Las Posadas – Seeking shelter with María y José

What are your rituals leading up to Christmas? Shop till you drop? Getting ready for family visits? Ringing bells at the Red Kettle? Taking food to shut-ins? Caroling in the neighborhood?

Most of us have sacred or social rituals for the season. We decorate trees, put up manger scenes, and attend services of Lessons and Carols. In the Mexican congregation where I worship, we celebrate the las posadas.

Posada is the Spanish word for inn. During the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve (la Noche Buena), las posadas in Mexican congregations reenact the journey of María and José to Bethlehem with carols and prayers.

Years ago, in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, our family joined the town’s residents in a community posada that began at the church and processed along dark, cobbled streets, singing carols by candle and star light. Figures of María and José rode on a platform carried by four men. A brass band played as we walked. Here and there, the procession paused at a house, asking for shelter only to be refused. Then, when the procession reached the last house, the host admitted the people entered for a celebration with food.

Tonight’s posada in Minnesota won’t have an outside procession. Instead, we will meet in a chapel and the host family will process figures of María and José to the large nacimiento or manger scene before the altar. Then we will sing carols, read the Christmas gospel, and recite the rosary. After that, we will eat.

The posadas speak to hope in a world of hostility – then and now. María and José were strangers in Bethlehem, immigrants if you will. They knew no one, they needed help, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter. In this season, when we proclaim love and good will to all persons, let’s make our proclamations real by giving comfort to immigrants from all nations, and sheltering them from the flames of bigotry and hate stoked by ambitious public figures seeking their own ends.

The xenophobia of our time is identical to that of King Herod in the days of María and José. The fearful king asked the Magi where Jesus was born, not because he wanted to pay homage but to kill him. Herod slaughtered Hebrew boys in his attempt, and churches observe December 28 as Holy Innocents Day. More innocents will die in our time if we let fearful demagogues exclude refugees who face certain death from many causes. The story of María and José seeking shelter sheds light on what is best and worst in us. Strangers will knock on our doors. Do we have the will to open the door and admit them?



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!



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Beach Books


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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







We’ll always have Puebla

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

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

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

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

“Lupita!” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ya basta!” – Celebrating an unfinished revolution

OAXACA, Mexico

Understanding social realities is an important part of learning Spanish and Mexican culture.  Unlike a packaged tour, immersion means you take what comes, the good, the bad, and reality  Today is the 104th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.  Although it began as a Revolution, it soon descended into civil war lasting nearly ten years.  Its grim tally of untold deaths is often overlooked in favor of colorful characters like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.  Let’s start the day’s meditaton with the colorful leaders and look at the realities later.

That was then … or was it?

My friend Don Hilario, a former mariachi, took me to several places in the life of an iconic Revolucionario: Emiliano Zapata, the handsome general with a thick moustache, large sombrero, his chest crossed by bandeliers of bullets.  Don Hilario’s adult children and grandchildren – my friends – live in Minnesota.  He lives in Cuautla, Morelos, in a small house built against the stone and concrete wall of the ex-Hacienda Coahuixtla.

On my first visit in 2010, he put on his hat, picked up his cane, and led me into the ex-Hacienda.  It is a ruin, an empty shell of crumbling, stone buildings were landless peasants processed cane into sugar and died in dire poverty.  The Revolution smashed the hacienda system, including this one.  As we stood on a knoll, he pointed across the valley and said: “Over there is Zapata’s house.  Do you want to see it?”  Of course I did!

It’s the centerpiece at the Zapata Museum in the town of Anenecuilco (which he made me practice pronouncing).  The remnants of its adobe walls are protected from the weather by a huge nylon cover.  The immense mural presents the life of Emiliano Zapata in dramatic scenes and vivid color.  Zapta is the Revolution’s romantic icon.

When I visited him again in 2012, Don Hilario drove me to his home town, Quilamula, a pueblo in southwestern Morelos.  On the way, we stopped at ex-Hacienda Chinameca where a young teamster named Emiliano Zapata hauled the bricks to construct the hacienda.   In 1919, near the end of the civil war, Zapata’s rivals assassinated him there.   Quilamula is a poor town, and it was easy to imagine that many towns like it offered men as “guerreros” who followed Zapata for “Tierra y libertad,” land and liberty.

That night, in my guest room on the second level of Don Hilario’s small house, I stood on the balcony under a full moon.  Looking over the tops of the pomelo trees at moonlight and shadow, I was deeply aware I was as close as I could come to the Revolution of 1910.

This is now … or is it still 1910?

This morning I paused by the plaza of a kindergarten and peered through the wrought iron gate at the parents and children celebrating the Revolution.  Little boys wore small serapes, conical sombreros, and carried toy rifles; the girls wore long skirts with ribbons in their braids.  A fiesta for los “ninos.”

But an adult hung on the gate a framed, hand-lettered sign listing the causes of the Revolution:

  • Unequal distribution of wealth;
  • Exploitation of workers;
  • Political and adminstrative corruption;
  • Negation of democratic government.

Many Mexicans today wonder what has changed.  Is this 1910 over again?

Since the Spanish conquista, resources and wealth in Mexico have been largely in the hands of a small circle of influentials: Spaniards, then the criollos who succeeded them, and then the one-party government of the PRI (Partido Revolutionario Institutional) that ran Mexico from 1929 until 2000.

Expropriation of ancestral lands provided the spark for Zapata’s bottom-up revolt in the State of Morelos.  But Zapta’s was only one of several revolutions that erupted in different places in opposition to the 30-year presidency of  Porfirio Diaz.  Briefly united, the revolutionaries forced Diaz into exile.  After that, the country plunged into a decade of brutal conflict as generals and chiefs allied and betrayed each other in pursuit of conflicting agendas for the future of Mexico.

Unfortunately, ten years of civil war didn’t resolve these contradictions and establish a common vision that all Mexicans could embrace.  Nor did it create a democracy to off-set if not end the pre-Revolution system of oligarcy that had marginalized the campesinos and indigenous.  Only the names of the oligarchs changed.  The tendency toward oligarchy re-emerged within the state managed-economy run by the PRI.  Before its 71 year domination ended, the PRI co-opted and absorbed civic organizations, labor unions, trade associations, and cooperatives that might otherwise act as independent, countervailing forces.

Ayotzinapa – a flash back

The September 26, 2014, massacre of 43 student teachers at the hands of officials in Iguala, Guerrero, shocked a country already numbed by tens of thousands of deaths in a decade of the narco-violence.  Murders in Iguala resurrected memories of 1968 when he government used the Army to crush a student protest at the Autonomous University in Mexico City.  Like Kent State in 1970, the massacre at Tlatelolco left deep wounds.

The mayor of Iguala ordered the arrests of students because he feared they would disrupt an event held by his wife.  After the arrests, the police turned the students over to Guerreros Unidos, a drug gang, that killed them and burned their bodies.  Iguala exposed and confirmed the collaboration between drug cartels and local government.   Although the mayor of Iguala is in jail, and the Governor of Guerrero has resigned, the search for bodies goes on, and people wonder what other officials are controled by drug cartels.

Public anger is palpable, as is the disgust over corruption.  Daily press accounts reveal conflicts of interest and corruption among governors and other officials in cities and states throughout the country.  The President’s luxurious new home for his wife, however it is finally paid for, is more gas on the fire for citizens who don’t live in luxury.

Discontent and anger are evident in every place I’ve traveled -Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Tlaxiaco, and other pueblos.  Oaxaca’s Zocalo is a protesters’ camp of banners, tents and tarps.  Protesters march in Puebla and Mexico.  Banners hang in front of municipal halls and government buildings; graffiti and posters avow solidarity with the 43.  Youths slow traffic at toll booths outside Oaxaca to give travelers information and seek donations for families of the 43 dead students.

“Ya basta!” Enough already, is the prevailing mood.  Protesters are calling on the President to step down.

As I write this, officials in Mexico City have canceled the traditional celebrations in the Zocalo because of massive protests that are occuring.  Police and marchers are clashing near the International Airport.  In Puebla, students are marching in solidarity with the 43 murdered students.  Protests are occuring elsewhere.

After you make friends in Mexico, it becomes increasingly difficult to shrug your shoulders and feel nothing for the social and political forces affecting them.  Friendships can make these events personal.  What affects my friends, affects me, even if I can’t do anything about it.  For my many friends in Mexico, I hope for the best – whatever that may be.   

After a decade of narco-violence and political corruption, will the Mexican people rise up in revolt?  No one can say for certain.  The Revolution remains unfinished, its promises unfulfilled.  The grievances of 1910 are with us yet.  Are there grievances enough to spark a national uprising?  No one knows for certain, but there is something in the wind.  And if there is an uprising, will it have a unifying vision for Mexico?  No one knows.

Like the volcano Popocatepetl, the body politic has errupted periodically since 1910, the outrage arising over one greivance or another, and then subsiding.  But like El Popo, the causes of unrest remain and the social magma is moving once more beneath the surface.  The phrase: “Ya basta!” has real force.  Mexico, like El Popo, is never dormant and the risk of eruption remains.  “Ya basta!”









Dia de los Muertos – to be, or to be, on the Day of the Dead

OAXACA, Mexico

Just before the Day of the Dead, while sitting in an outdoor cafe, two men with guitar and pan pipes play “Dust in the Wind,” a haunting song of the mid-70s. It’s chorus line is: “all we are is dust in the wind.” I love that song, but in Oaxaca, on el Dia de los Muertos, the living and the dead are not dust in the wind;they are mmuch more than that.

El Dia de los Muertos is a uniquely Mexican celebration of indigenous origins that, to an American eye, appears as a colorful, magical celebration mixing elements of Halloween and Mardi Gras. But it’s neither of those. It began as an indigenous celebration of Mictecacihuatl, the guardian-goddess of the dead. Spanish missionaries co-opted this festival and merged it with the celebration of All Saints and All Souls days (November 1 and 2) creating the syncretistic Dia de los Muertos.

Yesterday Estella’s extended family gathered at her mother’s house for “la comida” or dinner. There, a large “ofrenda” or altar flanked by huge bouquets of marigolds and tall candles filled a nook in the room. The ofrenda is the focus of the celebration. A dark wooden crucifix, a family heirloom of some 200 years, sat in the center. On either side, photos of the “difuntos,” or deceased of the family. Before them were tamarindos, bananas, pecans, bottles of cerveza and mezcal, aand other things the difuntos liked. This is an offering to invite their spirits to join the rest of the family for a visit.

We sipped mezcal and beer, feasted on mole negro, a traditional and piquant dish Estella cooked in a large, clay casarola over a charcoal fire in the courtyard. The mole and rice and tortillas, the beer and conversation made for a festive day. Later, back in our neighborhood, a brass band played in a cobblestone alley, children and adults in faces painted to resemble skulls, danced to the music. Bands played in every barrio of Oaxaca, people danced until morning’s first light, tired but happy.

Festive but not trivial, serious but not morbid, the skeleton figures, the flowers, the pan de muerto, and other decorations are festive, colorful, and symbolic; each one carries a meaning beyond words. Each icon speaks to the nature of “being,” of mortality. It’s a celebration of life and “being” and transcendance; it’s a celebration that we are more than dust in the wind.

Day of the Dead begs the question of: “What is being?” Being. Being alive. What are your ideas about your “being?” Or the meaning of “to be?”

Spanish has two forms of “to be,” two forms of “being” One form of to be (ser) refers to what is permanent, inherent; the other form of to be (estar) expresses impermanence and change if not action. Maybe we haven’t considered these questions before. But if we do, we can consider them clinically, standing outside the culture, or, like language immersion, we can enter into the moment and understand the question through participation. In either case, the meaning of the Dia de los Muertos confronts us with the question of “being” and, by extension, the verbs for “to be.”

For me, el Dia de los Muertos speaks to the miracle of being human and mortal as well as human and spiritual. The skeleton figures and masks remind me that, beneath our present status, position, and wealth, we are all skeletons; we are all equal in death. This is a reminder we are transitory beings in this world; We are and then we are, but not as we were before. Or so we believe and hope.

And then there is the practical conundrum of using the two Spanish forms of the verb “to be.” “Estar” refers to a transitional or temporary state of being or location as in: “He is ill,” or “She is late,” or “They are here.” “Ser” refers to inherent and unchanging aspects of one’s existence as in: “My eyes are brown,” or “I am a man.”

Which one to use? English has only one form of the phrase “to be” and it encompasses both temporary and inherent states of being. The conjugation of the English verb form doesn’t change to distinguish permanent from temporary being. We distinguish by modifying the phrase with an adverb, as in: “He was ill temporarily.”

But it’s one thing to learn the rules of grammar and quite another to use them correctly in a conversation, especially when we’re accustomed to using one form. Which state of being applies? How can I tell? Well, I said to myself, if the being can move, it’s probably changeable so my choice is “estar.” And if it doesn’t move or change, then it’s probably “ser.”

But it isn’t always clear cut and there could be a cultural twist as well. I faced this when writing an essay of impressions about my first encounter with el Dia de los Muertos. In passing, I mentioned my mother’s death and wrote: “Mi madres es muerto,” stating she was in a permanent state of non-being. Death to an American seems permanent and inherent.

My teacher read my essay, arched her brows, and then said: “No, tu madre esta muerto.” Why, I wanted to know. She’s not dead temporarily, and she’s not going to return to life. Isn’t death inherent andn permanent? No, that’ wasn’t the case. When she was living, it was “esta vivo,” and that changed with her death to “esta muerto.” Alive and dead, being and non-being are changeable states of being.

“To be, or not to be” came to mind. Until that moment, it never occured to me I could have different states of being at the same time. I am a man with brown eyes, and I am tall (inherent qualities), but at the same time I am happy, chilly, and dressed (changeable states). Our being is fluid, in a metaphysical sense. And I never would have thought of it but for Spanish.

If you are still with me – Bravo! You may be wondering what is the point. It’s this: the structure of language has a metaphysical aspect that both reflects and affects how we live our daily lives. If we poke at this enough, we may see in the verb phrase “to be” nuances about the meaning of life and death we hadn’t encountered before.

Yes, a person’s physical state does change with death and the spirit leaves them. The mystery of life is that we come out from a state of non-being, we live, we die, and enter a different state of being. We are never alive forever as mortals. Yet, when we speak of the deceased of the dead as “esta muerto,” we go on to describe their physical features using the “ser” form of to be because they were inherit to the deceased. Thinking this way can be a little mind-bending. Distinctions such as these do influence the culture and shape its approach to death and life. It has influenced my view.

In my room I receted a small “ofrenda” on a credenza with a photo of my parents in the enter, with papel picado (pierced paper), a vase of cempazuchitl (marigolds), and flor de muerto, a painted crania, and a candle. In the photo, my parents are forever in their late 40s, still full of “being,” and about to set off for an evening event. For awhile, I sat vigil in my room, remembering them, and through remembrance, something of them returns to me.

Are memories transitory or permanent? Should I use “ser” or “estar” when writing of them? I don’t know. But I do know this: Our “difuntos” live on in memory, and for as long as we, and our children, and maybe their childre remember us, we live and they live and we are not “dust in the wind.”

Immersion: Intensity, density, propensity


A few days ago I shared a cafe table with an American couple.  We’d come in out of the rain to eat an early breakfast.  Middle-aged, they live in Mexico City and teach in an American school.   We chatted in English because it was easier for them.  Although they have an apartment in Mexico City, and lived there a year and a half, they have only enough Spanish to get by meeting basic needs.  They said they hoped someday to learn more Spanish to better experience Mexico.

So, is getting by enough?  Will getting by give us the level of travel or living satisfaction we want?

I started learning Spanish with a goal of “getting by” to meet basic needs as a traveler.  That was before I ever spent time in Mexico.  But after I two weeks in Mexico, I realized “getting by” wasn’t enough.

Well, don’t we want it all, want it now, and want it to come easily?  And the next logical questions is: What’s the fastest way to embed Spanish?  It’s a good question.  I’ve asked it often.  But in hindsight, do we want to learn Spanish the fastest way or learn with the deepest penetration?

I believe the fastest way won’t embed it in a way we can call on it after an absence of use.  It will be rest in our short-term memory, and soon forgotten, like the items on last week’s grocery list.  And when we go to use quickie Spanish after a lapse, it won’t be there.  Language penetration is essential.

Immersion experiences work with three critical and related aspects: Intensity, density, and propensity.  The question you and I are asking is how to reach the point at which Spanish becomes almost if not entirely automatic; we don’t have to think about it to speak it.

As my mother (a French-speaker) used to say, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing well.”  So our first question must be this: Is learning Spanish worth doing?  If our answer is “Yes,” then it’s worth doing well.

Intensity:  Classroom lessons – particularly in an individual class or tutorial – can provide intense experiences.  It’s just us and the teacher.  There is time to form a sympathetic friendship that furthers mastery of the subjunctive, the conditional, and the other grammar forms essential to speaking the language correctly.  There is time to ask questions whenever we want, and ask why Spanish works the way it does; to grasp the cultural mentality of the tongue, and better understand how to use Spanish effectively.

At the same time, we can help our “profesora” work with the  learning methods that are most effective for us.  Writing stories worked well for me.  I wrote the kind of short stories I might tell at a party as a vehicle to practice thinking in Spanish, and putting the vocabulary and grammar into something of a realistic context.

If writing is useful for you, consider writing stories using the parts of grammar or vocabulary you find most difficult.  Writing is thinking on paper, and from our stories, the teacher can map the waay we think in Spanish.  My teacher pointed out I couldn’t just substitute Spanish words for English without also considering the differences in syntax or structure of thinking.  Ah!  La mentalidad!  Besides seeing the structure of our thoughts, our writing reveals  persist weak spots or recurrent errors that need attention.

Four hours of class a day, five days a week, for two weeks, is more class time than in a college semester.  And it’s better.  We aren’t sharing the teacher’s attention with 15 other students.  We can establish close, personal rapport that is at the heart of intensity.  And if we fall temporarily in love with our teacher, so much the better, because the teacher’s affirmation, not correction, is an act of love essential to effective learning.

An intense, one-on-one learning course may well compress a semester of college learning into a week.  This will accelerate our learning.  It’s an opportunity to harness our passion to learn, unleash our pent-up energy, and sharpen our focus so there’s nothing else in our life at the moment.  Intensity is a form of power; like sex, it’s vital energy.

Density refers to the number or frequency of encounters in our new language within a given time.  Think of the density of experiences as something nourishing, enduring in our memory as raw material for other experiences.  Many immersion programs send us into the city with a conversation guide to practice using the language we are learning in everyday circumstances.  We are learning to use the language with people who may not speak grammatically, articulate clearly, and use slang or jargon not found in classes.

These lessons happen in a less controlled environment than a classroom.  We may (and maybe should) encounter situations spontaneously, unscripted and unforeseen.  This is a potentially frightening thought.  But in these moments, we may learn the most about the language we are pursuing.  We may surprise ourselves – as I did above with the English interview – and take from it a sense of confidence we didn’t have before.  It is true we learn more from our failures than our successes.  Spontaneous conversations are where we test our mettle and gain confidence.

What are we made of?  What lessons will we learn from strangers?  What will they think of us?  We don’t want to look stupid so it’s tempting to say nothing, or pretend we don’t understand than risk putting our foot into it.  How can we overcome our fear of making mistakes in front of others?

The only way I know of overcoming my mistakes is by making mistakes and learning from them.   The density of immersion experiences will get us over our fears faster than any classroom.  Our out of class experience will make the difference between plants able to live only in a greenhouse (the classroom), and those that endure wind, rain, and light frost.

Propensity is a natural inclination or proclivity of our own.  It’s part of who we are, and immersion helps us acquire a language in a way that best fits our style of learning and manner of expression.  Think of it as having your suit tailed to fit and complement you.  It comes through interaction with others.

If we’re already inclined to learn Spanish at mid-life, what kind of investment of time (if not money) are we willing to make?  How much satisfaction do we want from travel, volunteering, or simply learning for its own sake?   If we can define what satisfaction looks like, I’m willing to bet we won’t settle for simply “getting by.”  Go ahead, make the investment of time, if not money, to do it right.