This I Believe

Elisabeth - Providence, Rhode Island
Entered on August 30, 2006
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: tolerance

Life in the Subjunctive Mood

My ex-husband, Mexican-born, only became an American citizen when he had spent as many years on this side of the border as he had lived in his youth on the south side. I, on the other hand, have lived in various Spanish-speaking countries, and spent most of my adult life immersed in Spanish-speaking environments north of the border.

Now, in planning for my retirement, I have started moving my assets, in advance of moving myself, to Guatemala. Am I actually becoming a Guatemalan? When I wrote Carlos about my plans, about the little piece of land I bought in Ciudad Vieja just outside of Antigua, and the camper I am having towed down to be installed on my land as if it were a mobile home, he replied that “you have been hanging around Guatemalans for too long. Only Hispanics would buy a trailer not exactly sure why but thinking it will work out one way or another.” Exactly.

The deep divide between north and south can be described in many ways and quantified in socio-economic statistics, but in the end I believe it all comes down to a cultural distinction that is clearly reflected in the languages, specifically in the grammar. Hispanics who speak Spanish tend to live much more than English-speakers in the subjunctive mood.

The subjunctive has almost disappeared in English, which prefers the indicative to express facts and observations about the “real” world in which we live. The subjunctive can be heard in English in contrary-to-fact expressions such as “I wish I were rich.” In Spanish, the subjunctive is part of everyday speech because it expresses everyday life. When you don’t have what you want or need, it is easier to live and to speak as if you did.

Illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America live in the US as if they were here legally. Their very existence is in the subjunctive, and this influences what they say and how they say it, containing everything they think, dream, imagine, and hope. How can Americans who live in the indicative even begin to understand? Few Americans study the Spanish language to a high enough level to learn the subjunctive mood as a grammar topic, and even fewer will come to understand the cultural implications.

This helps explain why immigration from the south continues to be such a divisive issue. The gap in comprehension cannot be bridged by high school Spanish or work place English. But living in the subjunctive mood is no less valid a way of life than what US culture has produced. Being different is not the same as being wrong. We could all benefit by trying to see the world from the flip side, from our neighbor’s point of view.

The US/Mexican border is no longer a real dividing line between north and south. The border is everywhere, and it is blurred. It comes into focus with a change of mood, subjunctive to indicative, indicative to subjunctive.