I can’t remember the last time I audibly stammered to someone’s face, but I won’t hastily forget this occasion.
Today as I headed back from work, turning onto Chicago St. in my neighborhood of district-homages and sweating profusely after a two mile hike in the quintessentially dry heat of the southwest, a woman I’d passed once before noticed my friendly smile and returned the favor. Then, she uttered an entire conversation in rapid-fire Spanish. When she paused for my reaction, I opened my mouth and nothing came out… for several seconds.
Now before you go dismissing me as the ignorant Anglo-Saxon I made myself out to be on the corner of Chicago and Michigan, allow me to divulge a little history. Ever since I was mistakenly assigned Spanish Immersion History in the 6th grade, I’ve always taken Spanish classes. Not only was this decision based on the advantages the skill provides in the job market, but it also stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a household that doubled as a mini Mazatlan; bedecked in a vibrant, chili pepper color palette, adorned with a skull-faced Catrina or Frida or collection of alebrijes in every room, and owned by a woman whose obsession with Mexico bridged from her hacienda replica in Portland to a casa auténtica she inhabited for a time in Oaxaca. While I resided in this Latin American lifestyle with mi mamá, Spanish was spoken fluently under our roof, and the approbation I received in Spanish class reflected it.
Once I graduated from high school and money began to dictate my education, language was forced to take the wayside, and the extreme expectations art schools perpetuate extinguished any time or energy I had to devote to practicing a second language. It’s true what they say about retention diminishing once you’ve exited childhood, and I’m the perfect case study. As a high school student, I could understand and speak Spanish, easily read and write in the language, and even think in Spanish, but inconstant exposure has stripped away several of those capabilities, reducing me to someone who can understand what you’re saying, but won’t be able to respond unless you’re only question is, “How are you?”
I have to consider myself fortunate for retaining anything at all though–especially considering the fact that my summer job during college involved teaching art to over 150 Spanish-speaking middle school students. It’s a sure bet that if I hadn’t been able to understand the petty wisecracks my kids initially made behind my back, I would have never earned their respect. Personal experience and three years in the business taught me that teenagers are ruthless enough when they feel age inhibits adults from understanding them, let alone a language barrier. Step back into the shoes of a fourteen-year-old and come armed with comedic ripostes for every snide remark, however, and you’ll earn yourself some incredibly entertaining friends.
Today, years after my participation in the Spanish Honors Society and my stint as a middle school ringmaster, I reside in what several downtown Los Angelenos have described as “the ghetto,” but from my perspective it seems a lot like home–or what Mexico City will be like once I finally travel outside of this country. My community is predominantly Hispanic, the surrounding shops are mostly tiendas and mercados, and thus far only the beaming woman I met in the street today has attempted to make conversation, discussing things I understood (Isn’t it a beautiful, sunny day? How are you doing? Good? Well my dear, may the Holy Father in heaven watch over you and bless you with good health and a wonderful day!), but could only think to say, “¡Gr-gracias!” to in response.
It’s sad to think that a girl so smitten with audial and visual language, who used to sing classical arias in Italian, German, and French and who continues to create multi-lingual artwork, has to stammer her way through one phrase of Spanish. Call it a fluke and blame it on the heat of the day, the two mile trek on blistered, flip-flopped feet, or the preoccupied concentration with what on earth I could discuss in this blog today, but ultimately I think this shameful faux pas is a sign: time to whip out a sombrero in the guise of a thinking cap, seek the counsel of the venerated Rosetta Stone, and get back to broadening my mind, Sybill Trelawney style!