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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Do you speak Castellano?

Growing up along the border of the U.S. and Mexico, noticing the languages people use, and when and where they use them has always interested me.

As a young child I would hear my sister and brothers converse with each other in English, then turn to speak to our mother in Spanish. The lunch table conversations bounced back and forth between languages. It was natural for us and no one minded, except Mom, when she sometimes couldn't follow the English line of ideas, and we would bring her up to speed in a quick translation. I'm not sure she was always happy with the arrangement of languages around the house, but neither am I sure she wanted to know every word of what we kids were talking about. Maybe she found some peace, if not quiet, in purposely not tuning into our chatter.

Her English improved tremendously over the years, some from adult education classes that were a part of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but mostly from the 1 hour or so of soaps she watched on TV while resting after getting our lunch together.

This gliding back and forth between languages was frowned on at school, mostly because girls from Nuevo Laredo were dominant Spanish speakers, and needed to catch up to the English required in our classes. On the playground we dominant English speakers mainly stuck to English, and the girls from Nuevo Laredo to Spanish.

In my neighborhood it was strictly English, and that bent, along with media's influence, must have affected our ideas about what was better or worse in languages as in life, and, as it turns out death. We kids watched tons of TV, some local commercials included. Funeral homes competed for business with commercials, and we kids mimicked the TV spots making fun of the scary subject of death. "Would you rather be buried by Pulido or Jackson?" I once asked Aida and Carol, my neighborhood pals. I recall we thought Jackson to be the better of the two. Based on what? That question, and others like it that cast a light on language and power, have consumed me for decades.

When the occasional person from Mexico would stop me on the streets of Laredo to ask help with directions or in need of a translation, they might ask, "Hablas Castellano?" I remember always responding icily, "Si, hablo Espanol." I somehow took offense at everything when I was eleven, and this case of Castellano was no exception. Why not call Spanish Spanish, what was this Castillian thing anyway? And was there a chance it could be better than my Spanish, grr-grr hiss-hiss, and more pre-teen angst.

Travel in Spain this year has served to help to at least partially solve this lifelong riddle. There is it turns out, Little Linda, a really good reason to ask if someone speaks Castellano instead of Spanish.

There are four official languages in Spain, as revealed on the back of the orange juice container on the table set for us by our generous and creative AirBnb host, Xevi (pronounced Chevy) Badosa:

Zumo de naranja = Castellano
Laranja zukua = Basque
Suc de toronja = Catalan
Zume de laranxa = Gallego

None of these are Spanish.

There are other languages, Chevy tells me, including Calo, spoken by the Gitanos, and Bable, spoken by 5000 or so in Asturias.

To fully solve the riddle, I would need to travel back in time to know exactly why we kids unanimously chose Jackson over Pulido for a funeral home to bury us in some nondescript and very, very distant future.

My best guess today, sitting in Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Temple in Barcelona writing this blog, is that choosing Jackson over Pulido was a decision based in part on our rapidly forming ideas about power, seen both in language and culture. The primary reason, though, would have to be not having enough information at hand about our rich cultures from both Mexico and Spain.

Thinking of it now, isn't that lack of awareness amongst Mexican Americans Aida, Carol and myself, in itself, a demonstration of how power is exerted?
I wish I knew then what I know now. But naturally, that's not the way we learn and grow.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Meet Galicia, our host on our journey

If you haven't met her yet, her name is Galicia. She's the bride of Celts, Spaniards and Romans. Her language is her own creation, and she's been the principal host to a traveling procession of spiritual seekers and other curious souls for nearly a millennium.

She's, first of all, welcoming to all the pilgrims who traverse her rich terrain.

This is of utmost importance. After living near the Alamo, Fiesta Texas, Seaworld and knowing Didneyland/World before Johnny Depp made his movies, I can smell a smile that's been forced by a paycheck.

The people here in Galicia are genuine in their welcome. She's got woods and farmlands from one side to the other, and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela has placed us on her road with hundreds of people walking a sacred path that goes up and down hills and across countless streams and rivers.

Yesterday, we stopped to rest under the shade of a tall oak, leaning on an ancient stone wall. I dug deep into my light back pack to find a nearly empty bag of dried Target Stores brand cranberries. There were only a few berries left after our week of walking. I looked at the packaging, perhaps lonesome just a bit for the comforts of home, and read the cranberries bag was labelled Archer Farms. I smiled to think that the non-existent Archer Farms conjured by the Target Stores marketing minds, might have been inspired by the fertile, family-owned farms like we were surrounded by.

The same that used to span the Americas just a few short centuries ago, the wink of an eye by Galicia's clock.

'Para servirle'

I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.—Emperor Charles V

The role of language in our thinking and actions has been brought to my attention recently during our walk on the Camino de Santiago.

Women and men from all across the globe, walking the 800 kilometer distance of the original Camino Frances, or a shorter version, 110 kilometers, such as for our group, pause as they pass one another to say "Buen Camino" in Spanish, to recognize our common humanity as we walk on country paths walked by pilgrims for 900 years.

As we approach the end of the road, bicyclists speed past, calling out, "Buen Camino," sometimes to greet you, and other times to warn you they are approaching from the rear at a fast clip, so 'Move over, Pilgrim', is the subtext.

My sister, Elda, is a wonderful born-journalist. She approaches people and wrangles information and photos from farmers, gardeners and people who are up to their elbows in daily chores. They are happy to stop to chat and be photographed by the charmer that is my sister. She asks each their name, and repeats it to them as she records it mentally for her daily journal.

The last woman who stopped to chat along the Camino with us was a fit and fast-moving woman who works as a sort of parks guide for the city of Lavacollas, who told us she had moved here from Mexico City, "el D-F" in the early 1980's. I can't remember her name, though my sister might.

What struck me was her sweet and very Mexican way of introducing herself by saying her first and last name, followed by the phrase "para servile" (to serve you, at your orders).

None of the hundred or so people we had met and exchanged names with during the previous 8-10 days, from countries such as Spain, South Korea, Ireland, England, Canada, Germany, France, or Austria had used a similar term such as 'para servirle' or similar terms that translate to 'at you service' or 'at your orders' when introducing themselves.

What does 'para servirle' mean in the year 2012? This falls under the category of the many mysterious ways Spanish-speaking people like Spaniards and Mexicans are alike and different.

I first noticed this on my first trip in the early 1990's, with my Mom and a tour group of Mexican Americans and Mexicans, who spoke often about the things we noticed such as lower voice tone and directness found in Spain in contrast to what at least I perceive as the more sonorous and courteous Spanish of Mexico.

What this might mean is that the woman from Mexico living in Lavacollas, Galicia, in Spain, might miss her native home and might have seen a chance to share a special bit of herself with us by using the term "para servirle." Or, that may be how she introduces herself this way out of habit, even after living here more than 20 years. Or it might mean that language illustrates the way power is impervious to the passing of time. The colonizer's dominion over the colonized might be long ago extinguished, as has Spain's influence over Mexico, except for the way 'good manners' are taught and in the way we are sometimes taught to speak, that centuries-old dominion and power live on.

After reading this post, my dear friend, Pilar Malo de Wellbaum, who I met while she taught at the San Antonio branch of the University of Mexico (UNAM) wrote me a brief note that both My sister and I said taught us something new. The terms 'a sus ordenes' or 'para servirle' take on a whole new meaning when you learn the entire phrase. Thank you, Pili. Here is Pili's note:

Thank you, Linda. If you pass by Llanes (Asturias) I have relatives there: Last name Carus (my mothers name. I was Pilar Malo Carus... A sus ordenes, or Para servirle (a Dios y a Usted).
Love your postings.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Steady and sturdy me

I'm not sure that I've ever before realized how powerful, resilient and mysteriously strong we humans are, much, much more than I've ever known or even dreamed. We've walked close to eight miles for five days in a row, and have no ill effects save a few blisters that modern band aids seem to fix to near perfection. Yes, there are steep hills and long stretches where thoughts loop on the question 'are we there yet?' And, it's true, my maintenance does require rest, water, food, wine, chocolate and more important than all, companionship and friends, and in my fortunate case, family. But, all in all, I'm amazed at the rhythms and steady patterns of our walking together, the sounds of our boots and sticks that send our bodies forward, these elegant, mysterious tools that march confidently onward, our feet and legs. There are other surprises. The unexpected vistas and tree lined paths, streams and rivers, the perfect cafe con leche just when you need it, the frollicking lambs just beyond the road, the ladies who pause from their chores to peruse the parade of today's stream of hikers. There's also the surprise of strangers turned friends who you run into over and over. This journey is teaching me that there are people of a certain stripe, from the earth's four corners, willing to trudge, slog, hike, race, meander like us, across half of Spain, in search of something ineffable but valuable nonetheless. Our common goal of walking the Camino unites us, brings us energy to continue to Santiago de Campostela. For some, the goal is to arrive, for others it is the journey. I think along the way of what I want to do with this gift of life. I have no idea if this hike along The Way will lead me closer to any answers.Thus far on the road, I find a growing appreciation of my physical endurance, and that is gift enough for the entire experience.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Too much veinto at Las Ventas

How many people fit in a Spanish bull fighting ring? If the ring is the magnificent Las Ventas in Madrid, the number is 25,000.

Now think of how many women would dare to enter the ring and compete in a sport dominated by men since the dawn of the tradition of fighting bulls?

Conchi Rios debuted last evening in Madrid before a full stadium, with a team of novices making their professional entrance; skies were clear but winds were stronger than usual, dangerous if the calculations of the wind upon a red cape are how you protect yourself from a charging bull.

Rios faced death squarely, she showed great spirit and bravery, but each of her two bulls outmatched her.

Near us in the stands was a loudmouth who was tired, like all of us watching her stumbling to place the sword deeply in the beast's muscular neck at the end of the well-fought match.

The loud-mouth's deep Spanish words rang loud across the waves of people,"Go back to ironing, that's where you belong!"

The people nearby looked over their shoulders scornfully and seemed to brush off his comment as those of a fool. I over heard another man a row behind me say in Spanish, "It's lamentable, but even today for a woman to succeed, she has to perform twice as well as a man."

My view is that Conchi Rios has more courage than any one of us in the stands, and she has a great future before her. May she never meet a bull that's smarter than she is.

This morning I awoke thinking that I would have liked to call back to the loud ugly critic, in my best booming South Texas pocha orale! shout-back voice, "Hey, you Neanderthal, por que no te metes a la cueva donde vives tu?"

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In The Ear of My Memory

Watching some TED talks recorded in San Luis Potosi and in Mexico City, I became nostalgic for the rhythm and sounds of the Spanish language, especially as it is spoken in Mexico, and particularly in the north.

I was so moved by this talk of communities in the norte using social media to survive weather disasters and even harsher threats from violence and corruption. I had flashes of aunts and even my grandmother's friends and customers (she sold tortillas in Nueva Ciudad Guerrero, Tamaulipas to support herself) who were from rancho culture, steeped in story-telling set to high volume and much hand-waving.

It was comforting and delicious as the gentle rain that woke me in the night, rare and necessary as the air I breathe.

Where I live and work, Spanish is seldom heard. There are some students who I will pass in the halls who are recent immigrants and I hear them chatting in Spanish, but they are the exception.

As I plan my trip to Spain soon, I wonder if the language as it is spoken there can possibly pull my heart strings like the cadence and plain, direct delivery of Spanish of my memory.