The Native-speaker’s Ear

So, you’ve learned a lot of Spanish and Spanish speakers understand you. Some have even complimented you. The affirmation is gratifying and you want more. (We always want more!) And you want to sound a more like a native-speaker. Maybe blend in. Who doesn’t? But is it possible?

Speaking like a native requires mucho más— much, much more—than correct conjugation of the pluperfect  subjunctive or rolling the double ‘rr’ and or elided ‘yh’ sound of the double ‘ll’. Sometimes, speaking a little too perfectly marks you as an outsider, a talking text-book, someone who knows the words but not the language as it is spoken. Listen to yourself speaking English. How many deviations from the grammar books do you hear? Developing your capacity to speak Spanish as natives do requires developing an ‘ear’ to hear the language as they hear it. This is a tall order. Think of it as a journey and not a destination. It’s worth it—vale la pena.

How we speak our tongue is part of our individual and cultural  identity. Our verbal fingerprint is there in our accent, rhythm and phrasing. It tells some people we are a part of their group and tell others we are strangers,  ‘not from around these parts.’

Novels and short stories.

Accents, rhythms and phrasing. As children, we learned to speak mimicking our parents and peers. Their sound patterns trained our ‘ear’ to recognize and mimic the language as they spoke it. I don’t mean only the grammar but the accents, rhythm and phrasing of sentences. I grew up in rural Minnesota but my urban New Jersey-born parents taught me to speak and my English still has strains of the East Coast. Minnesotans pronounce ‘orange’ as  orj but I grew up hearing it is ahranj.

New sounds are often challenging for adults and adult language learners. As we age, a part of our brain gradually tunes out sounds that don’t conform to our native tongue. Adult language learners can master grammar and vocabulary with relative ease but struggle to understand what they hear. Developing the ‘ear’ requires developing the mental circuitry to handle it.

The American South and New England have distinctive accents. Among southerners, the vowels often glide so a word like ‘ride’ is pronounced rod or rad. And you may hear ‘done’  used as an auxiliary as in ‘I done told you.’ New Englanders have a distinct speech with a broad ‘ah’ instead of ‘ar,’ as in ‘don’t pahk yoah cah in Havahd Yahd.’ In Minnesota, our accent is flatter and we are apt to pronounce ‘police’ and ‘insurance’ as ‘p’lice’ and ‘inshurns.’ In the south, the accent falls heavier on first syllables and the words you hear are ‘po-lice’ and ‘in-shurance.’ These dynamics are at work in other countries and languages. In Mexico, for example, I hear subtle (to me) differences in the Spanish of multi-national Mexico City, multi-ethnic Oaxaca and indigenous Cuetzalán of the Sierra Norte.

Idiomatic phrasing is often as telling as an accent. In Minnesota and the upper Midwest, it is common to end phrases and sentences with a preposition or an adverb. You may be asked: ‘Do you want to come with?’ Or to confirm your café order: ‘So, you want cream, then?’ Many sentences begin with ‘you know’ or an agreement ends with ‘that’s for sure’ or ‘you bet.’

Find books on areas you plan to visit.

Acquiring an ‘ear’ for the language means hearing (and thinking) the way a native hears it. This takes time and patience. Becoming a native speaker by intent is a tall order for an adult learner but who doesn’t want to do a little better? So, how can we up our game, as it were? How can we move our already competent grasp of Spanish a notch closer to speaking and comprehending native speech?

Try this: Get some books written in Spanish—not translations from English! Choose children’s or young adult novels or short stories you can easily understand. That way, you can focus on the phrasing and rhythm of the language. Especially, look for books with dialogue between characters. Then read the stories aloud (a whisper is sufficient) and pay attention to the sound. Before long, you’ll feel the rhythm of the language, the rise and fall of the speech. With this practice, you will sharpen your ‘ear’.

If you have a strong interest in a particular Spanish-speaking country, look for novels and short-stories by its authors as idioms differ from one nation to another. As you read these books, make note of how common phrases are put together. Many phrases in English have counterparts in Spanish. You may also notice they don’t translate literally but only figuratively. As you read, you may notice the distinct ‘voices’ of the characters by the words they use and the kinds of phrases they speak. Take notes. Before long, you will ‘hear’ the rhythm and acquire useful phrases inherit to a nation or a region.

Feeling the Language

 

Language takes many forms of expression. Glyph. Oaxaca, Mexico

Can you “feel” the language when you speak Spanish as an unconscious action like riding a bike? That is, the skill comes unconsciously, without fear or thought. Regardless of fluency, you need pluck to meet whatever conversational circumstance you face. Don’t worry about how many words you know or how well you conjugate them. Your fluency will improve the more you forget yourself and concentrate on connecting with the other person. Then you’re too focused to worry about yourself and errors of conjugation or pronunciation.

 

How you feel when you speak–confident, nervous, fearful–will influence how well you speak spanish. Self-awareness is a key to overcoming the barriers to fluency. As a beginning Spanish speaker, I felt anxious about conversations, like a boy on a first date with a girl I liked. Fear of mistakes made me insecure, socially awkward and afraid of looking foolish. The first date was the hardest and I survived it to overcome the fear of self-inflicted rejection or humiliation. Try it. Who knows? You may soon “go steady.”

‘All government is an assassin.’ Graffiti in Oaxaca

Language immersion, formal and informal, gives you the saturation necessary to “feel” the language. By that I mean an intuitive trust the words and phrases will come when you need them. Nik Wallenda, who walked the cable between Chicago sky-scrapers, succeeded because he wasn’t preoccupied with falling. Like walking a tightrope, language confidence rests on going forward and looking ahead rather than looking down, afraid of falling over your mistakes.

I’‘felt’ the language in Guadalajara several years ago as a consultant to a food bank. A food bank official took me to a distribution center and  introduced me to local leaders with lavish praise. When she finished, she turned and looked directly at me. Only then did I realize she expected a response. It had to be more than “Gracias.” And I wasn’t prepared! Or so I thought. Swallowing momentary panic, I thanked her for the kind words and concentrated on what  I wanted them to know. Words poured out unconsciously without hemming or hawing. It all came out spontaneously. I didn’t quite believe it at first.

Every form of communication builds fluency

Try this: Enter into a Spanish conversation that involves topics more complex than you are accustomed to. Asking someone about their profession is a safe approach. People will be flattered and let yourself enter the vocabulary thicket without  a map, guided by trusting intuition to give you the words. Chances are good your conversation partner will help you with new words and phrases as she answers your questions. You may also develop a way to “work around” the unknown by describing the idea, object or action for which you lack the exact word. Even a work-around provides a good conversational exercise

Look for these  signs of progress toward fluency:

Dreaming. Our minds work even while our body rests. Early in the first immersion, I woke, stunned to realize I was dreaming in Spanish! It happens to a lot of students. If it happens to you, trust it. It doesn’t mean you’re fluent but it’s a sign your mind is absorbing the language subconsciously and that’s where you want it.

Social events are the greatest classrooms

Oblivious to language. At some point you will speak Spanish without conscious intention. Another big step. It happened to me when I agreed to an interview with a Mexican youth taking English classes.  Lacking confidence, she asked questions in halting English. I answered three questions in detail until her companion stopped me. “Ingles, habla en inglesHablas en espanol.” Speak English, she said, you are speaking Spanish. I was? Flabbergasted, I realized Spanish was now a “default” language. Even a meal in a Mexican restaurant in the U.S. triggers an unconscious response in Spanish.

 Catching mistakes. Another sign is when you catch a mistake just before or after you make it  We all do it so, relax. Your brain moves faster than the tongue, your mind edits as you speak and sometimes you change our mind while the tongue still  conjugating  a verb you’ve just rejected. You do it in English, too. Don’t criticize your small mistakes. Perfectionism is a disease. Of course, you speak fluent English, don’t you? Then listen to how you speak English and notice your mistakes and imperfections. Conversations aren’t oral exams with a grade. Being understood is the passing grade.  Not trying is failure.

Energy at day’s end. Acquiring a language takes lots of energy at first. Then, as Spanish sinks into the subconscious, check your mental energy at day’s end. The more you feel or trust the language, the less energy you will use in conversation. Much of the ease comes from focusing on what you want to say without worrying about how you say it.

Language, like art, is an intimate human capacity of body and soul

Body language. Every culture has body language to go with the words. Check out your gestures and facial expressions as you gain proficiency. The changes may be subtle or obvious. You may find yourself talking with your hands in ways you never did before  or with more emphatic  gestures. In Mexico, I “talk” with my hands  far more than I do in Minnesota.

Above all, pay attention to your emotional state as you grow in fluency. Language doesn’t exist outside you, and it isn’t knowledge like mathematics or history. Acquiring a language is an intimate process, like art. The teacher can give you vocabulary and grammar as raw materials  but only you can make it a part of your being.

 

The Exquisite Pain of a Double Life

 

What is more exquisite than preparing for a trip? A week, maybe two, or even a month? Do you have a ritual you follow as you prepare? I do. Mine begins by ignoring the departure date until at least a month before I leave. Then I start. It’s a kind of foreplay. Something that builds to peak excitement on the day I leave.

Tonight, I’m making beef and black bean tacos, listening to cumbia on my laptop and, later, watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a great story about greed, generosity, and compassion starring Humphrey Bogart.  I’m only 36 hours away from departure. The SuperShuttle will pick me up at 4:40 a.m. for a 6:30 flight to Mexico City. Two hours after that, I will be among friends in Puebla.

Already, the suitcase is packed—37 pounds of necessities to last me three months. That includes a laptop, changes of clothing, notebooks for my writing, gifts that Mexican friends have asked me to deliver to their families, plus personal odds and ends. The beauty of is—I’ve make the trip many times and I don’t need to take much. A woman five houses from my quarters does laundry. I cook my breakfast and supper and, as much as possible, live as ordinary Mexicans do.

A flight from frigid Minnesota to semi-tropical Oaxaca crosses more borders than I can count. Physically crossing the Río Bravo is the least significant of many crossings. And the much-trumpeted Great Wall will be easily crossed, also.

The most significant borders are internal ones of language, cultural beliefs and habits, perspectives on the world, expectations, and attitudes. You don’t often think of these things in preparation, but they’re there. And if you’re an experienced traveler, especially a bilingual one, it doesn’t take you more than a few hours—maybe a day and a night—to easily reintegrate into your new surroundings.

That’s how long it takes my alternate persona to assert itself in Mexico. The shifts are subtle now, I don’t notice the change the way I did at first, but they are essential to living easily within the envelope of Mexican culture. Language is the first adjustment. After nine months of speaking English like a Minnesotan, my vowels are ‘flat’ and have lost some sharpness of the long Spanish A, E, I, O, and U. It takes a day to complete the crossing from Minnesota English to Mexican Spanish. But that’s only the beginning.

As the language shifts,  the muscles of my tongue resume familiar twists. It’s like riding a bike, the muscles relearn to shape the proper sounds, moving faster to dance over the vowels (vocales), each one a syllable. At the same time, my ear retunes its acuity to recognize rhythms and sounds uncommon in Minnesota except in bodegas and Latino neighborhoods. According to scientists, a second language creates a new set of circuitry in the brain. Well, it’s time to flip the switch!

The crossing won’t be complete until my alternate persona emerges; the me that expresses myself in Spanish with words and phrases that I might never say in English in Minnesota. One of the miracles of another language is the way it taps into the subconscious parts of you in ways the native tongue doesn’t. With any fluency at all, you make the shift without knowing it.

My biological family didn’t overuse words of emotion. We were WASP’s and emotions were considered one’s private business, not to be put on public display. As children, were expected to speak in facts, not emotions. I grew up and remain a largely pragmatic, and matter-of-fact in Minnesota . In Mexico, however, a culture where all aspects of life are expressed in emotions and opinions, that neglected side of my soul emerges. The inner life, not the outer, is more important in Mexico. I say things using Spanish words and phrases of emotion I hesitate to use in Minnesota. In el norte, my comments on someone’s difficulty is usually “It’s too bad that …” because it fits within the emotionally restrained culture of Minnesota’s north European population. But not in Mexico. There, I easily say, “Está triste que … or It’s sad that …”

Between the United States to Mexico lies a gulf of history that shapes their respective cultural mentalities. As Americans, we are data-driven, depend on strong (even dominant) institutions to provide stability and security. We can count things happening exactly when and how they’re supposed to. UPS gives a tracking number and delivery date, our appliance repairman gives us the hour when he’ll arrive, our employer automatically deducts our taxes and deposits our paycheck in the bank. These and a thousand other certainties fee our fantasy of the world as a secure orderly place.

Not so in Mexico. Try to make a date for coffee next week and the conversation starts with, “Es posible… It’s possible …”  Of course it’s possible! you think. Anything’s possible. So why not just say, ‘Yes’? Because, in Mexico, institutions are trusted less than in the U.S., people don’t depend on them, and experience has instilled an understanding that the best laid plans will come a cropper more often than not. Crossing over involves setting aside an expectation all will run on time, as planned. That doesn’t happen south of the border, and we all learn to live in the conditional tense.

The happy history of the United States during the 20th century instilled the fantasy of ‘progress’ as a reality in which each generation of Americans is richer and happier than the one before it. Unfortunately, the expectation has induced an unsustainable sense of entitlement that began crashing in the 2008 recession—if not sooner. Maybe Mexicans are wiser on this point. They hope tomorrow will be better than today but they don’t count on it. They’re students of their own history and know the bitterness of disasters—political, financial, social, and familial.

You ask: Why do I cross over each year and live in a society rived by narco-violence, social unrest, economic insecurity, political corruption, and widespread poverty? Aren’t there better places than this?

It depends on what you mean by ‘better.’ Certainly, the Mexican coasts with their lavish resorts in Cozumel, Cancun, and Cabo are ‘better’ in this respect. But in those places I won’t find or receive what I look for and find among ordinary Mexicans. Living much as they do, I experience intimately my own humility and feel gratitude for my life and its possibilities in ways that don’t happen when all is secure and orderly. The mass of Mexicans are living a line from the Eagles’ hit, Hotel California: ‘You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.’ Crossing over lets me take their way of life as my own for a long as I can, and live it on their terms. Every time I do this, I reconnect with my deeper self, and rediscover aspects of my persona I have overlooked, neglected, or forgotten. Unlike my dearest Mexican friends, I can leave; there is an exquisite sadness in knowing they can’t.

Staying Connected

Staying Connected

On Saturday I attended the wedding of very good friends—well, family—who came from Mexico 25 years ago. Although married in a civil ceremony, they waited a quarter century until their parents obtained resident visas to have a religious service. Then, with their daughters, parents, extended family and close friends around them, they held the nuptial mass at their cabin in western Wisconsin.

They did it the Mexican way, reciting their vows with the traditional lazo or cord around their necks. Afterward, the bride’s father, a retired mariachi in full costume, sang romantic songs. During the feast, over plates of mole rojo con pollo, rice and enchiladas, we visited in Spanish and English. Being connected to this family and a larger Hispanic community is how I keep my Spanish in ‘shape.’ I exercise it in the same way I work my muscles.

Stay Connected—We visit another country, we learn its language, and maybe we make friends there. But, after we return home to the U.S., we face the challenge of staying sufficiently connected to keep up the Spanish we have worked so hard to learn through immersion, classes or travel. Being connected or in contact with other Spanish speakers is the key. The question is, how to do it.

How I ended up at the wedding is part of a longer story. Suffice it to say, I was at the wedding because I looked for ways to connect and use my Spanish (see below). I met my friends at church and, because they lacked immigration documents, I used my social contacts to help a daughter enter college and the husband avoid deportation. For me, it was a matter of using my professional contacts and applying my professional skills to aid them. To them, I was a life-saver. After my friend no longer faced deportation, he said, “You’re now a member of the family. A ‘primo’ (cousin). Since then, they have include in family events. I’m connected.

Finding your particular connections takes experimentation. This can be as extensive as you want and it can lead in unexpected directions and relationships, as it did in my case.

Conversation Groups—I attended several types of conversation groups in Minnesota between my short and intermittent immersion courses in Mexico. Language groups are easy to find over the internet. Simply enter ‘Meet-ups’ in your web browser and then indicate the kind of ‘meet up’ you want in the search box. During the early years of Spanish lessons, I attended groups that met at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, a library, a coffee shop and a bar.

Each group had its own personality, depending on the language skills of the leaders and the participants. As I discovered, most groups didn’t involve native speakers as regular members as they had other opportunities to keep their language alive. The groups I attended included lots of eager beginner and intermediate speakers whose ability ranged from elementary level to bi-lingual fluency. Some knew no Spanish but came with the hope of learning it by ‘osmosis.’ This rarely happened.

You may have to try several groups before finding your ‘groove.’ Some may be too elementary and participants will look to you for leadership. Or they may be too large for establishing any personal relationships in which to have on-going conversations. Or they may be too advanced for you to feel comfortable. Keep looking. The groups exist and you will find one to fit you.

Cultural Centers—Many if not most larger cities have Hispanic cultural centers that offer classes in Spanish and the cultures of Mexico and other countries of Latin America. Minneapolis has one where I completed my beginning level classes with native speaker instructors before taking immersion in Mexico. Later, after I became fluent, I took two 10-week literature classes for the pleasure of reading Latin American writers and discussing the works with others.

If your city doesn’t have a cultural center, look for a community education program, or perhaps audit a class at a local college. One of my friends whose spoken Spanish isn’t as fluent as she wants it to be, audited a college course in Latin American literature. And if your city doesn’t have a college, then read aloud.

Volunteer—If your city or community has a Hispanic population, chances are good there are non-profit social and educational programs that serve them. Most organizations depend on volunteers to interact with clients and do much of the work. Volunteering may be a double opportunity for you. You will have the opportunity to use your language, meeting others, and serve them by helping them with your useful ‘connections’ to corporate hiring managers, college admissions staff, government officials and the like.

Most of us who are U.S. citizens know how the ‘system’ works and we usually know someone (or someone who knows someone) who can help a Latin American immigrant navigate to the services or officials they need. Aiding an immigrant to a job, an official, a service—even if your Spanish is still elementary—is a ‘big deal’ for them. It is through gestures like this that good friendships form. I’m still amazed at the difference I’ve made in some lives with a few phone calls, a few letters of recommendation, character references, visits to an official’s office, or accompanying an immigrant to court. As a citizen, these look like small favors; for my friends they are life-changing.

Churches—The church and its ceremonies play large roles in the lives of many immigrants. Not all are Roman Catholics, but also Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist and other denominations. Regardless of denomination, the church is still the community nexus where many Latin American immigrants come together to find community. I belong to a largely Mexican congregation in Minnesota where the liturgies and sermon are in Spanish, as are the after-church conversations over coffee and tamales. For six years, I served on the parish council and as its co-chair because I was also the bridge or connection to the majority culture.

These are some of the ways you can connect with fellow Spanish speakers. And, if you are so fortunate as to find a congregation, a nonprofit or a cultural organization that fits your abilities and meets your needs, you most certainly will make friends. Who knows, you may one day find yourself at a wedding as one of the family or at least in the smaller circle of close and trusted friends who will nurture your Spanish and deepen your sense of the culture.

 

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.

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.

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!