I’ve traveled a lot in Latin American countries. Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico—all countries where Spanish is the common language. And yet I’ve never learned Spanish. Oh, enough to ask where is this and do you have that and how are you and so forth—but I can’t really follow a conversation or respond intelligently.
I’ve made resolutions, bought the tapes, looked into immersion classes, but somehow have never followed through. My friend and author Chip Morris, a long-time resident of Chiapas and easily tri-lingual, says, “You don’t do it because you don’t need to. You’ve got me.” (Him and others like him—smart people who kindly pave my way as translators. But it’s not the same.)
A brief encounter recently may have put me over the edge, though. I was traveling in Oaxaca with Eric Mindling and his assistant, Maria Guzmán, tagging along as he photographed the abuelas, the grandmas, in their traditional clothing in some of the highland villages. We stopped in a tiny place called Lachirioag (you won’t find it on a map) and found several elderly women, pristine and beautiful in their snow-white traje with vivid red sashes. As Eric and Marina chatted with them in some kind of mix of Spanish and Zapotec (the women mostly spoke Zapotec), they noted that I wasn’t joining the conversation because I didn’t speak Spanish or Zapotec, only English.
“Oh, the poor thing!” they said, gazing on me with pity. “She can’t understand a word we’re saying.”
The poor thing. These women, so poor in worldly goods. Me, so poor in comprehension. I have completely run out of excuses. Eric’s book, tentatively titled Living Threads, won’t be out for more than a year. That should give me time, don’t you think? You will be stunned when you see his photographs. And Chip’s book, Maya Threads: A Woven History of Chiapas, is just now off press, due to release in February (though you can get an advance copy from my sister company, Clothroads, now).
If you have a special method for learning a language in a year, let me know. I’m not looking for fluent, just less pathetic.