Una vez, con un amigo – un sacerdote y estudiante de español – paramos en la catedral para orar en la interior tranquila. Mientras me arrodillé en el banco, mi compañero endecha propensa en el piso en una acción de mucha humildad. Después pocos minutos, una docente me tocó en el hombro.

“¿Está el hombre enfermo?” ella pidió.

“No. Él es un sacerdote y él ora en esta manera,” contesté.

Ella se encogió sus hombros y salió.

Tenía muchas experiencias simples, mundanas pero memorables como esto. Ellas son eventos pequeñísimos, ordinarios y comunes que formaron la fábrica rica de mi cariño para Puebla.

A pesar de los grandes edificios de Puebla, los museos, ruinas e iglesias, en el fin lo es la gente que viva en mi corazón. Ahora, cuando voy a México, mi ruta pasa por Puebla. Es el sueño del viajero tener la libertad sin cualquier obligación y compromiso. Para mí, es difícil sino imposible amar un lugar sin amando primera la gente que viva ahí.

¿Qué es tu experiencia?

Memories – Places in the heart

Is there a place in the world, different from your home or your current residence that has sunk roots in your heart? What is that place and how has it affected you? I think that we all carry in our hearts a special place where we can’t live but can only visit now and then or, sadly, only once in our lives. For me, that place is Puebla, México. Why do you have a special place in your heart? What is it?

When I was a student of Spanish, I lived with a family in a Puebla neighborhood, an older married couple filled with the fire of life. I always lived with them during the end of April and the beginning of May. During four, brief Spanish immersions, I fell in love with the people of the city.

Together we visited their friends in the country, bought vegetables at the huge outdoor market, visited with the neighbors, celebrated Cinco de Mayo and the Mexican Mother’s Day. They introduced me to their friends and neighbors so that, after four years, they came to be my friends, too.

We formed bonds of friendship that make it impossible to forget them. Meanwhile, they helped me learn Spanish and the customs of the culture. In time, I felt like a resident of Puebla.

Puebla is a city of perpetual spring like a girl who never grows old. The jacaranda trees bloom and their branches produce clouds of lavender flowers. Each day, I used to walk along the residential streets toward the historic center, passing bushes pruned into the form of rabbits, spirals, baskets and – incredibly – a birdhouse.

There is a large Zocalo – the central plaza – where the streets begin according to the Spaniards’ plan. Here is where the city – the people of Puebla – meet for business, concerts, protests, entertainment, love affairs, and diversions. One Sunday my host family and I passed the afternoon in the shade of the trees watching the scene and reading La Reforma. Here is where I feel like a poblano – a person of Puebla.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is next to the Zocalo, a massive building of gray stones. The first stone was laid in 1575 and the last in 1690. The bell towers are the tallest in all of Mexico. Despite its severe appearance, the interior is a place of light – not only the light of the sun but a feeling of spiritual light, also, that affects every person who visits.

Once, with a friend – a priest and Spanish student – we stopped in the Cathedral to pray in the tranquil interior. While I knelt in the pew, my companion lay prone on the floor in an act of great humility. After a few minutes, a docent tapped me on the shoulder.

“Is the man ill?” she asked.

“No. He is a priest and he prays this way,” I answered.

She shrugged and left.

I had many simple, mundane but memorable experiences like this. They are small, ordinary, and common events that make up the rich fabric of my affection for Puebla.

Despite the great buildings in Puebla, the museums, ruins, and churches, in the end the people stay in my heart. Now, when I go to Mexico, my route of travel passes through Puebla. The traveler’s dream is liberty without any obligations or commitments. For me it is difficult if not impossible to love a place without loving the people who live there.

What is your experience?

About Adventures in Midlife Spanish

Adventures in Midlife Spanish is a collection of essays about practical steps you can take to improve your learning of Spanish and understanding the culture and traditions of Mexico.

Don’t believe the conventional wisdom that only children and youths possess the ability to lAdventures in Midlife Spanish is a collection of essays about practical steps you can take to improve your learning of Spanish and understanding the culture and traditions of Mexico. Don’t believe the conventional wisdom that only children and youths possess the ability to learn a language. You can learn, too, if you are 40 or 50 or 60. I became bilingual at the age of 67 after ten weeks of Spanish immersion in Mexico. As older adults we already know and understand how language works far better than when we were younger. And, we have a better grasp of the many shades of meaning that words convey. After decades of learning many new things, in our careers, as parents, or just living, we understand our particular learning style and the methods that work best. Some are hands on, others are by reading, or by listening. We are each different. Gaining something approaching a native accent is more difficult because we have become accustomed to hearing certain sounds consistent with our first language and tuning out the unfamiliar ones as noise. So, yes, we will have to work a little harder to get the accent. But if you are a good mimic of sounds, it will come easier. earn a language. You can learn, too, if you are 40 or 50 or 60. I became bilingual at the age of 67 after ten weeks of Spanish immersion in Mexico.

As older adults we already know and understand how language works far better than when we were younger. And, we have a better grasp of the many shades of meaning that words convey. After decades of learning many new things, in our careers, as parents, or just living, we understand our particular learning style and the methods that work best. Some are hands on, others are by reading, or by listening. We are each different.

Gaining something approaching a native accent is more difficult because we have become accustomed to hearing certain sounds consistent with our first language and tuning out the unfamiliar ones as noise. So, yes, we will have to work a little harder to get the accent. But if you are a good mimic of sounds, it will come easier.

New Year’s Eve in Cuba –But not quite normal relations

ITABO-FAVORITO, Cuba. December 31, 2013.

Dawn’s first light streams across the level plains and set the roosters crowing at the top of their lungs. Itabo-Favorito is a community of two small towns in the interior of Cuba. I’m the co-leader of a religious group visiting the Episcopal Church of Cuba, a national denomination with Minnesota roots. We are on a pilgrimage to learn about hope in the face of hardship. I slip out of the dorm without waking the other men, and watch the sun rise behind three shaggy-headed royal palms standing dark against the salmon-colored sky.

This pilgrimage isn’t easy for the 11 of us. We aren’t in Cuba on a mission to be Good Samaritans caring for our poor Cuban brethren. We’re here to learn from their care of us because, despite our wealth, there is nothing we can do for them they can’t do better for themselves. Daily we face a spiritual struggle against our cultural tendency to take charge and “fix” things. Despite good intentions, acting like “Mr. Fix-it” is insulting and oppressive. Said another way, it is imperialism.

I sweat a little in the morning humidity but there is freshness in the air. From around the dormitory’s corner, I hear women working in the kitchen off the open-air dining room, their voices rising and falling as they prepare the breakfast. It is morning talk spiced with laughter.

Beyond the kitchen, a pair of men wash leaf lettuce in the bed of a metal wheelbarrow. Enrique rinses the lettuce in the water, hangs it to drip dry over a string stretched between two sticks, and then sets it aside. Victor takes the washed lettuce to the table by the courtyard gate where the townspeople stop to buy it.

After the Soviet Union collapsed and stopped subsidizing the Cuban economy, the country turned inward to develop its resources. Sustainable, organic agriculture now provides produce for nearly 11 million people who once depended on raising sugar and importing everything else. The lettuce is grown the seven acres owned by the Iglesia de Santa María, property the government didn’t confiscate. Church employees raise lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, radishes, garlic, papaya, coffee, mangos, okra, bees, rabbits, chickens, and turkeys. In addition, it runs a filtration system to provide potable water to the community. Benedictine monks used this kind of economic development to Christianize Europe during the Dark Ages.

Enrique is a rugged-faced, muscular man in his 50s, outgoing, and easy to talk to, although his Cuban Spanish is faster and more idiomatic than my Mexican Spanish. Taking me into the fields, we compare notes on cultivating crops, adding his lessons to my farm background. A friendship blooms as Enrique and I talk – farmer to farmer. He trained as a veterinarian, he says, but had to join the army and fight in Mozambique. That’s behind him now and he is happy in Itabo.

Grabbing a handful of the red soil, I notice it is friable and easy to work. Enrique says the climate has leached the soil of minerals except for iron oxide and fertilizing is essential. Composted manure from horses, rabbits, and chickens provides soil nutrients. Once the church begins to raise hogs in the new cement hog barn, the manure will become biogas and fertilizer. Everything here works together. I think we can learn more from the Cubans than we could teach them.

La iglesia de Santa María Magdelena is under construction in the village of Favorito, two kilometers from Itabo. The building used to be a house but community volunteers are transforming it bit by bit. Although a construction company could finish it in days, relying on community volunteers, including “unchurched” ones, makes Santa María Magdelena “their” church, too. It is nearly finished. The light-colored, plastered walls are decorated with a light blue stripe. The floor is still crushed rock but the altar, tabernacle, ambo, and baptismal font rest on a tile platform.

Our small group pitches in to prepare for a raised walkway along the side of the church. There are only a few simple hand tools, and we take turns cutting the sod and leveling the ground. Chopping out a guava stump, we break the axe handle. There isn’t a replacement and we fall back on the pick-ax and take turns chipping away at the stump in the hot sun.

The rising afternoon wind dissipates the heat and the azure sky is filled with huge, fluffy clouds – like mounds of whipped cream. We finish working at 2 p.m. and four of us walk the road to Itabo. A dark-skinned woman ahead of us passes through a gate into a garden much larger than the church’s. I turn off to talk with her. Like the other Cubans I’ve met, she is open and friendly – a surprise in a country of political repression and domestic spying. She confirms the field is run by a local cooperative. Everyone in the community works on it and has a share in its produce.

Hay una fiesta esta noche por el Año Nuevo.” Smiling, she says there is a party for the New Year, and gestures to the pink rollers in her hair. “But I must do some work, too.” This is how Cuba feeds itself.

Everyone around Itabo-Favorito seems ready to party. “Feliz Año Nuevo!” the drivers and riders call out from passing pick-ups, tractors, carriages, and horse-drawn wagons. I wave and return the greetings. I’m comfortable in Cuba.

The Cubans’ esprit – their drive to make a good life with whatever they have – is overwhelming. “Making do” is a highly refined national trait. Things simple or complex are used and reused cleverly for novel purposes. People say little about what they lack, and they readily share what little they have. None of them chose a life of shortages but they’ve figured out how to enjoy their lives when they can’t get what they want. Or perhaps they are strong enough not to be consumed by a desire for what they can’t have now. Clearly, their happiness is the fruit of an attitude, a posture, and not from money or possessions. I wonder about the source of my happiness.

Cuba is a paradise of flowers and climate, sun and sea, hills and forests. Socially, it is a highly communal society, and racially well-integrated. People are politically discrete if not indifferent, and the few references to politics are sly, indirect, and subversive. No one is overtly anti-Castro, nor anti-American, and it’s clear they’re proud to be Cubans.

“Itabo is a good place to live,” says Rita, one of the kitchen workers taking a cigarette break in the palapa or open shelter. She’s a cheerful, wizened woman – minus some teeth – and old enough to remember pre-Castro days. After dragging on her cigarette, she says, “Nobody bothers us here. We are free.” !

Wood smoke and the aroma of cooking meat drifts everywhere. The men butchered a hog and the women are barbequing the meat for dinner. Until then, we snack on chicharones, pigskin fried in fat. It’s salty, crisp, and delicious!

Barbequed pork, moros and cristianos, (rice and black beans) lettuce, avocado, soup, and wine make a rich feast. Sweet, tender meat practically melts in my mouth. After eating, we talk and sip small cups of thick, sweet café cubano. A couple of the men light up puros or cigars rolled by the women who work in the kitchen! It’s another kindness on top of many others we’ve received. Our desire to give something in return meets with frustration. The best gift is the most difficult – we can be humble enough to accept with gratitude something we did nothing to deserve. It’s grace, a model of the faith we profess. That’s the point of the pilgrimage.

Our New Year’s celebration is on the plaza behind the church in Favorito. Next to the church, in front of the house, sits an effigy named “Pancho.” Cubans burn effigies to symbolically rid themselves of the old year’s disappointments. “Pancho” is made of old, khaki clothing stuffed with waste paper and other trash. His head is a ruined soccer ball; he has a painted beard, a soft, military cap, and a big cigar. We all know who “Pancho” is but no one utters his name. This is nervy and subversive because the local head of the CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) lives down the road. The woman of the house kisses “Pancho” goodbye before her husband sets him aflame.

The gravel plaza behind the church has several rows of chairs, a table with a computer and soundboard, and two huge speakers. There are enough amps that everyone in town will hear our music and feel free to join us. Everyone dances – children, parents, teens, and elders – the music is infectious. While we dance, we sip Cristal beer and eat popcorn snacks.

Then the dance music stops. It’s midnight. Suddenly, the speakers blast The Star Spangled Banner across all of Favorito. We’re surprised, stand with our hands over our hearts, and look about wide-eyed, wondering if the local police will raid the dance. Surely the local CDR can hear this. The Cuban national hymn follows The Star Spangled Banner, no police arrive, and dance continues until 2 a.m.

In the morning, I ask Gerardo if he’ll get into trouble for playing our anthem.

“No,” he tells me. “It’s not political. We were simply showing respect to our visitors.”

I return to the U.S. five days later after a few days in Havana where cars from the ‘fifties shuttle European tourists about the city. On its surface, Cuba is a place trapped in a moment of time. But underneath the surface, I think a lot has changed.

For the first time in its history, Cuba is politically and economically independent of the United States. I think they are proud of that even if they don’t like Castro. The history of U.S.-Cuban relations as never one of mutual respect. The U.S. tried to buy Cuba from Spain, or annex as slave state. Yankee businesses dominated the economy, intervention in 1898 forced Cuban nationalists to accept a U.S.-written constitution as the price of self-government. Until the 1930s, the Cuban constitution permitted U.S. intervention at its discretion. U.S. officials governed Cuba in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22. After that, it meddled in Cuban elections until the fall of Batista in 1959. Cubans have paid a terrible price for having the U.S. as their neighbor. Yet there is no personal rancor against individual Americans.

Now that U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing, people say they want to visit Cuba “before it changes.” What a sad, selfish statement. Cubans are eager for some changes. The country and its people are so much more than old cars cruising the Malecón and late night dance clubs. The phrase reminds me that imperialists always think the natives are happiest under their rule and don’t desire a change. Going forward, I hope our relations with Cuba are on a better, more equal footing. Then it will be truly a happy new year.