Tomorrow is the one year anniversary for my group, Bak’tun 8, to be here in Guatemala. Woot! I feel lucky, I feel amazed, and I feel like I’ve just begun. I’m so glad that Bak’tun 8 will enjoy a one-year retreat in a couple of weeks.
But I’ve been here one year and my Spanish is still embarrassingly bad. At some point I gave up. I stopped trying to study advanced Spanish grammar and listening to intermediate Coffee Break audios. What the hey-ho, I thought? But that stop in the ditch didn’t last long.
Instead I sought guidance for how to overcome this inner obstacle to learning Spanish. I spoke to my higher self and to my inner child. I spoke to Creator. I did some tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique). A day later, I had a sudden thought that I should write down Mexican song lyrics and learn the songs that my mother always loved. When I was little, she taught me how to sing El Rancho Grande. I probably didn’t learn more than one chorus and I’m pretty sure that I had the words wrong. But it was fun!
After I wrote down the lyrics to Cielito Lindo; Bésame Mucho; and Volver, Volver, another thought struck me: there were too many building blocks that I had bypassed in Spanish. I needed to start over at the beginning level.
The day after that revelation, I traveled five hours to get to the Peace Corps office which is fifteen minutes from Antigua. Arriving there, Italia, one of my program managers, asked to speak with me about upcoming trainings. She was alone in her office and it seemed dimly lit because it was the end of the day and the office lights had not yet been turned on. She talked to me about upcoming trainings and asked if I could assist in some way. I could feel myself getting tense, worried that she wanted me to speak in Spanish at one of them. She said that I would not need to speak Spanish. I agreed to assist and then, maybe because I was road weary and maybe because she has a comforting presence, I decided to reveal my problema to her right there in that moment.
I told her, “I can understand a lot of Spanish but talking, responding, is nearly impossible. I grew up hearing Spanish spoken daily. But it was a private language for my parents to use. I thought of it as an adult language. They didn’t speak to their children, to us, in Spanish. I just learned phrases that were directed at me: sit dow, be quiet, come and eat. But I heard Spanish every day! When I was older and wanted to learn Spanish, I would be criticized by people for not already knowing Spanish or for making mistakes when I tried. When I entered the Peace Corps, I thought I was really ready to learn Spanish. I thought that once I got here, I’d be immersed in Spanish and become fluent in two weeks!
But all year it’s been a struggle. I feel bad not being able to speak adequately with my co-workers. I have to script out what I want to say before I meet with teachers. I use google translate which isn’t always accurate and then when they speak to me, I don’t understand them and I can’t have a conversation. I feel guilty that I have to rely on my new site mate who helps translate for me whenever we’re together.
I know that the Volunteers with advanced skills are doing much better work, more complex work that what I’m doing. That’s why I want to write grant proposals for some of the schools, so that I can justify being here. I don’t expect you to fix anything. I’m just telling you so that you know where I’m at and how it’s impacting my work. I do have some new ideas for how to study Spanish.”
I observed Italia as she listened to me. There was a softness in her eyes. Her face seemed open—how can I even describe that—the way her eyes focused on me and her face tilted ever so slightly as she listened. I sensed no rush to speak. With most people, I do feel rushed and that makes me stumble over my words. With her calm presence, I felt better able to find the exact words that I needed.
When I stopped speaking. She said, “I want to respond on a personal level and then on a professional level. On a personal level I would want you to know why there is a block for you in learning Spanish. And you know why! You told me exactly why. You said that when your parents spoke Spanish, you understood it to be an adult language—their private language that you weren’t supposed to know. And you said that when you tried to learn Spanish later, you were criticized and made fun of or shamed for not knowing it already and this made learning Spanish even harder. It just added to your existing block. But I know you have the tools. You know how to work on these things, so I would look at that.”
I assumed that she was referring to the fact that I am a Life Coach and serve as a Peer Coach for other PCVs. I couldn’t remember what else she might know about me.
I would also ask you what new ideas you have for learning Spanish. When I was learning Spanish as a teenager, I used songs.” Wait, what? Her English is perfect. I didn’t realize she didn’t grow up speaking English. Italia said that she began learning English as a teenager, using popular songs on the radio. She would tape them and listen to them over and over, to write down the lyrics as she thought she heard them. She said that it was fun and she could familiarize herself with vocabulary and grammar in that way.
I told her I’d just had the epiphany to use Mexican songs and she offered me some Guatemalan classics as well. I told her about my plan to start over with beginning level Spanish. She nodded slowly, affirmatively.
“Now I want to respond on the professional level. You said that you felt bad for not being able to speak in Spanish to your co-workers and you felt guilty for having to rely on google or on people that could translate for you. Eloisa, don’t be hard on yourself.” She looked at me and paused to let that sink in.
“You’ve probably always been a strong person in your work in the states and now you’re more vulnerable and you have to receive help from others. Maybe it’s good for you to receive help from others? Maybe you didn’t exactly have that experience before. It’s great that you’ve decided to write a grant proposal to help the schools. You said you are doing it to justify being here but your value is greater than that. What you bring here is who you are. You are a strong woman, someone to learn from. You have a positive influence!”
I’m not sure that being a strong woman is what justifies me staying here. But she was trying to bolster my confidence and I accepted it with gratitude. I’m also dedicated to getting that grant writing done to help in a concrete way.
“Eloisa, do you realize how much better your Spanish is since you got here?” “Yes,” I replied. I admit that I have gotten much better. I can understand people if they are patient and speak slowly. Sometimes I can get a lot of my ideas across (as long as I have my dictionary handy). I can read Spanish a little; I can read most of the Peace Corps training material that is in Spanish. She continued to reassure me, “It will come. Maybe not as fast as you expected because you really did have high expectations, but it will come.”
Then she added the following which was the highlight of the conversation for me, “Eloisa, do you ever talk to your inner child?” I nodded slowly, utterly surprised. “You might want to ask your inner child to help you.” She was definitely speaking my language then.
Here’s to one year in Guatemala, to the amazing Italia, my PCV amigos, my Guatemalan friends, the entire Peace Corps staff, and my family and friends at home. Un gran abrazo a todos ustedes. Cheers! Here’s to a new year.
Photos: Blurry shot of the welcoming banner we received at the airport; first meal.
I am grateful to meet great students, teachers and friends! And I am most astounded by the volcanos and the lake.