As I mentioned in my last post, I began learning Spanish again a little over a year ago. Because I want to practice what I’m learning, I try using it in real life with native speakers whenever I can. Through these conversations, I’ve gotten to know some Hispanic Americans that I never would have known otherwise.
When we visit, I sometimes feel stupid. I have ideas and I can’t find the right words. I give Spanish speakers lots of reasons to laugh at me! But they don’t. Instead, we laugh together.
My new friends are teaching me much more than just Spanish. I’m learning how it might feel to be a new U.S. resident. I feel lost and insecure at times when I talk to them. I can only imagine what it must be like for people new to this country. This experience is making me more empathetic.
I’m Studying Spanish and I Like to Practice
Luckily, I don’t mind appearing foolish in front of others. It’s been happening a lot lately. At my first lesson, I learned how to tell people that I’m studying Spanish and I like to practice. (Estoy estudiando español y me gusta practicar.) This is the first thing I say to pretty much anyone that looks like they may habla español.
My opportunities to practice start early in the day when I’m walking my dog as the sun rises in California. With my new friends, our conversations were simple at first. We would greet each other and visit about the weather. Later, we began talking about our weekend plans and our families. We commiserate about the challenges of learning a new language – conversations happen so fast! There’s no time to think! I think of the right word or phrase five minutes too late!
People I’d Never Know
Through these interactions, I’ve been able to get to know people who started their lives far away from los Estados Unidos. One of my favorite friends is a former bank manager from El Salvador who now works in landscaping. His name is Edgar, a name he shares with both his dad and his son. Quick to smile, he has a darling new baby granddaughter named Emma with chubby cheeks. I’ve seen the pictures and videos. (¡Muy preciosa!) He recently proudly showed me gorgeous photos of his homeland, a place with beautiful beaches, volcanoes and jungles.
Mi amigo Edgar
One woman, Margarita, a regular at the dog park, calmly visits with me. She speaks slowly and is happy to repeat things and wants to help. She told me about coming to the U.S. thirty years ago illegally and being arrested in San Diego. After crossing the border a few times, her employer helped her get the right paperwork in order and she became a U.S. citizen. I felt sad to think about this sweet, small woman being detained, even if she did cross the border illegally. I’m going to ask her more about why she wanted to come here and what that experience was like.
Margarita walking the dogs
Some conversations have been dreadfully sad. Covid has hit the Hispanic population hard. Another regular at the dog park, Sanna, an exuberant woman, passed away a couple of weeks ago due to the virus. I had heard she was doing better, but then she took a turn for the worse. A landscaper, Emilio, lost his wife to Covid. As he told me about it, he was barely able to speak. He lives with his eight siblings and his mom, so he’s not alone. But I know he must feel lonely without his dear wife. Last year his face was alive and alert. Now he looks stunned. I pray that his grief lifts as soon as possible.
My new friends have helped me with more than just the language, they have also taught me about where they are from. I now eagerly read any articles I see about Cuba, El Salvador, and Mexico. I care more about our immigration policy. These places and policies have become real to me because of my new friends.
They Are the Experts
My friends teach me a lot, but there’s more to it than that. These interactions tip our socio-economic hierarchy on its head. I’m the white woman in a nice neighborhood with white privilege all over the place. My friends have come to this country, learned a new language and started from scratch. Their jobs are tough.
But when we speak Spanish, they are the experts and hold the power. Our conversations can quickly move from my understanding what is going on to being completely lost. I hope for kindness from them as I fumble around, grasping for the right words and using wrong verb forms. I intend to talk about someone who is tired and instead I say that they’re married. I sound foolish because I am foolish in their mother tongue. They could easily laugh at my attempts, at my vulnerability, but they don’t. Instead, they gently offer me the phrases or words that I’m searching for.
These new friendships are a gift. Getting to know them has changed my perspective on what it’s like to be new to our country. I know what it’s like to not know what people are saying. I now know how important it is to get help from others with communication. I’m more empathetic.
Maybe I’ll become a proficient Spanish speaker someday; maybe not. I don’t know. In fact, I may forget every Spanish word I know, but I won’t ever forget the people I’m getting to know because of it.
I didn’t expect this beautiful gift, but it’s a glimmering treasure, more beautiful than any possession I own.