When I was in about sixth grade, my Mom started to get that twinkle in her eye. Having a good-natured and easy-going bilingual child, my Mom decided, was entirely not enough and when schooling became a chore of finding one’s niche in extracurriculars, she honed in on mine being languages.
“Take Spanish,” she’d say, the gleam intensifying, “You’d be trilingual.”
We lived in a fairly rural part of Germany at the time. “Where would I use it?” I tried reasoning. We didn’t travel much beyond moving between the States and Germany. When we were stateside, we had had two placements in Utah – at the time Utah was pretty white-bread America. But my reasoning was not given an answer, because Moms’ and their twinkles don’t need answers, and being the good child, I enrolled for three years of Spanish classes varying between three to five hours of week.
Anyone learning a language will tell you that those sort of hours are ludicrous in terms of practical usage and my exposure was not of the high-brow academic type. My Spanish teacher in seventh grade was a pleasant Home Ec Teacher from Dallas from whom I have inherited my forever tainted Spanish TexMex Howy’alldoin’ enunciation, making me nearly nonfunctional in actually being understood by Spanish speakers. My eighth grade teacher contended with the rising hormones of younger me as I stood around tittering how “muy guapo” I found certain classmates. Ninth grade was a complete wash in Germany, but as we got assigned New Mexico, my Mom’s twinkle returned wearing a smug sundress. “You’ll be able to practice Spanish.”
And then we realized that the New Mexico we landed in was essentially the cowboy panhandle of Texas where speaking about Jesus was the more natural lingua franca.
So as I found myself in a bustling dining room surrounded by nothing but native Spanish speakers two weekends ago, my mind’s refrain was, “I should have really paid more damn attention in Spanish class.”
The separation between where I live and the Mexican border is so insignificant that I the other day couldn’t help but stare at a passing dust-coated wind gust and wonder if it hadn’t seen that other country recently. Though, in the years that I had finished my degrees, I never had any inclination to investigate this strange country whose culture spills out and morphs into the locality with disarming ease.
Before it exploded in the the mess of violence that is still an undercurrent even with the federal militia, I had been to Juarez exactly once. My friend from Austria decided that leaving this area without strolling over to Mexico would have been insane. Never having a reason to go before, J, myself and her skipped our way happily over a bridge and into town. Sadly, the trip became a comedy of errors as she and I clutched each other after enduring roughly two hours of being trailed by shady youngsters, being harassed by mean and confrontational shop owners, and being naive about public toilet habits.
Thanks to GS, who I think waivers between being highly patient and highly amused, the last two months have been a 300% increase in exposure to the Mexican culture. Now recently living in El Paso, but being from Juarez and still attending the university there, GS is a shock of flavor into my dating history. He’s doesn’t quite believe it yet, but his English is actually pretty good. It allows him to step a bit into abstract theory territory to a point when I slowly see his eyes focus in steely frustration that what he’s thinking and the English he’s learned just do not align.
It becomes conceptual guesswork on my part which is a lot like verbal charades. He’ll trail off and query for a word that might work. I’ll counter with words that might work depending on which avenue of thought he’s trying for.
This does not work when there is no English knowledge at all and this was the case when I found myself invited to a Mexican weekend barbecue.
The women were loud and laughed easily; the men wandered back and forth between the den and the kitchen, watching the soccer game while sneaking in shots of tequila. I was placed next to a little abuelita with crazy blue eyes who gave me gummy, wrinkled wary smiles. At a certain point after I explained the use of bunnies during Easter [stealin’ from us Pagans again] to GS, he repeated the conversation to her and she ricocheted into paragraph of Spanish that ended in a question. I remembered KL’s quick spouting of advice, “Handling Us Latins 101”, as I had drove into EL Paso, “Smile, whatever you do, just do a lot of Big Smiling, we are Passionate People.” Navigating under this, I gave a big smile and a limp shrug.
The family’s first reaction to me was hysterical. As I was introduced as the novia who spoke no Spanish, there was a beat of silence and sharp glances around the kitchen. Suddenly a flurry of language and activity. GS leans toward me, “They’re saying that they should make you a margarita so the tequila will relax you.” Whoooa, I like this culture already; where do I sign up?
Suddenly, two twin girls popped into the the kitchen as tequila sloshed around in a blender. I could see that I was being reintroduced. A face of one of the twins fell like a bag full of rocks out of a window as she peered up at me. Quietly GS told me that this girl had become a bit enamored with him. I thought during dinner, while being stared at from the diagonal with cute Minnie Mouse eyes of wrath, that I realized I had landed in a Spanish Disney movie. I was the vixen from abroad dating the hot older cousin. Thus arranged in a role I could understand, I wasn’t that hard to convince to do shots of tequila.