Recognition and a Sense of Place

The Virgin appeared at an Aztec sacred site.

There is no landscape like Mexico

I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?

When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.

When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.

Humility is the avenue to self acceptance.

Rosita’s house, six doors down.

On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.

With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’

Years of friendship.

Years of friendship.

A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.

Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.

As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .

In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.

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.

 

 

Learning Spanish as a tongue-tied imposter

Nearly every language learner I’ve met – whether an English-speaker learning Spanish, or a Spanish-speaker learning English – feels the same anxiety. Have you had that experience – the reluctance if not fear of using our second language in front of people who are bilingual? At its best , our hesitation may be a decent form of modesty to prevent a presumption of appearing to be more than we are. Or so we tell ourselves. Or, it may be our fear is more primal than that.

The ‘imposter syndrome’, as it’s called, hits me most noticeably when I encounter Spanish speakers whose English is at least as good as my Spanish. My first instinct is to stick with English. Yet, I’m not afraid to speak Spanish with Mexicans who don’t speak English. It’s utterly irrational but somewhere, in the back of my mind, a little voice tells me bilingual Spanish speakers will ask themselves: ‘Who does this naco (idiot) think he is?’

When I was a schoolboy, I sometimes had nightmares of standing naked in front of my classmates while they pointed, giggled and taunted as I imploded before them. Over the years, as I matured and gained self-confidence, the dreams went away – or so I thought.

Why not? I passed into adulthood and then middle age as a highly competent if not accomplished adult. I overcame a lackluster high school education to earn a PhD, write a book and receive a book award, then hold a professional slot in a multinational corporation followed by a stint in state government. In short, when I put my mind and will into it, I did everything I thought possible to do and even things I thought no possible to do. Experience showed me that my professional effectiveness rested on my integrity because people knew me to be who I claimed to be.

When I took up Spanish in my 60s, and stepped outside my customary social and professional world, the fear of standing naked on a stage returned, and I again feared exposure as a fraud. I know the ‘imposter syndrome’ is a common occurrence to various degrees but it’s not one we talk about. We cover it up behind a bluff front, or we dismiss these dire visions as irrational fantasies outside reality. As a middle-aged language student, the fear of exposure often dogged me by day as well as by night.

Learning Spanish in Mexico wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing grammar and vocabulary, as I thought. No. Language immersion entailed learning and living within a cultural mentality that was different from my own. The anxiety didn’t arise when I began the language because I knew so little. Anxiety increased as I learned to move into the culture and became acute toward the end of immersion, as I became bilingual. Mexico isn’t Minnesota and our inner ways of life differ. Unfiltered expressions of opinion and emotion are marks of authenticity in Mexico but we Minnesotans mask these things with opaque friendliness. As I internalized this aspect of the Mexican cultural mentality, I started to think, speak and act in Mexico in ways at odds with how I thought, spoke and acted in Minnesota. Before long, I felt as if I had two personalities and wondered which was the authentic one.

Near the end of my language study, I was riding high, full of myself, floating on the affirmations of teachers and friends who said how much I had changed during immersions. To them, I had become ‘something of a Mexican’ in thought and habit as well as speech. When I took a bus to visit a friend in a distant town, I shared the four-hour journey with a campesino. When he discovered I grew up on a farm, we talked about agriculture in great detail, questioning each each other about the practices in Mexico and Minnesota. If I can do that, I thought afterward, then I must be truly ‘something of a Mexican’.

After a day of walking around in the tropical heat, and feeling ill, I passed a wretched night with my inner critic, trapped between slumber and consciousness. Like a prosecuting attorney, this dark voice reviewed every error I ever made during Spanish immersion, it doubted my affinity for Mexican culture, and questioned the authenticity of my identity as ‘something of a Mexican’. Who was I to think I could be bilingual and culturally competent? I was a fraud, a pretender, un pendejo (a jerk).

I rose early in the morning, physically and mentally exhausted, convinced I didn’t speak much Spanish, that the affirmations of my fluency were lies, and my affinity for Mexico was illusory. At that moment, I wanted to return to Minnesota immediately. Feeling hungry, I went to the posada’s deserted dining room for breakfast. The waiter greeted me cheerfully and asked for my order. I answered automatically in fluent Spanish, adding the details of how I wanted my eggs cooked, and could he bring me coffee right now. Hearing me speak in rapid-fire Spanish, he asked more questions, we chatted for a moment and then he took my order to the kitchen. As he walked away, I wondered: What happened last night?

That is the crux of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. At its core, the ‘imposter syndrome’ identifies our insecurities and poses questions that test if not challenge what we believe about ourselves. Sometimes it’s a gentle nudge toward self-examination and self-definition. At other times, as in my case, it acts like the Spanish Inquisition or the Salem witch trials demanding proof that its negative accusations aren’t false. Looking back on it, I realize my subconscious was warning me not to confuse my high aspirations and expectations with my current reality. Yes, I’m bilingual, and yes, I’m culturally competent, but that night the syndrome taught me the importance of humble self-acceptance as the heart of authenticity.

Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

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

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

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

Try this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“¿Tú no sabes?”

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

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

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

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

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

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

Try this:

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

Try this:

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

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

Buena suerte!

 

 

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

Home Sweet Homestay – living and loving the language

 

OAXACA, Mexico

Many Spanish immersion programs offer a “homestay.” It’s a real-world setting for using and learning language.  Is that something a middle-aged adult really needs to do?  I mean, after college, aren’t we too old be living with strangers? Isn’t that going to cramp our adult freedom?  Wouldn’t it be better to rent an apartment, maybe with a friend or spouse?

If your answer is “Yes,” please keep reading and consider my experience.

Hosts are more than you imagine them to be …

Getting off the Estrella Roja coach in Puebla for my first immersion, I know little except I will live with a family named Gutierrez. Of course, I speculated about what they would be like.  By the time I reach Puebla, I have a clear, imaginary picture of them.  But Julian and Lupita Gutierrez are not as I imagined.

My first impression is I’m having a homestay in a nursing home.  Julian is at least 80 and Lupita is in her mid-sixties.  He has a shock of white hair; hers is still naturally dark, with long eyelashes to match.  Julian and Lupita are nothing like the multi-generational family I imaged.  I’m afraid we won’t have much in common. But I’m wrong!

Their house is small by U.S. standards, but comfortable; their bookshelves are jammed with titles covering a range of interests; and souvenir plates from their travels cover the dining room wall.  My room is more than I expected: a double bed, desk, dresser, and built in closet as well as a private bathroom.  It’s everything I need.

I rise early the first morning, a Sunday. Julian steps out of the kitchen to offer me a mug of fresh coffee flavored with cinnamon.  “From now on, we speak only Spanish,” he tells me in English.  It’s one of the Institute’s rules.   I’m okay with that.  I came to learn.  And then he asks if I want to attend early Mass with them.  I say “yes” because I’m committed to saying “yes” every language and cultural opportunity.  And after Mass he invites me to go to with him to a friend’s ranchito for a party.  Again I say “yes.”

Hebert and Socorro host the party and don’t speak English. Neither do any of the other 25 or 30 guests. Julian introduces me to people whose names I immediately forget. Then he settles me into a conversation with Hebert’s son, an attorney.  Seeing that I’m “dog-paddling” in a conversation, he leaves me alone.  At first I feel anxious; later see it was shrewd on his part.

Over bottles of Corona beer, I chat as best I can with the young attorney.  Although I went to Mexico with some vocabulary and basic grammar, I couldn’t mold it into a real sentence.  But the attorney is patient and kind; he nods and encourages me. Slowly, thanks to his affirmation, I gain enough confidence to push my boundaries in Spanish.  By day’s end, I’m exhausted but elated. I’ve been in conversations for nearly seven hours!

I suppose our proximity in ages and life experiences started my rapport with them.  We are, at most fifteen years apart in age and we’ve already lived a lot of the ups and downs that life dishes out.  In less than two days, we act as if we’ve known each other a long time.   I feel settled, without the uncertainty of being with strangers.

Homestay is more than room and board …

They give me more than room and board. Lupita corrects my words and makes it her mission to improve my accent.  “Say fácil,” she says at breakfast.  It’s more like an order than a request.  Fácil means “easy” and is accented: FÁH-sil.

I try to copy her accent but it comes out “fa-SIL,” and “fassil” and “FUH-sal.”

“No.  FÁH-sil.”

And so it goes, back and forth for a week until I get it; until fácil is fácil.  While Lupita works on my diction, Julian guides me through some of the cultural norms.  

Buen provecho! he says as I sit down the dinner.  It means roughly the same as bon appetit.  “We say that at every meal,” he explains, “and we say it to strangers in a restaurant.  It’s impolite to ignore those who are eating.”  This is a revelation!  In Minnesota, we give people their space and this would be an intrusion. But in the more extroverted culture of Mexico, it is rude to ignore people.  This is only the beginning of lessons in language and culture.

Very gently and casually, they take me under their wing and teach me without appearing to teach me at all.  Like a child, I learn by imitating what they do.  Its’ easy. And they do this when I lived with them during four of the five immersions.

A network of lasting friends is possible …

Eduardo and Lorena live next door to Julian and sometimes board students.  He is a businessman, she volunteers at a nursing home, and their children are grown.  Eduardo and I are the same age and on Sunday afternoon, during an outing, he and I climb through cactus and mesquite to the top of a butte. Our friendship grows out of that adventure.  On my next visit, they take me to the indigenous town of Cauhuatinchan to explore an ex-convento dating from the 1500s.  A couple years later, after immersion, when I work voluntarily in Puebla, he invites my wife and me to stay with them instead of a hotel.

Hebert is a doctor, an anesthetist, about my age.  He and Socorro live in the city but own the ranchito in the country.  They are a couple of expansive generosity and we become friends almost instantly.  One year, I spend the Cinco de Mayo holiday with them, sitting in their arbor and talking for seven hours! At other times, I visit the ranchito, or they take me to their social events.

Besides friends who are contemporaries, my network includes former teachers with whom I correspond regularly, conversation guides, and some of their family and friends who make up my social circle in Puebla. A homestay is an efficient way to build a network of friends.  Once I acquired a network of friends, the city no longer seemed foreign but familiar. I no longer felt like a visitor, but a resident.  That’s how I feel in Puebla; like I belong there.  An emotional connection to people anchors me to the city.

Home Sweet Homestay 

A homestay adds a special dimension learning and living in Mexico. It’s a privilege to be an integral part of a family.  This is one of the joys of Spanish immersion.  And although I’m no longer a student, I seek out homestays instead of an apartment when I volunteer in Mexico.

Now I am living with Estela and Daniel in a Oaxacan family.  They are in their sixties, people of humble origins and means and not quite middle-class, although their grown children are.  I have my own room, the appointments are simple; the food is excellent and abundant.  So are laughter, conversation, and love among all members of the family – including me.

I have always learned more about how to talk and act from living with families than from classrooms.   Like a child at the dinner table, I’m still learning the language as it’s really spoken from people who use it daily.

Learning the language and learning to talk are different things.  I can learn the language as a body of knowledge yet be unable to really speak it.  But living in a family, I hear hijole! for “wow!”, orale for affirmation like “okay,” and esta en la onda for “to be with it.”  Something that is produced or grown around Oaxaca is criollo, and if you appreciate something, the phrase is, te pasas.   If you’re frustrated, you might say, no manchas.  A fool is called  a pendejo, or guage, and a small boy is a chamaco.   You won’t find these in regular dictionaries or, if you do, you won’t know how to use them, and when.

After seven years, I’ve come to regard Julian and Lupita as my Mexican padrino and madrina, or god-parents.  What began as a passing acquaintance has become familial love.  Their friends and neighbors are my part of my extended family, and I’m a part of theirs.  To be loved in your family is a divine gift; to be loved in another country, another culture, in another family, is an even greater gift.

Not getting your money’s worth … 

So, if you’re still thinking about an apartment, you may have more privacy and liberty to go as you please but at a price.  You’ll have fewer opportunities to learn day-to-day Spanish from native speakers.  And if you are living with a spouse or friend, you are less likely to speak to each other in Spanish.

If you skip the homestay and opt for an apartment, you have just cut your immersion experience by half. Said another way, you’re not getting your money’s worth because you’re getting only half the education you’re paying for.

So, weighing the two options, which is the better deal?

For me, there’s no place like homestay.