|Sun setting on a San Miguel hillside|
Short conversations with our housekeeper, Azucena, had sent me to the dictionary in search of the correct words. I’d become pretty good at writing short notes, but it’s the actual speaking that is the thing I needed. One day, we talked about her daughter, who is in her last year of high school, and this young woman’s hopes to go to college and become a doctor. We smiled and nodded, repeated and signaled, and, magically, I understood.
My confidence increased after an experience at the Biblioteca, where conversation groups meet twice weekly for practice in English and Spanish. I dropped in a couple of weeks ago and began conversing one-on-one with a young student named Juan. Though studying less than a year, his command of English was terrific. He asked questions, supplied Spanish vocabulary for me, and gently corrected my pronunciation, verb tenses, and sentence structure. Then, Juan encouraged me to join the group that had formed across the courtyard. When I hesitated, he said, “Ok. We will stay here another 15 minutes and then we will go join the group. You really should. It will be good for you.” And, that is how we did it.
The following week, I was in the neighborhood pasteleria to pick up a small tres leches cake. Standing there in the bakery, and with no other customers bustling in the door, I had an opportunity to have a conversation with Hilda, who was working the counter. As she wanted to practice her English, we spoke in both languages, helping each other with the necessary words. We spoke getting-to-know-you language, like at a cocktail party; small talk, about the weather, and that she preferred cold weather to hot; where I was from, and that she has brother who lives in Minnesota. Hilda and I connected.
That same evening, as I sat alone on a wrought-iron bench in el Jardin, a 35-ish-looking woman with a long braided pony tail and wearing black pants, a black jacket, and white blouse approached me and asked if I spoke Spanish. “Solo un poco” (only a little), I answered, but she sat down anyway and began by asking if I knew where the Central Bus Station was. Heck, yes, I did, and I knew how to give her the directions in Spanish, too!
Our conversation continued, and I learned that this was Juana's first time in San Miguel, she had come seeking work. In the late 90s,she had been employed at a fast food restaurant in Phoenix for one year but returned home to a nearby town after her job ended. Her mother and 16-year-old son live there, too. She needed a cigarette, and when I told her I didn’t smoke and never had, she complimented me. “Muy bueno!” and then mentioned how not smoking was better for my heart and lungs. We laughed together. When it was time for me to leave, I repeated the instructions to the bus station and wished her good luck in finding a job.
What I re-learned is that just trying, even though I struggle with speaking Spanish, is the key. The important thing is communicating and practicing and I will get better at it. It’s like developing any skill, working at it, making errors, and learning from those mistakes will eventually produce results. I'm recommitting myself to speaking more and improving my Spanish.
Another thing I re-learned is how communication humanizes people and brings them together. And, that made me think about how different the world be if we could all communicate with someone who is different; if we could step out of our comfort level and just try to connect.