Zapatos rojos—Red shoes and the pain of knowing

Speaking and reading another language opened doors into the lives of other people. Spanish helped me make friends I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, through friendships, I gained greater cultural awareness of Mexico. Greater awareness usually brings clarity but clarity reveals things sometimes touch my conscience in unexpected and uncomfortable ways. With awareness I also  feel some pain.

This happened gain last Saturday in Oaxaca, Mexico. This sunny, colonial city depends on tourists whose commerce with indigenous artisans and traditions accounts for nearly a third of the local economy. As la Semana Santa (Holy Week) approaches, more tourists arrive from Mexico, the United States, and Europe seeking a festive vacation.

IMG_5802Walking along the Alcala, Oaxaca’s street of high-end shops and tony restaurants, I’m surprised to see dozens of shoes, each the color of blood, set out in pairs on the gray cobbles. What is this, I wondered as I joined the cluster of Mexicans around the informational banner.

Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes) is public art dedicated to women who have suffered violence. It began in 2009 as a symbolic march seeking justice for 33 women who were killed or ‘disappeared’ in Ciudad de Juárez. Now it is a traveling presentation, a call to conscience in solidarity with all women who risk violence at the hands of men who are protected by custom and official indifference.

IMG_5799Tourists passed the exhibition, most of them glanced at the crimson shoes, but few stopped to read the banner before they entered the shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, the silent, empty red shoes screamed to those of us who read the banner.

The price for learning another language, another culture, includes knowledge of good and evil. Like it or not, reading about the horrific murders of women is now an integral part of my Mexican  reality. I can no longer say: ‘I didn’t know.’ Now I know, and now my conscience isn’t as clear as it was before I saw the shoes. How bad is violence against women in Mexico, I wondered?

Minutes later, I had an answer to my question when I came upon a group of women speaking in the shade of Oaxaca’s cathedral. Behind them, large banners bore the photos and stories of their daughters—promising young women— who disappeared or were killed. The speakers were part of 300 Madres A.C. Unión de mujeres victimas de la violencia en Oaxaca. Our small crowd of listeners included young Mexican couples with babies, middle-aged women, youths, two policemen, and me—the only non-Mexican.

The women tell forceful stories. The women’s emotions drove their stories of pain and loss. Now and then, each paused to wipe her eyes or regain her voice. Their words flashed like sharp knives, paring away the hypocrisy of police and public officials who told them not to worry, their daughters were probably off with their boyfriends. Or worse, officials told them the girl was probably a prostitute or drug addict—as if that justified their deaths. One by one, the mothers demanded an end to ‘la cultura machista’ that protects the men—including police—who treat women as less than human.

How bad is it, I wondered?  It’s bad—it’s staggering. In the State of Oaxaca (population 3.5 million), 559 women were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Another 25 were murdered in January-February 2016. According to the Mexican Institute for Women (2009), 67 percent of Mexican women over the age of 15 years experienced some type of violence. In 40 percent of the cases, the violence occurred in the woman’s home, and usually involved a current partner or ex-partner.

What accounts for these horrors? Beneath the colorful cultural images projected by Mexican tourist bureaus lies a dark, authoritarian legacy of traditionally narrow gender roles, an acceptance of violence, and an absence of political will or resources to investigate and bring assailants to justice. These women, like many others, can’t rely on the government to protect them so they are organizing in their communities to stop gender-based violence.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates (JASS) documented (2012) that government officials and security forces frequently used sexualized violence to intimidate and subdue women. In 2006, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was Governor of the State of Mexico, he sent security forces to crush a protest against a new airport. Two protesters died and 26 women were sexually assaulted by the security forces. To date, no police officer has been  found guilty of the assaults. Peña Nieto later justified the violence as necessary to restore public order.

IMG_5880Nor can women rely on the authorities to protect them from drug cartels that coerce women into transporting drugs and filling logistical roles. According to a former director of the National Women’s Institute (Mexico City), cartels force women into prostitution because the sex trade is the third most profitable market after drugs and small arms.

Can this be true? Sadly, it is. It is a dark aspect of the Mexico I love.

These questions led me to look for comparable incidents in the U.S. and Minnesota. Femicide or feminicide has its evil counterpart in the U.S. One U.S. woman is assaulted every nine seconds; at least three U.S. women are murdered daily by their husbands or boyfriends. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Ten million children witness domestic violence annually. Nearly one in five teenage girls said a boyfriend threatened her if they broke up. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner and this accounts for 15 percent of violent crimes. Nearly three-fourths of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94 percent of the victims are female (data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

In Minnesota (population 5.2 million), at least 115 women were killed in domestic violence between 2010 and 2015—34 of them in 2015. In the majority of cases, the women were murdered when they tried to leave an abusive relationship (data from Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women). This is significant.

Within my adult memory, there was a time when the police rarely intervened in ‘domestic violence’ except when the neighbors complained of the noise. Police seldom arrested anyone—particularly men. Women feared retribution and were afraid to press charges. Twenty years ago, the public regarded domestic fights as private affairs. When women did complain of abuse, the courts, the police, and even the clergy were quick to ask the woman what she had done to provoke the attack! They even advised her to be more understanding and work it out with her spouse. I’m struck by the similarities in the cultural mentalities of Mexico and the U.S.

I stood in the cathedral’s shade for nearly and hour and listened to the women tell their stories. As a husband and father of two daughters, I felt compelled to stay because, if I walked away and ignored the evil, I would thereby condone it and participate in it. As a foreigner, the only help I can give these women is to be present in the moment, listen to their stories, and let the stories touch my conscience. Listening is a form of participation, listening seems so insignificant, but in fact it’s an act of political and moral solidarity.

I returned to the shoes on the cobbles after the women finished speaking. The woman curating the Zapatos Rojos exhibit approached me with a slip of paper and a pen.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” Do I want to write a message?” she asked.

Yes. Until now, la cultura machista and its violence seemed like abstract information unconnected to my reality. I hadn’t encountered anyone who had suffered violence. Now that I’m a seasonal resident in Oaxaca, I know the violence is part of the society I meet in the streets, it’s a reality for the women who sell me tomatoes in the Mercado Merced, it’s an integral but evil part of the Mexico I love. The dozens of empty shoes eloquently call me to think of the dead or ‘disappeared’ women who live only in the hearts of their mourners.

Then I thought of my friend Rosario in Puebla. A year ago she posted information on Facebook about Guadalupe, her friend who vanished after work one afternoon. Guadalupe or her remains haven’t been found. Nothing more is known—only silence.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” the curator asked again.

.”

I took the paper and pen she offered, certain Rosario would leave a note were she here. But she isn’t and I will do it for her. No one can bring Lupe back from the dead but I could take Rosario’s place and stand with the brave women of Mexico who confront violence and official indifference. I wrote a note—a kind of prayer—to Guadalupe and stuck it in a shoe.

Empty red shoes cry out from the pavement. It is often said that travel and a second language broaden one’s perspective. And this is true. Once we gain another language, and our cultural horizons widen, we are vulnerable to the moral questions once invisible to us. The violence against women, like the sexual abuse of children, becomes culturally pervasive when society turns a blind eye and says it’s a private matter. I can no longer say I didn’t know, and silence in the face of evil isn’t a moral option.

Violence against women isn’t news to Mexicans; the news is that women will take physical risks to end la cultura machista. Zapatos Rojos is a fight for human rights, social equality, individual dignity and civic justice. The empty red shoes on the cobbled street remind me that moral obligations transcend national and cultural boundaries.

Saving the mother tongue

Have you ever thought of what your life would be life if you were the last person in the world who speaks English? How would you feel without anyone with whom to share the particular words, phrases and memories of your family and life? That’s a question millions of Mexicans face daily. Many are among the last speakers of their mother tongue. Here is an answer to their plight.

In word and costume a distinct people

In word and costume a distinct people

Hundreds of people gather in the Zocalo of Oaxaca, Mexico, to observe the International Day of Maternal Language. The wide-spread limbs of an immense laurel tree casts a pool of shade over the participants seated and standing around the low stage. Television cameras aim at the stage and a camera drone buzzes overhead. I stand with a man from Ixtlán de Juárez, a mountain town of Zapotec speakers. He also speaks Spanish.

Most in the crowd wear modern clothes but the presenters wear traditional costumes. A women robed in a long, embroidered dress and walks to the on-stage microphone. She smiles; her teeth gleam against her brown face; the red and gold embroidery on her black dress glows where sunlight hits it. She seems to be aflame. Speaking in Zapotec and then in Spanish, she announces the poets and declamadores who will speak.

The poets step to the microphone, each one dressed in the traditional clothing of their pueblo. One by one,  the poets pour out the soul of their people. In Mixe and Zapotec, Maya and Mixteco, Zoche and Chinanteco, their voices rise and fall, taut with urgency and passion. They gesture to the heavens, to the crowd and to themselves. Hands move to accent words I don’t understand. Each poem describes a particular Mexico; poets the heart of their people who speak their tongue, who were—and still are—formed by those languages. In words, gestures and tone of voice, they reach out to us, their listeners, imploring us to enter their world, their language, their culture, their people, their heart.

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

This isn’t Sunday entertainment for tourists. Theirs is a mission to advance recognition and use of their languages as integral parts of the 21st century Mexico. Today’s program involves only six of the 68 languages officially recognized by Mexico’s government. Recognition alone doesn’t guarantee linguistic survival. Indigenous language speakers still face discrimination from non-indigenous speakers. For this reason, many ambitious youths avoid their ancestral idiom to get ahead. Some languages will die with the elderly who still speak them and this will be a loss for all of humanity.

In Oaxaca alone, one resident in three speaks an indigenous tongue. Spanish, the language of the conquista, is common in business, government and education but it is secondary for millions of Mexicans. Why do they or we care about these tongues? Aren’t they relics of the past—not part of the modern world? After all, a modern society needs a common language—Spanish.

No, they aren’t relics. They are living languages of vital cultures. Yes, indigenous people can and do use Spanish but a second language isn’t a mother tongue and doesn’t touch the roots of our identity—individually and culturally. I’m a native English speaker and bi-lingual in Spanish. Although I speak, read and write Spanish at a high level, Spanish is not and never will be the language emanating from deep in my soul because I wasn’t formed by it. I can’t express my deepest emotions in Spanish. My Mexican friends experience the same thing with English. Who we are spiritually, emotionally, authentically is tied to our mother tongue.

Again, how would you feel if you were the world’s last English speaker? It may feel like the isolation of traveling in an alien country, cut off from English and the emotional nurture it provides. It is one of  the greatest of lonelinesses. Losing the language, culture and fellow speakers  is like that—magnified a hundred-fold. We take our mother tongue for granted at our peril.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”—so opens the Gospel of John. The opening phrase of ‘the Word’ contains a profound truth. Things don’t have a specific reality to us unless they have a name, a word, to distinguish one thing from another. And words, taken together, are a language. And language is a map for navigating a particular cultural universe, a cosmos of concepts, precepts, and beliefs.

Language—the Word—is humanity’s great creative force. It extends far beyond transacting business and exchanging information. Each tongue has an attendant culture, the structure of the language and vocabulary uniquely expresses wisdom, a distinct worldview of a people distilled from millennia of experiences. Each language and its attendant culture is like a seed containing infinite human possibilities.

This afternoon, in the shade of the laurel, the poets scatter their seeds, seeking good soil where the the indigenous languages with their wealth of ancestral wisdom, values, and precepts will find support, take root, and thrive into the 21st century.

 

 

The art of packing—What to leave behind?

One suitcase of possibilities.

One suitcase of possibilities.

It’s deep January. Minnesota is locked in the coldest weather of the winter with the mercury at -21°F with a wind chill nearing -40°F. Snow squeals in protest under foot; darkness still falls too early and sleeps in too late. Upstairs in my study, a reddish suitcase lies open on the floor, half-packed. A  hopeful sign.

Packing  for travel is an art. What I take is less important than what I leave behind.

I’ll be in México for 10 weeks and I want to take only one suitcase, as small as possible. This one weighs only 33 pounds when packed and I’ll take only the things I’m certain to wear or use or use up. Everything must be versatile to meet changing weathers and social circumstances. I start in Puebla at 7,500 feet near the foot of El Popo where it’s cool, then to tropical Cuetzalán and Huehuetla near the Gulf Coast, and then to hotter, semi-arid mountain valleys of Oaxaca State. My packing list is shorter, now; past trips have showed me what I don’t need. No more packing this or that, “just in case.”

My packing list comes from the experience of previous trips—what I wore and didn’t wear, what conformed to the clothing Mexican men wear every day. My wardrobe is simple and chosen so I blend in as much as possible and avoid attracting attention.

Everything is rolled tightly, and packed in plastic bags squeezed empty of air. I start with three chino slacks, four short-sleeved shirts, two long-sleeved shirts, six briefs, four tee-shirts, PJ’s, a sweater, a windbreaker, sandals, walking shoes, two pairs of socks, a pleated guayabera for formal occasions, a bandana, a battered Panama hat, Tylenol, eye drops, six energy bars, a sunblock, shaving kit, deodorant, a washcloth (never saw one in México). My camera, laptop, notebooks, pens, watercolors and Kindle go in my daypack.

I’m leaving behind things that mark me as an obvious foreigner: white athletic shoes, tee-shirts with company logos, charitable causes, favorite sport teams or U.S. national parks; no baggy shorts with cargo pockets or polyester hats with mesh ventilation and floppy brims. How I appear to Mexicans will affect how they interact with me. I want as few barriers or presumptions as possible.

The contents of my suitcase reflect my aspirations. Does yours?

What I take reflects what I want to do, and my ideas of the social reality I expect to encounter. I will visit my Mexican friends but spend most of my days teaching English in a small, indigenous town near Oaxaca. I don’t expect to have the same level of material comfort I enjoy at home and I won’t bring things to compensate for that. My measure of comfort is Mexican , not Minnesotan.  

As I fold and pack my clothes, I am also packing my mind and heart. What aspirations and hopes will I take with me? And what expectations will I leave behind? I want to be emotionally and spiritually present every moment I’m in México, otherwise, why travel? Preparing my heart and mind is even more important than the clothing I choose.

My journeys are as much interior as they are geographical and, in the end I discover myself anew. Being present in the moment is the key.To stay present in the moment, I’m leaving behind my anxieties about two manuscripts awaiting the acceptance or rejection of an agent and an editor. These things are important to me but I can’t control the decisions and judgments of others. As Mexican friends tell me, these are in God’s hands and the results will be as they are meant to be. There is no value fretting about them in México and miss the moment.

Next to my worry and preoccupations, I leave behind the credentials of my public identity in Minnesota: Positions once held, academic degrees earned, publications written, and awards received. They are irrelevant in México. No one cares about them. It’s liberating to leave my credentials behind, it’s like shucking off a shell and finding some new part of me hidden underneath. 

Travel without personal credentials. See if it’s liberating.

For identity (besides a passport), I’ll take photos of my daughters, wife, granddaughter and the extended family. In my heart and soul, I’ll take with curiosity, humor, openness, compassion and, if possible, humility. That will be enough for any encounter.

After a decade of annual trips to México, I’ve learned the art of packing isn’t about what I put into the suitcase; the art comes from knowing what to leave out.

What’s in your suitcase? What are you leaving behind?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Las Posadas – Seeking shelter with María y José

What are your rituals leading up to Christmas? Shop till you drop? Getting ready for family visits? Ringing bells at the Red Kettle? Taking food to shut-ins? Caroling in the neighborhood?

Most of us have sacred or social rituals for the season. We decorate trees, put up manger scenes, and attend services of Lessons and Carols. In the Mexican congregation where I worship, we celebrate the las posadas.

Posada is the Spanish word for inn. During the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve (la Noche Buena), las posadas in Mexican congregations reenact the journey of María and José to Bethlehem with carols and prayers.

Years ago, in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, our family joined the town’s residents in a community posada that began at the church and processed along dark, cobbled streets, singing carols by candle and star light. Figures of María and José rode on a platform carried by four men. A brass band played as we walked. Here and there, the procession paused at a house, asking for shelter only to be refused. Then, when the procession reached the last house, the host admitted the people entered for a celebration with food.

Tonight’s posada in Minnesota won’t have an outside procession. Instead, we will meet in a chapel and the host family will process figures of María and José to the large nacimiento or manger scene before the altar. Then we will sing carols, read the Christmas gospel, and recite the rosary. After that, we will eat.

The posadas speak to hope in a world of hostility – then and now. María and José were strangers in Bethlehem, immigrants if you will. They knew no one, they needed help, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter. In this season, when we proclaim love and good will to all persons, let’s make our proclamations real by giving comfort to immigrants from all nations, and sheltering them from the flames of bigotry and hate stoked by ambitious public figures seeking their own ends.

The xenophobia of our time is identical to that of King Herod in the days of María and José. The fearful king asked the Magi where Jesus was born, not because he wanted to pay homage but to kill him. Herod slaughtered Hebrew boys in his attempt, and churches observe December 28 as Holy Innocents Day. More innocents will die in our time if we let fearful demagogues exclude refugees who face certain death from many causes. The story of María and José seeking shelter sheds light on what is best and worst in us. Strangers will knock on our doors. Do we have the will to open the door and admit them?

 

 

We are what we celebrate

What celebration expresses your identity, your being as a person? Is it Passover, Easter or Ramadan? Is it Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July? We all have them. For millions of Mexicans, it is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Classic Guadalupe image

Classic Guadalupe image

Tonight Mexicans inside and outside Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is the one figure that transcends Mexican ethnicities, social classes and politics. As the writer Carlos Fuentes remarked: “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” But who is she? And what does it mean to believe in her?

Indisputable information about Guadalupe is hard to come by and subject to interpretations and disputes. As the story goes, Mary the Mother of God (Jesus) appeared to an indigenous peasant convert named Juan Diego in 1531 on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs  worshipped Tonantzint, the mother of their gods. The brown-faced Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Náhuatl, his native idiom, and asked that a shrine be built there. The story of the apparition spread, and millions of Aztecs converted to Catholicism. In time, the Church built a church on the site, now the most visited shrine in Mexico with December 12 is her feast day.

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. Her image graces homes, shops, restaurants, walls,  T-shirts and posters. Men and women wear her medallion. Pedestrians pray at sidewalk shrines on their way to work. This protective mother silently watches over her ‘children’ in Mexico.

What do I make of this story of an apparition with miracles. My education steeped in scientific method and analysis, I look for verifiable facts as the basis for truth. Where’s the evidence that an apparition happed? Believers point to her image on a cloak whose origins remain obscure. It is easy to dismiss this as a folk-tale for the pious, or an intense psychological experience? Still, I’m not ready to dismiss all of it. We still don’t know enough about the nature of thoughts and emotions to pooh-pooh what we can measure by current methods.

Guadalupe at our church.

Guadalupe at Santo Nino Jesus.

Whether or not Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened isn’t as important as her impact on Mexico and Mexicans. Guadalupe is a profound force in the life of Mexico that can’t be ignored. Millions ask her to pray with and for them; they seek her protection, and guidance. In gratitude for prayers answered (I know some prayers are answered), or after receiving a milagro or miracle, many do works of mercy, compassion, and charity in her name. This is her power. Active devotion gives Guadalupe a corporal presence even as her spiritual existence remains  mysterious.

In my faith community, people will arrive at 10 p.m. and continue arriving after the celebration begins. The lights will be low and a large image of Guadalupe will stand in front of the pulpit surrounded by roses and lit by the flicker of devotional candles. Children dressed as peasants will sing to the Virgin. Then the procession to the altar will begin with a popular folk hymn to the Virgin with incense, acolytes, our priest and our bishop.

After the Eucharist and communion, a troupe of Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses, with shells on their ankles, will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing in time to the hypnotic drumming. Then, just before midnight, the band of mariachis will appear wearing short jackets bedecked with silver conchas, and serenade the Virgin with the melodious ‘Las mañanitas’, recounting her story and extolling her virtues. Afterward, we stay and eat tamales, pan dulce, and drink atole and chocolate. Tonight, if at no other time of the year, everyone knows who he is – Mexicanos.

Guadalupe at my home

Guadalupe at my home

As an American, I’m accustomed to national identity as loyalty to the Stars and Stripes, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are the secular foundations of national unity. Thanksgiving Day and its association with the Pilgrims, is as close as we come to a national spiritual holiday. But Mexico evolved by other means and its cultural is more spiritual than political, one comprised of vibrant indigenous tradition

We are what we celebrate.

 

 

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

What is time? And what time is it?

New Year’s 2015

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Americans say things like: ‘You can’t depend on Mexicans, they’re always late.’ Or: ‘Why can’t they show up when they’re supposed to?’  Or: ‘Well, you know, they’re on Mexican time.’

The phrase ‘Mexican time’ is sometimes a sympathetic phrase and at other times it’s an epithet.  It depends on who says it, to whom it’s said, and why.  Why are American travelers so annoyed when services or appointments don’t happen promptly on their timetable?  It’s culture.

When my friends Juan and María invite me to a family dinner in Minnesota, they say: ‘Come any time after 4:00.’  Just to be sure, I ask if they mean 4:00 as in ‘Mexican time’ or in American or ‘gringo time’.  We laugh at this because we both understand the cultural differences in ideas about time in Mexico and the United States.

I tell them I’ll arrive at 4:00 p.m. ‘Mexican time’ because I’ve learned an early arrival isn’t a virtue.  I don’t want to be the first one at the party.  Besides, I know the party really starts much later.  Nonetheless, my grasp of ‘Mexican time’ is still faulty, and when I arrive at 5:00 or 5:30, I’m still among the first to show up.  If I show up that late for an American invitation, the host will be upset; 4:00 means 4:00.

Time, as an idea and as a reality, differs across American and Mexican cultures.  What is ‘time’?  Astrophysicists are still debating whether time really exists.  Without going into the theories of time, it is enough to say the operational ideas of time in Mexico and the United States reflect their respective histories, cultural origins, and daily realities. The idea of time influences social conventions, expectations, and customs.  American cultural ideas about time are embedded in everyday speech.  The phrase: ‘Time is money’ epitomizes the Yankee notion of time.

A clock had little relevance to daily life when I was growing up on our farm.  Time played out as a sequence of chores and tasks without a definite beginning or end.  Each day, we milked cows at daybreak, raked hay after the dew dried, ate dinner at midday (somewhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and then built fences, harvested corn, or plowed the stubble until sunset.  That was about as definite as our time could be (except for church at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning).  We lived on ‘rural time’ until the mid-1960s, as did all but the most urbanized Americans.

‘Mexican time’ and ‘rural time’ share a lot in common because Mexico was a very rural nation until very recently.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ move according to interlocking cycles: The daily one of milking and tending animals; the annual one of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.  Rural people don’t ‘punch the clock’.  Hours matter less than the completion of one task before starting another.  And if a task takes too long, it often bumps a chore of lesser importance.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ contain an inherent latitude or courtesy, understood by all, to accommodate the unforeseen events that otherwise cause someone to arrive ‘late.’

But there are some exceptions.  In Puebla, when my friend Maribel invited me to the surprise party for her eighteen year-old niece, she sent me the address with explicit instructions to arrive at 2:30 – ‘al punto’.   ‘Al punto’ means ‘on the dot’ (punto) at 2:30 p.m. sharp so everyone would be ready to surprise the neice when she arrived.

When someone agrees to meet you ‘al punto’, treat it as a gift because it is.  It means your friend will put the promise to meet you ahead of anything else that might intrude.  ‘Al punto’ means giving control of your time to someone else.  I’ve had very few social meetings ‘al punto’ in Mexico.  Ordinarily, we meet at an approximate time; neither of us feels abashed to be fifteen minutes ‘late’ nor do we feel a need to arrive on the dot.  Apologies aren’t necessary or expected.

American rural (and Mexican) time is as idiosyncratic and as regular as my pulse.  ‘Mexican time’ is more subjective and fluid than ‘American time’.  My Mexican friends regard their time as an integral part of themselves, it’s a form of personal property.  I have time, it is mine, and it goes with me everywhere.  You have time, too; it’s your personal possession to use as you see fit.  In Mexico, the clock is more of a guide for the round of daily chores.  In the U.S., we’ve given the clock authority to govern our way of life, telling us what we will do, and when we will do it.  We’ve elevated punctuality to a virtue and relegated tardiness to a vice.  Only celebrities can get away with being ‘fashionably late.’

Why do Americans and Mexicans experience time differently?  Take a glance at our respective national and social histories to see the difference.  For centuries, each American city and town set its clocks by the sun.  Time was local, relative, and met the community’s need.  ‘Rural time’ was the only ‘time’ in the U.S. until the economy and society were transformed by the construction of transcontinental railroads, growing urbanization, and industrial mass production.

Railroad companies created ‘standard time’ in the 1880s so trains could keep schedules (a point of pride) and avoid collisions (a necessity).  Industrial mass production created assembly lines of highly integrated processes requiring intricately timed actions.  Factory workers had to show up ‘on time’ so the production lines functioned.  Nothing could be permitted to slow or stop production.  Laborers worked ‘by the clock,’ productivity was measured in ‘man-hours’.  Time-and-motion studies determined how to make each worker more productive by accelerating each production step.  Punctuality as an industrial necessity was elevated to an American virtue.  Along the way, the American idea of time ceased to be a subjective, personal property and became an objective, factor beyond individual control.  Time is money.  Workers sold their ‘time’ in exchange for wages.  Institutions control people by controlling their time.

Meanwhile, Mexico developed by a different course of events and influences.  Railroads arrived late in Mexico, industrial mass production didn’t develop deep roots, and urbanization began very recently.  Until the 1950s, most Mexicans lived in impoverished rural communities and the sense of ‘rural time’ is deeply embedded in the culture.  Modern ‘Mexican time’ retains much of its traditional rural fluidity.  Sitting in meetings, I’ve seen the late arrivals quietly greet each person in the room before taking their seats.  Time is personal and social courtesy trumps the clock and the agenda.

By now you may see the cultural divergence in the approach to time.

But there is a further element to the cultural idea of time that leads us toward cultural metaphysics.  For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, time was and remains, circular.  The Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mayans developed sophisticated systems of astronomy and mathematics.  From these they produced elaborate calendars of predictive cycles within cycles; lunar calendars based on an idea of time that circles back on itself.  Western culture takes a different approach, seeing time as possessing linear properties in which events don’t repeat themselves exactly.  The idea of time, like the language, is an inherent part of the culture we are in.  So, if you’re an American in Mexico, and feel frustrated because things don’t move as fast or as punctually as you wish,

Try this:

Step back, take a deep breath, and relax.  Accept the reality of being in a place where time has a different dimension; where the rules of time are as different as the language.

Treat the ‘delay’ as an integral part of your experience.  Take the opportunity to slow down, to enjoy the moment; look closely at what is around you. You will be enriched.

And although airlines and offices – institutions all – stick to schedules (more or less), most Mexicans move to their own rhythm.  You are in Mexico, so find your natural rhythm and move with it, too.