Gringo. That’s what they were thinking. I was sure of it. Not that they were to be chastised for it. It was inevitable—I was, after all, the only non-native speaker in my Español para hispanohablantes (Spanish for Spanish Speakers) class. I will be fine, I told myself. You’re prepared for this. Yet I was not fine. It was as if I was a penguin, suddenly and unexpectedly dropped into the middle of the Sahara desert.
So I did what any penguin in such a situation would have done: I made noise. But I was like the penguin who let out only occasional, muted chirps in an attempt to attract attention: ill-fated. My negligible efforts at conversation produced few dividends. I was still too quiet, drawn into my private cocoon by the weight of social prejudice and cultural ignorance. My own silence was working against me, perpetuating the tension and mistrust that characterized my relationship with the hispanohablantes.
So like the penguin desperate for rescue, there was no recourse but to make noise in both greater quantity and with more forethought. Although more genuine, at the beginning my hackneyed attempts at conversation still had little positive effect. My classmates gave mere mumbled replies, or worse yet, said nothing at all. Yet this was not their fault, but mine. After all, how could I expect them to respect me and my culture, if I did not even have the commitment to learn a little of their own?
I soon realized that an impersonal ¿Como estás? would not be sufficient to win my classmates’ esteem. Yet it was only when a classmate gingerly asked me for help translating her math homework, which she had difficulty understanding, and I hesitantly agreed, that I broke out of my silent daze. We struck up a daily conversation about the experiences of our everyday lives, a conversation that soon extended to many of the other individuals in the room. We exchanged smiles or even quick conversations in the halls when we met, rather than the ashamed I-don’t-know-you glance and the head-down scuttle to safety. I had a choice of seats in the classroom, rather than merely the most secluded desk which represented the smallest danger. Eventually, my classmates even asked me to lead class for a day when we had a non-Spanish speaking substitute teacher. I had become a trusted translator and a reliable representative for my new-found friends.
Yet all this had very little to do with my abilities in Spanish, and much more to do with my ability to communicate. On the exterior, I was still much the same bumbling, adjective-misconstruing gringo that had entered the classroom months early. But on the inside, I had a newfound sense of humility, a product of this cross cultural communication through which I gradually realized my own ignorance about the culture and basic beliefs of my new friends. Yet in my quest for understanding, I gained the courage to remain comfortable in moments of inner disquietude, for I learned such discomfort was a must if I wished to be capable of empathizing with my Latino friends. Most of all, I had a newfound respect for the power of words: I knew how to use them in sufficient quantities to open possible avenues of communication, I knew how to use them wisely in order to engender respect and understanding, and, most of all, I knew that to not use them, despite the uneasiness they at some times may cause, would be akin to suicide, to disowning my greatest asset for revealing my own humanity, and finding it in those around me.
I had entered the class expecting to learn the structures of a language—the preterit, the future tense, and the appropriate vocabulary for varying academic situations. Yet my fellow students had taught me so much more, and this knowledge was far less ephemeral than the words for my latest vocabulary test. They taught me the power of language, an asset that allows for open, genuine communication across cultural, ethnic, and religious lines. Now, words are my creed, a creed that rebels against the silence and cold hatred perpetuated by ignorance and lack of communication. Now, I believe that language has the ability to bind us together, providing the vehicle for communicating our deepest values and most heartfelt wishes, and, wound with malice, represents a weapon more dangerous than any sword of steel. And yet, now, I fervently believe that the biggest and most insidious danger of all is not the misuse of words, but their omission.
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