Feeling the Language

 

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

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

 

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

‘All government is an assassin.’ Graffiti in Oaxaca

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

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

Every form of communication builds fluency

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

Look for these  signs of progress toward fluency:

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

Social events are the greatest classrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All Soul’s Day and the Big Bang

Life is a mystery. It’s an intangible spark science can’t quite pin down. The life-force lies behind the neurons and electrical pulses and move our bodies. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? And where does it go when our bodies give out? Does it go anywhere? Humans have asked these questions for millennia. They are questions for All Souls’ Day or Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The life we see in our world today began eons ago with the “Big Bang” that released all matter into the universe. Is the life-force within each of us a spark from  that immense explosion billions of years ago? Is it the same  spark that has passed from species to species and generation to generation through transmission, evolution, regression, mutation and adaptation, through creatures large and small, enduring and ephemeral? The fossil record reveals how the life force resurrects after large extinctions and finds new guises better suited to changed circumstances.

An alley wall on Day of the Dead

And what is death? What happens to the spark, the invisible, intangible part of us—the soul—that defines who we are more completely than our physical appearance? Where does it go? We know nothing for certain. Our opinions are matters of faith.

Today is All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recall or pray for those who have died that they might be at peace or stand in light perpetual. The theology varies from one denomination to the next but the current of belief flows in the same direction.

In Mexico, All Souls’ Day fused with an indigenous celebration of the deceased and became día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Most of us are familiar with its outward manifestations as skeletons, crania and the ofrendas or offerings of articles the deceased liked in life. Like Americans at Thanksgiving, distant members of Mexican families return home to tend family graves, share meals and, perhaps, commune with the spirits of the deceased.

A family ofrenda in Oaxaca.

I have celebrated Día de los Muertos  with Mexican friends in Puebla and Oaxaca  where I lived. Each family celebrated in its own way. For some, it was a cultural event like Christmas without religion. For others, a day of spiritual solemnity when the past and present (and perhaps the future) were united. Death isn’t seen as the end but part of a transcendent shift in form and substance. It is true we carry our ancestor’s DNA. Is it possible we bear something of their spirits as well. We may be individuals but we aren’t sui generis.

A century ago, people often observed a year of outward mourning for a spouse or family member. Grieving seems largely privatized these days and many talk of wanting a “closure” to their grief so they can “move on” with their lives and, perhaps, forget. But can we forget and move on without the memories? I don’t think so.

My parents are dead but they visit at odd moments in something deeper than a conscious memory. There’s a sense of their presence just beyond eye-sight, an inaudible voice at my inner ear. Are these visitations? I don’t know but I’m grateful for them. In death, each parent seems more clearly an individual than in the fusion of “MomandDad.” While the pain of loss has ceased, I don’t want “closure” or forgetfulness because I would lose something of myself.

A remembrance of my parents.

On All Souls’ Day I put up a photo of my parents with a candle as an ofrenda, a focal point for prayer. This year, I added a photo of Lupita, a landlady and loving friend with whom I lived as a student in Mexico. The spark of life burned brightly in her and warmed those around her. Lupita’s sudden death last year at 85 was a shock. There is comfort in pausing to give thanks for those who kindled the spark of life in me. And it is  well  to remember that I, too, am but dust and to dust I will return someday when my spark moves on.

 

 

 

 

Present in the Moment: Priceless

Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.

Even children beg.

Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?

My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?

I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.

In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.

I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?

“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.

She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.

Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.

What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.

 

The Exquisite Pain of a Double Life

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zapatos rojos—Red shoes and the pain of knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” the curator asked again.

.”

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

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

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

Saving the mother tongue

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

In word and costume a distinct people

In word and costume a distinct people

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

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

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

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The art of packing—What to leave behind?

One suitcase of possibilities.

One suitcase of possibilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day of the Dead – A day out of time

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

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

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

A decorated tomb.

A decorated tomb.

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

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

Decorated family graves.

Decorated family graves.

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

The family ofrenda.

The family ofrenda.

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

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

Estela cooks the mole.

Estela cooks the mole.

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

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

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

An ofrenda to my parents.

An ofrenda to my parents.

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

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

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

A wall in the alley.

A wall in the alley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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!