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.


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

ITABO-FAVORITO, Cuba. December 31, 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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