Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

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

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

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

Try this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Tú no sabes?”

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

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

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

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

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

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

Try this:

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

Try this:

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

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

Buena suerte!

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beach Books

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll always have Puebla

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

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

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

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

“Lupita!” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Está el hombre enfermo?” ella pidió.

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

Ella se encogió sus hombros y salió.

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

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

¿Qué es tu experiencia?

Memories – Places in the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the man ill?” she asked.

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

She shrugged and left.

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

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

What is your experience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Está el hombre enfermo?” ella pidió.

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

Ella se encogió sus hombros y salió.

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

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

¿Qué es tu experiencia?

Memories – Places in the heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is the man ill?” she asked.

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

She shrugged and left.

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

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

What is your experience?

Tlacochahuaya – a volunteer citizen says ‘adios’

It’s not enough to become bilingual. As I achieved fluency, I looked for ways to keep my Spanish in use. Eventually left a suburban congregation to join a Hispanic one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through my professional contacts I made a bridge to the majority culture. I made friends, and I advocated for them on immigration issues.

Ten weeks of immersion stoked a desire to return to Mexico, not as a gringo tourist but as a contributing member of a community. I volunteered a couple times but the assignments didn’t involve close, personal relationships. I wanted to be involved with people and engaged in their community. Then I volunteered with Fundación en Vía as an English teacher in Oaxaca. The English classes complement the micro-credit and business training the Fundación gives indigenous women. I already knew effective teaching required rapport if not intimacy.

Oaxaca is a small, vibrant city in southern Mexico that retains its indigenous roots and cultures. I elect to live with an ordinary family near the Fundación and teach in the outlying Zapotec town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya (thirty minutes by bus from the center of Oaxaca). The three other teachers – Nora, Nicola, and Augie are just out of college or grad school – are also volunteers. They teach the children.

It’s midafternoon when the four of us get off the local bus at the município or city hall and set up our ‘classrooms’ beneath the open air arcade or portales fronting the city hall. Each ‘classroom’ consists of a table, a white board with a few markers, and some folding chairs. We write the day’s lesson plan on the white board along with key words or lessons for the evening. Then we bask in the warmth of late afternoon sunlight while we wait for our students to arrive – three classes for children, one for adults.

Tlacochahuaya (Tcla-co-cha-why-a) is an agricultural community nestled in a broad valley bounded by dark, volcanic ridges rising high above fields of maíz, frijol, calabasas (corn, beans, squash), and maguey, an agave that is se source of mescal, the local liquor. This município sits high on a slope facing the fawn-colored parroquia or church across the square or zocalo. From the portales we look across the valley to the dark mountains beyond.

The Fundación’s curriculum is well-designed for children but I don’t think it will work for adults. As an adult language-learner, I know adult students can learn faster and deeper than children, but I also know they have an adult inhibitions and self-censorship that rarely bothers children. With this in mind, I alter the curriculum activities. As a recent adult language student, I know how they feel; at times I still feel inhibited. As their teacher, I’m also something of a student in Spanish. Our immediate goal isn’t the precise mastery of grammar rules but becoming confident in communication.

My small class consists of Manuel, Elizabet, her daughter Monica. Elizabet is in her late forties and I don’t know if she has a job. Monica is a nurse and new mother in her twenties. And Manuel says he’s forty-five and had English classes many years before. He is entering at mid-term and already more advanced. My predecessor taught his last class the week before I arrived and I have no idea how much or how well he taught them. Our first class is something of a blind date.

What a surprise and pleasure to discover they already know more English than the curriculum provides for and eager to push on. Clearly, they aren’t ‘blank slates’ on whom I will lay the curriculum. They are insipient English speakers and I must begin where they are and go forward from there.

Class preparation hinges on several questions: What do adults find hardest to learn at first? What were my barriers to learning?   How did teachers help me overcome them? What spurred me to learn? I spend more prep time working on the answers to these questions than on grammar. Our classers quickly become interactive – like‘improv’ theater – in which we react to and incorporate what we bring to class in the way of questions and observations.

Their questions of ‘how do you say …?’ or ‘what’s the Spanish equivalent of …?’ are as integral to learning as a lesson about placing adjectives BEFORE the nouns they modify. English goes bottom up, empirically compiling details (modifiers) with the noun as a kind of summary of all: ‘The tall, green fir TREE.’ Spanish is more top-down, categorically starting with the noun and then adding details (modifiers) as subordinate aspects: ‘El ÁRBOL, alto y verde’ (The tree, tall and green). Is there any inherent logic about where the adjective is placed? Their simple, direct questions cause me to think about English in a way I haven’t thought of it before.

Making out vocabulary cards, I choose words relevant to their lives and contain letter combinations and sounds largely unknown in Spanish: ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’, ‘lk’,’rn’ and many others. Not only must they recognize the sound when they read them silently, but it is important to train their tongues to make the sounds. Elizabet, Monica, and Manuel practice training their tongues on words like ‘with’, ‘tooth’, ‘geese’, ‘born’, walk, and many others.

I know this is harder than it seems. Even if the brain recognizes the word, the tongue either fails to make the sound in speech or rebels against making it. At one time, I had to learn new letters and sounds, such as trilling the double ‘r’ as in perro (dog) or making a ‘yj’ sound for the double ‘ll’ in llamar (to call). Now they see me struggling to pronounce Tlacochahuaya.

My Spanish is very good they tell me and try, gently, to correct my rendition of the town’s name. The ‘tl’ combination is a common sound in indigenous place names: Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula, Tlaxcala, and Tlatelolco. Mexicans say them easily but most Anglos don’t. ‘Tl’ isn’t a consonant combination we recognize in English – we’re familiar with ‘lt’. The ‘tl’ sound starts with the tongue near the back of the pallet and then rolls forward. I practice Tlacochahuaya almost daily for weeks until, at last, I get reasonably close – close enough that no one misunderstands me but still short of a native’s rendition.

Besides the uncommon sounds of English, we work on the structure of sentences, the syntax, the inherent ‘logic’ of putting together nouns and verbs and modifiers in a way that makes sense, in a way that completes a comprehensible picture of an object, a person, or an action. The more I work on this, the more I understand how the relationships among the parts of speech differ from language to language.

The verb ‘to do’ in English is simpler than hacer, its Spanish counterpart. ‘Do’ is an all-purpose verb covering a variety of actions (doing). Hacer not only means ‘to do’ in a general sense, but also means ‘to make’ as in constructing or creating something. For my students, writing and understanding sentences with the verb ‘to do’ is like working with only half of a verb. They need to learn ‘make’ for the other half. Teaching the verb ‘to be’ is much easier because English has only one form while Spanish has two. Prepositions are also trickier because those similar to English aren’t exact. The preposition en means ‘in’ but also ‘at’ or ‘on’ depending on the context. The preposition ‘por’ means ‘for’ in the English sense but may also mean ‘through’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’, or ‘cause of’. Teaching and learning these is a strugge.

Monica, Elizabet, and Manuel are eager learners, and return each time filled with questions about a phrase, or how to say a Spanish phrase in English. As homework, I ask each to take from their library a child’s book in English and read it aloud to themselves. Reading aloud makes an eye-ear-tongue connection. In one act, they recognize the letters, hear them pronounced as a word, and train their tongue to make the sound. For my last class, I want them to read aloud a passage from their book and explain what it means (in English, of course). Their explanations will tell me how well they understand what they read. Manuel brings a child’s story, Elizabet and Monica share a children’s book about Mexico. The reading goes smoothly, I know they can now read, understand, and explain in English.

As the last hour winds down, I tell them this is my last class, and introduce them to their new teacher, a new volunteer with several years’ experience as a teacher. Although they have had short-term, volunteer teachers before, and although I told them I would be with them for five weeks, they seem shocked.

‘When are you coming back?’ Elizabet asks plaintively.

Si Dios quiere, un año’ (God willing, in a year). In my mind, I want to do this again.

And so class ends with the ‘abrazos y besos’ or hugs and kisses that are the customary Mexican gestures of friendship. It’s evening and we wait in the cobbled street to catch the collectivo to Oaxaca.

I loved spending the afternoons with people as beautiful as their valley. Standing beneath the squash-colored portales of the município, I often gazed across the shady park of fig and cedar trees to the dark, hazy mountains beyond the valley. I will miss looking through the small gap where the solitary, palm tree stands shaggy-headed. But I will take away memories of the broad valley lying green-gold in the enchanting amber light that comes just before the puesta del sol. I will miss Tlacochahuaya, whose name defies my attempts to pronounce it correctly. I will continue to practice it until I return to teach again. Adios Tlacochahuaya.

My work in Tlacochahuaya is done and I’m sad to see it end because it is going so well. For a few weeks, we struggled together to produce learning, and in the process, we opened ourselves to each other. That’s the satisfaction of volunteering, it is inherently real work. And work, whether volunteer or paid, is an honorable and integral part of the larger social fabric. As a volunteer, I contribute toward the fabric of Oaxacan society and feel I am something of an oaxaqueño. Volunteering isn’t simply an activity, with a true heart, it may be a form of citizenship.

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.

Las Posadas, rábanoes, y la nochebuena – it’s Christmas in Oaxaca

MINNESOTA September, 1995.

“Do you have a passport?” my wife asks me one evening.

“Yeah, but I think it has expired.  Why?

“Because Mom is taking all of us to Oaxaca for Christmas!”

Four months later, nine of us: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family, my wife, our two grade school daughters, and I settle into our rooms at the Posada de Chencho.  Ollas, ceramics, and masks made by local artisans decorate the halls.  We lived within a long, narrow courtyard among poinsettia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and bird of paradise plants.  This is the first of six Christmases we spend in Oaxaca, and they forever change our idea of this day.

‘Chencho,’ the posada’s Zapotec owner, a friend of my mother-in-law, knows everything about Oaxaca’s museums, shops, and festivals.  After a day in the city, we are overwhelmed by the its colonial center, the Zocalo, its vibrant colors, and rich scents.

It is December 21st but we feel a difference immediately.  Gone is the urgency over buying and baking for ‘The Day.’  The shops and markets are free of saccharine carols about tiny drums and partridges in pear trees.  It isn’t that Oaxacans don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s that they haven’t lost sight of its religious meaning.  The season begins December 16th with las posadas and lasts through January 6th, with gift-giving following the tradition of the Three Kings who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

La Posada en Teotitlan

Freed from the ‘commercial’ burden of Christmas, we are at liberty to explore other options.  Chencho tells us there will be a posada that evening in the nearby Zapotec town of Teotitlan.  We go.

La posadas are an ancient Spanish tradition brought to Mexico.  Neighbors take the part of pilgrims – the Holy Family – and process through the streets to a particular house. They chant songs back and forth with the householder who acts as the innkeeper. Eventually the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party with food and drink.  Like Day of the Dead, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the missionaries used las posadas to supplant an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and (possibly) the birth of Huitzilopochitli, the Aztec god of war.

The posada in Teotitlan is already underway when we join it, moving slowly along the dark streets, led by children with candles.  Teotitlan is built on a hillside, its cobbled streets wind and dip, so we walk carefully to avoid loose stones and potholes.  The brass band ahead of us plays marching songs, and two men carry a platform with statues of Mary and Joseph in 16th century Spanish garb.  Bottle rockets flare upward and explode overhead with a flash.  Boys on bicycles pause for the procession, make signs of the cross and pedal away.  Somewhere ahead, but out of sight, the children with candles seek the house where la posada will end.

We leave before they reach the house but I’m aware of another part of the Christmas story: the poverty of Mary and Joseph, their perilous search for shelter, rejection by the comfortable, giving birth in a barn instead of an inn.  Its a mixture of wonder and misery could be a Mexican story.

La Noche de los Rábanoes

“Tonight we will see la noche de los rábanoes,” my mother-in-law tells us.  The Zocalo is set aside each December 23rd for the ‘La noche de los rábanoes’, a tradition since 1897, a huge cultural event.

With some skepticism, I wonder what is special about radishes; they’re small and I rarely eat them.  On this night there is a competitive display of figures and scenes carved from huge, specially-grown radishes.  That morning in the Zocalo, I watch men, women, and children carving and assembling the figures in their scenes.  Their paring knives flick and slice.  Pieces of radish become arms and legs, heads and torsos.  The red skin is scored and cut to create mouths, eyes, or designs on clothing.  Later that day, we’re among the thousands that patiently wait our turn to see the tableaux of the birth of Jesus, Santiago defeating the Moors, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, and the Death of Zapata among others.  The winner is announced, but the prizes aren’t as great as the skill and dedication.

La nochebuena or Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day is a Sunday, and we spend at the weekly tianguis in Tlacolula, one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica.  Here rural Mexicans in traditional dress buy and sell vegetables, kitchenware, jeans, shoes, tools, and necessities.  There are few tiendas or stalls selling items for tourists, and nothing indicates it is Christmas.  No special prices, no sales, no promotions, no pressure. (Heaven on earth!)

In Minnesota, we usually celebrate this evening (and my wife’s Norwegian heritage) with a meal of remembrance: meatballs in cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, lefsa with butter and sugar, cranberries, and rice pudding.  Then we open gifts and go to church.  But tonight we eat a simple supper, or cena; Oaxacans have a civilization of three thousand years and a meal of remembrance isn’t needed.

We return to the Zocalo after dark.  Zapotec women in huipiles (indigenous dresses) offer to sell woven cloth and rebozos.  We buy some sparklers from a street vendor and join the throng of waiting spectators, but uncertain what we’re waiting for.  There is a murmur of expectant voices punctuated by the bottle rockets exploding overhead.

While we wait, we buy buñuelos at a stand.  They’re a flat, deep-fried pastry drenched in syrup and served in a simple clay bowl; a sweet, sticky Christmas tradition in Mexico.  Afterward, we join others in throwing the bowls over our shoulders – for luck.  It’s a tradition!

And then we hear a brass band playing off-key, and watch a long procession march toward the Zocalo.  Two women with a church banner, flanked by candle bearers, lead the way, followed by the band and marchers.  Behind them is a flat-bed truck with a girl dressed as Mary kneeling over a manger, and a boy as Joseph standing behind her.  More bands, processions, and floats approach from every corner of the city.  A man wears a bamboo frame with a wheel atop his head.  He lights the fireworks attached to the wheel, they set the wheel spinning as he runs around the square.

La nochebuena in Oaxaca is everything Christmas Eve is not in Minnesota: It’s a public celebration, a Mardi Gras, a college homecoming, and the July 4th all rolled into one, exuberant expression of joy.

“I like this better than a ‘Silent Night’ at home,” my wife says, thereby saying all that needs to be said.  How can one truly celebrate anything as great as the Messiah’s birth with only a pious hush?

Meanwhile, our eleven year-old daughter is talking to a Mexican girl in grade-school Spanish.  I can’t hear what they say, or understand it if I could.  They talk, putting their heads close together, and with shy smiles, exchange pieces of candy.  It’s Christmas.

La Navidad

Chencho throws a Christmas party for his guests but we are out-numbered by the members of his extended family.  First we have a cocktail party in the courtyard.  I ask for mescal, the fiery, local hooch made from maguey.  He serves it and points to a plate of salt containing the powdered remains of the maguey worm.  It’s an invitation and a dare.  I try it; the salty taste complements the liquor.

After cocktails, the children whack away at the piñata while blindfolded.  As the kids begin swinging, everyone yells directions and encouragement.  One by one, the clay piñatas are broken, candy spills onto the plaza, and squealing children scramble to get some.

After dinner, the courtyard falls quiet for naps and conversations about what we’ve seen and experienced.  Given the costs and hassles of holiday travel, we didn’t buy and bring Christmas gifts.  Traveling together is a gift in itself.  Since then, Christmases in Minnesota have never been the same.  We broke the habit of gift buying.  There’s no more suffering through frantic Black Fridays in search of ‘bargains.’  The day has largely reverted to a religious holiday of family and friends; a day of remembering Oaxaca.

Christmas is a theological idea expressed culturally.   Mexico, with its indigenous and Catholic traditions, keeps Christmas principally as a religious celebration.  But in the culturally diverse United States, the day is secularized into a common denominator.  It’s a pastiche of images from the Bible and folk tales, Mary and Joseph with Santa Claus and his elves; Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ with the Gospel of Luke.  Christmas is wrapped in a peculiarly American sentimentality that overlooks the tribulations of Mary and Joseph; tribulations not dissimilar to the daily experience of many Mexicans.

Up next: Living on Mexican time.

The Virgin of Guadalupe – God’s feminine face

A hint of incense, with its sweet scent of mystery and sanctity, hung in the air of the semi-dark church.  Several hundred Mexican immigrants and a few Anglos filled the pews and more stood along the walls.  On a table beneath the rood beam, twinkling lights surrounded the statue of a woman  wearing a blue cloak with stars; her tranquil, brown face is turned aside, as if watching the boys at her feet, dressed in white ‘campesino‘ garb, and little girls with braids and long skirts, singing Spanish carols.  Happy parents watch, pleased they are passing their culture to the next generation.

It’s December 11, 10:30 p.m. and, to the sound of guitar music, the crucifer, the thurifer, the acolytes, the priest, and then the bishop walk up the center aisle to the sanctuary.  This is my church, El  Santo Nino Jesus, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and as a new member, and this is my first experience with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  And it has changed my perspective.

If you’re not a Mexican, you may find the rest of this post exotic, but stick with me.  And if you are Mexican, I hope I don’t give offense if I get this wrong.  Believing in the Virgin of Guadalupe goes to the heart of cultural differences between Mexican and North American spirituality.  My friends in Mexico and Minnesota believe so strongly in her existence and power I can’t dismiss it as unreal.  Believing in Guadalupe is a part of who they are, and a part of our friends.  Something I accept even if I don’t  understand it completely.

Nothing is as Mexican as the Virgin of Guadalupe.  She is the unifying figure for Mexicans of all classes and ethnicities.  As 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?  And how do I understand her when I didn’t grow up under the Virgin’s guidance?

I grew up with the Virgin Mary as a figure from the Christmas Gospels, in Christmas pageants, carols, and creches. She seems so remote, so unnaturally pure as to be unreal.  I thought of her as the greatest of saints, the “Mother of God,” but abstractly as the name of a holy person along with Peter and Paul, Luke and Matthew.  Like them, she lived in a distant past and wasn’t a presence in the here and now.   That’s how I thought until I went to Mexico where she seems to be a fact of life.

So who is she?  What is my relationship to her – whoever she is?  Indisputable information about the Virgin of Guadalupe is hard to come by.  What there is, is subject to varied interpretations and disputes.  As the story goes, she appeared to an indigenous peasant named Juan Diego a decade after the Spanish conquista on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs had worshipped Tonanzintla, the mother of their gods.  The Virgin appeared with a brown face and spoke in Nahuatl, the indigenous tongue.  The Aztecs quickly embraced her and millions converted to Catholicism within a decade, despite the doubts of the bishop.  In time, the Church accepted the apparition as real and built a church on the site.  It is now the most visited shrine in Mexico.  December 12 is her feast day in the Mexican calendar.

I’ve never seen an apparition or met anyone who has, but I image it is intensely personal and makes a powerful impact on the person who has it.  But is it real?  Or is it a form of dreaming or hallucination or delusion?  For the millions who didn’t witness the apparition, the story of it rang true and they converted because of it.  A  woman, the Mother of God, like their Aztec mother of the gods, had appeared where they used to worship.  The effect was profound.

She was and remains a figure for all Mexicans.  When Padre Miguel Hidalgo raised the flag of Independence in 1810, he and his followers shouted: “Long live our Holy Mother the Virgin of Guadalupe, Death to bad government!”  Painting her image on their banners, the army of peasants and creoles fought and died by the thousands until Mexico achieved its independence in 1821.  Afterward, the victors gave thanks for Guadalupe’s intercessions as the source of their victory.  After a century of Independence, internal struggles, and dictatorship, Mexico erupted in Revolution.  The leaders had no consensus: Liberalism, monarchism, socialism, constitutionalism, and they led the country in different directions. Emiliano Zapata led his followers into battle under the banner of Guadalupe.  In 1995, the Zapatista Liberation Army of Chiapas named their ‘mobile city’ after Guadalupe. For a century, through good times and bad, the Virgin has been the unifying symbol, the rubber band, that binds together the disparate classes, ethnicities, political parties, and alliances that make up modern Mexico.   Unlike politicians, she is above criticism or doubt.

Everywhere I go in Mexico, Guadalupe looks upon me from posters, banners, and statues in store windows.  Men and women wear her medallions; she is silk-screened onto T-shirts, and painted onto walls.  Restaurants and businesses display posters or images of her.   Pedestrians pause at small shrines on the sidewalk to pray before going to work.  Like a truly protective mother, she is a silent presence watching over her ‘children’ in Mexico.  Guadalupe is syncretistic but there is substance as well.  The Biblical Mary was a decisive and powerful figure and not a passive vessel of popular piety.  Being pregnant out-of-wedlock in Judea would have brought about Mary’s death by stoning (had not Joseph agreed to marry her).  The “Magnificat” by itself is a  radical vision of social justice (as yet unrealized) that Jesus went on to proclaim as ‘good news.’  After giving birth, Mary  is a silent presence except at a wedding in Cana; a witness to the crucifixion and resurrection.

But all this is history and theology.  The facts are few and conjectural.  Whether Mary is a real figure in history, or whether Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened or not; the impact on Mexico and Mexicans is real and profound and can’t be ignored when learning to understand Mexican culture.

I was struck by Guadalupe’s power, if that’s what it is, on the day we installed her statue in the chapel at Santo Nino.  Someone donated the statue anonymously (anonymous donations are very Mexican).  Two women carried her statue forward and put it on a corner of the altar.  The priest blessed it with incense and holy water.  And, as the soloist sing “Ave Maria,” the women carried the statue to its place in the chapel.  I stood with my friends during the installation, seeing solemn, brown faces – men’s and women’s – wet with tears.  Their connection was deep, personal, and emotional; and I knew it was something outside my ability to experience.

Every Sunday, Angeles or other women from Santo Nino place fresh flowers before Guadalupe’s statue.  They place the flowers carefully, tenderly, and then stand back, offering prayers.  Looking on, I see their devotions are intimately personal, the silent or whispered conversations from their hearts between the women and Guadalupe.

Why do modern people – Mexicans or North Americans – believe in an apparition that happened nearly 500 years ago, if it happened at all?  Why do they believe in an apparition in which Mary returns as an indigenous woman?  Almost any other appearance would be treated like believing in UFO abdunctions, Big Foot sightings, or extra terrestrial origins of the pyramids.  Where’s the proof?

Those questions lead me to wonder about some sacred North American beliefs.  Why do we believe the “invisible hand” of the free market brings about the greatest good for the greatest number when the evidence is contrary?  And why do we still pay lip service if not outright devotion to the idea that “heaven” has a special mission, a “manifest destiny,” for the United States in world affairs not given to any other nation?  Why do we believe that?  It takes a large dose of hubris to believe in manifest destiny or American exceptionalism, and a certain moral blindness to believe in the goodness of the free market despite economic facts.  The free market and manifest destiny are abstract ideas but we accept them.  It’s even easier to believe in Guadalupe.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a real and powerful force in Mexican life.  Millions ask her to pray with them and for them; they seek her blessing, protection, and guidance in all manner of causes and situations.  When their prayers are answered (and I believe some prayers are answered), or they receive a miracle, they gratefully undertake works of mercy, compassion, and charity.   I can’t think of many individuals (real or imaginary) who have inspired and commanded such devotion over so long a time.

Guadalupe wasn’t part of my spiritual formation in Minnesota.  I didn’t grow up with her watching over me from a wall in my home, in my church, or from a street corner shrine.  She didn’t exist in my world until middle-age and I find it impossible to make an emotional connection to her the way that “Amazing Grace” or other hymns give me a clutch in my throat.  Guadalupe for my friends and “Amazing Grace” for me have been indelible parts of our respective spiritual lives.  Memory is a part of our identity.

“What does the Virgin of Guadalupe mean to you?” I asked my friend, Maria, a woman of forty, a mother, and bookkeeper.

“She’s my spiritual mother,” Maria said.  “She’s the feminine face of God.”

Yes, now I understand.  Jesus taught that when we feed and clothe the poor, or heal the sick, or visit the prisoners, we are doing these things to him as well.   And from that, we are taught to seek the face of Jesus in the people around us or to be his face to others.  Seeing Guadalupe as the feminine face of God makes sense.

Tonight we will celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  I’ll be there as the music swells, the priest and bishop elevate the bread and wine in the Eucharist.  I’ll be in line with the others, filing forward  to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  And then I’ll pause before the Virgin’s statue to say a prayer.  After the communion, the Aztec dancers will file in, their feathered headdresses waving, the shells tied to their ankles rattling softly.  While the drummers pound a hypnotic rhythm, the dancers will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing and the shells rattling.

And after the dancers, the mariachi, six men in tight pants and short jackets adorned with silver conchos and buttons.  They will stand before the statue with guitars, violin, and trumpets to play and sing “Las Mananitas,” a traditional song for birthdays.  We will stand and sing with them as the last of the incense drifts over us and the music fills us with the joy of celebrating the day of our spiritual mother, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the feminine face of God.

Next post: La Navidad in Oaxaca – las posadas, calendas, and fireworks

I didn’t think I’d like it

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Recently Acquired.”

A professional colleague urged me to write an “author’s blog” if I want to get published.  “You need this as part of your ‘platform.'”  This wasn’t what I wanted to hear a few days before heading to Mexico.  I will be busy teaching English in a pueblo.

Grumbling to myself (because my colleague is right and I respect her), I created a blog (‘Adventures in Midlife Spanish’), published a short post, packed my Android tablet, and set out.  Once in Mexico, the blog didn’t feel like a chore, something that had to be done.  I liked writing in Mexico. Blogging offered something more interesting and creative than a journal – which I usually keep in Mexico.  A journal is something I write for myself but the blog I write for the world (or those who take the time of find and read it).  This changed the tenor of my time in Mexico.

The subjects and material lay around me in profusion: Chance encounters with students, winding, cobbled streets in colonial neighborhoods, celebrating Dia de los Muertos with my host family, an evening’s conversation with a Tutunaku poet on the preservation of indigenous languages, and the protests over the 43 missing students followed by the revelation of a luxurious house for the President’s wife built by questionable means.  Every day the world presented things I might never cover in a journal.  Living once more in a country steeped in traditions and indigenous cultures yet wracked with political, social and economic turmoil, I felt like a foreign correspondent, a journalist, a fly on the wall, an observer writing in ‘real time.’  I was asking different questions.  Instead of asking what was interesting to only to me, I focused on things others might find illuminating, or interesting.  Blogging is liberating if not addictive.  That’s a surprise.