Friday, November 22, 2013

On language and other heartaches

There are days when I wonder what I was thinking when I figured that I could do fieldwork in Spain simply because I speak Spanish. Yesterday was one of those days. Of course, I had been here enough times to know that Castilian Spanish is very different from the varieties of Latin American and Latino-American hybrid Spanish spoken in the Americas: so different that it sounded, at first, to me, like rocks on a window. But I’ve lived and worked in several different Spanish-speaking communities—in El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, with Mexicans and Central Americans in California and with Puerto Ricans in Hartford—and never had problems communicating or being understood, so I figured I was pretty adaptable. Also, I was coming to do research with Latino immigrants in Spain, so we would share a linguistic repertoire, right? Wrong. That has been one of my hardest lessons, and it’s amazing to me that after all my training in anthropology, it should have to be a lesson to me at all. But since coming to Spain I have lived the relationship between language and context and language and identity on a whole new level.

In my experience, Latin American immigrants who came to Spain as adults (in their 20s or older) still speak a variety of Latin American Spanish that is familiar and feels like home to me. Some are able to switch into Castilian Spanish if context requires; others consciously refuse to use the “vosotros” form and conjugations, claiming their own Spanish as part of their identity. But young immigrants, teenagers who came to this country as children or who were born here to immigrant parents, are a different story. Sometimes I feel I can’t understand them at all. When I speak to them, they look back at me with sympathy, confusion, blankness. The distance is frustrating, agonizing at times, and of course, totally to be expected. But I wasn’t aware of how hard I was working at these exchanges, or how much I was missing the ease of home, until yesterday afternoon when I facilitated a conversation via Skype video with a CT DREAMer activist and a group of Spanish teens who were primarily of Latin American immigrant backgrounds. As the young Mexican immigrant DREAMer in Connecticut addressed the group in Spanish, I found myself translating occasionally, not only words she said in English, but words she said in Spanish that I knew to be Americanized. Her Spanish was music to my ears. I wasn’t prepared for the flood of emotions I would feel at hearing her words in that space. As she spoke of the struggles of young undocumented immigrants in the United States, her language and her way of expressing herself—things so familiar to me now seen out of context—reminded me how far I was from home.

It is the irony of transnational connections that they can be profoundly affirming to the migrant and dislocating at the same time. Affirming because they are a reminder that ‘I do belong somewhere!’, but dislocating because, once you shut off the camera, ‘I’m not there now. I’m here where I don’t belong.’ As I write this I can’t help but think of all the immigrants I have been talking to who communicate with their families back in Latin America through a video camera. Isn’t it a marvelous technology that allows this to happen? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a camera, and you’re still somewhere you don’t belong.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Schooling Pains

If anyone asks our 5-year-old how she likes her new school in Spain, she answers, “It’s alright. They have pescado in the comedor, and I don’t like that.” I tend to agree with her that cafeteria fish is never a good idea, but for her, pescado has become a symbol of everything that is wrong, strange, and different about her new school. Some of these strange things are inevitable cross-cultural learning moments; some are the painful result of political policies and budget cuts that clearly don’t have the best interests of children in mind. If you get her past the fish, she will tell you that her favorite teacher left, and I will explain that she is on her third teacher in two months. At the start of the school year, the permanent teacher was on maternity leave, and the Ministry of Education had not hired any replacements until the first day, so the replacement teacher didn’t start until the third day of school. (This, we learned, was a cost-cutting measure so the Ministry of Education didn’t have to pay summer salaries.) She might tell you that there was a strike because teachers don’t get paid enough, and her teacher went to the protest, but we didn’t see her there because there were too many people. She will tell you that she doesn’t know how to write cursive, and I will tell you that it shocks me how little her teachers understand that children in other countries learn to write differently. “She’s behind,” they say about the cursive, as if it were a developmental milestone. (The indignant mother in me thinking, She is not behind! She knows how to write a different way! Realizing that I am echoing countless immigrant parents around the world who have been wrongly told that their children are deficient.)

She probably won’t tell you that morning drop-off is still traumatic, and that she holds back tears every day. So I will tell you that it is still traumatic for me, because parents aren’t allowed in the school building. We say good-bye to our children in the vestibule, and watch them walk alone up the stairs and down the hallway to find their class. Which wouldn’t be so bad if your child knew where she was going and who was going to greet her there. But when you have a rotating cast of teachers and it’s anybody’s guess who will be at the head of the line, who can blame a child for not wanting to go in alone? On two occasions last week I broke the rule and entered the building holding her by the hand—first to say good-bye to her teacher who was leaving, and the second time to introduce myself and her to the new teacher whom she had never met (the rest of her class had this teacher last year, but new kids had not). On both occasions I was intercepted by the front door staff and vigorously challenged. These guys are like trained linebackers, or prison wardens. On the second time, when I explained that my daughter had a new teacher and I was going to introduce her to her new teacher, the door guard said he would have to take me to the principal’s office. I argued with him until another teacher spotted us and came to tell him it was okay, I could come in. By then the 5-year-old was in tears and I was struggling to hold it together. I must have looked quite a sight when I was introduced to the new teacher. Not a good time to try to explain to her my daughter’s needs and abilities, or to convince her of my fully bilingual professional self!

As anyone who has ever been to a new school knows, patio (recess) is hard too, and for a long time my daughter stood with her teacher, the favorite one who left, because she didn’t know anyone and didn’t understand the children’s games. Language was an issue only in the very beginning, but long after fluent Spanish spouted from her mouth the feeling of cultural outsider persisted. And even in a supposedly “bilingual” school (it’s not, but they do have 45 minutes of daily English instruction), she says some kids make fun of her for speaking English. As I write this, I fear the relief of some readers saying, “Whew! Thank God I never subjected my kids to that!” And I confess, I have felt some guilt on the worst days, worrying that I might be causing my daughter some irreparable harm. But as far as I know, such worries are not restricted to parents who move their children overseas. And there are so many moments when the wonder and amazement at how much she is growing and learning overwhelm me, whether it is her creative, beautiful, and perfect assimilation of new Spanish vocabulary, her astute cultural observations, or her poignant and penetrating questions. The tears? They’re the growing pains, as she evolves into a conscious and reflective border-crosser. Like all border crossers, she may always be on the margins, but she will have the capacity to penetrate multiple worlds. I had this realization strongly the other night when I read her The Upside Down Boy for her bed-time story. The Upside Down Boy by Juan Felipe Herrera is a beautiful rendering of a Mexican migrant boy’s experiences starting school in English. “Will my tongue turn into a rock?” he asks. She was riveted.

When I jump up
everyone sits.
When I sit
all the kids swing through the air.
My feet float through the clouds
when all I want is to touch the earth.
I am the upside down boy.

I asked her if she felt that way sometimes at school, and she nodded sadly.  I hugged her and said, “You’re my upside down girl!” Then she smiled broadly and said, “No, mami, I’m sideways,” motioning her hand to show herself sideways, flat, parallel to the earth: “I’m más o menos.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Rituals that Travel Well

Last weekend we celebrated Halloween and Day of the Dead in Madrid, participating in two traditions transported and recreated by globalization and transnational migration. The full enjoyment of these festivities is facilitated in Spain by a three-day weekend, since November 1st is a national holiday in observance of All Saints Day. Halloween, of course, is a newly imported tradition from the United States, but one that has caught on like wildfire. As early as the first week of October I was surprised to see shops decked out with pumpkins and spider webs, and the Chinese bazaars in my neighborhood filling up with costumes. My daughter and her classmates were instructed to come to school wearing costumes on Halloween. And at 6:00 in the evening (or afternoon in Spanish time) in Malasaña, the sidewalks were filled with bands of trick-or-treaters carrying pumpkins, shepherded along by one or two adults. Except for the fact that they were trick-or-treating at storefronts instead of houses, it looked just like Halloween in my neighborhood back home. But whenever I remarked to adults on my amazement or surprise to see such rituals here, my Spanish interlocutors responded with equal amazement that “This is new!”; that such things would have been unheard of even a few years ago. I had these conversations with an educator at the after-school program where I work, a college intern at the same program, and with several parents at a friend’s Halloween party in the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo. While the children rifled through their trick-or-treating loot, the parents wondered about the cultural change that was happening before their eyes, trying to figure out exactly when it all started.

It’s easy to be skeptical of or disgusted by the United States’ exportation of commercial holidays, and I have felt this repulsion strongly in other places I have seen Halloween transposed—for example, El Salvador. But the celebrations I saw in Madrid did not have the feeling of hegemonic cultural mimicry or commercial excess. Nor did anyone I spoke to express any resentment or contempt for this American export. They were more likely to argue that there is something universal about children’s love for candy and costumes that makes this a holiday that travels well. That may be, but from my vantage point, the explosion of Halloween in Spain reflects something more than the love of candy. When I think about what I most love about Halloween back home, it is the way it gets people out of their homes and into the streets, socializing with neighbors and friends. Halloween sanctions the kind of rubbing shoulders with strangers that Americans otherwise don’t get, and in some way are starved for. During the trick-or-treating ritual, every friend is a stranger and every stranger a friend. For Spaniards, for whom consorting with friends and strangers in public space is a favorite pastime, this is not a novelty (See last week’s blog post). The trick-or-treating scene in Malasaña might have looked like the West End of Hartford on Halloween, but it looked like Malasaña any other day of the year, plus costumes. Halloween becomes one of many rituals through which children are socialized into life in the street.

The day after Halloween we celebrated el Día de los Muertos with Guatemalan friends in La Latina, another central city neighborhood in Madrid. It was my first time eating fiambre, the traditional dish that is eaten across Guatemala on the Day of the Dead.  Fiambre is a salad made of a variety of pickled vegetables, including beets, carrots, cauliflower and peas, along with garbanzo beans, pickles, cheese, boiled eggs, shrimp, and sliced cold meats: basically it can include anything, our host said. The vegetables would normally marinate for several days. In Guatemala, families would bring a plate of fiambre to the cemetery to leave at their loved one’s grave, before going home and eating the festive meal with their families. Of course, since this was Spain, the fiambre was accompanied by several bottles of good red wine, and hours of talking and laughing around the table.

With the assembled company from Guatemala, Italy, Peru, Spain and the U.S., we talked about the tradition of going to the cemetery to honor the dead, which the Spanish also observe (although they do not bring food). I shared that the Mexican celebration of Día de los Muertos in the United States is one of the imported rituals I most appreciate there. In general, Americans (North Americans) do not like talking about death: we find it morbid and grotesque, depressing, or simply an unwanted reminder of our own mortality. I say ‘we’ because I am a member of this culture, even as I observe it from the outside, as someone who participates in the rituals of various transnational Latino communities. Grave-side rituals at my family’s plot in the cemetery in San José, Costa Rica shaped my upbringing, where I learned that remembering and honoring our dead is about learning who we are. It is about affirming our familial, cultural, and spiritual identities. By remembering and honoring my Abuelita, in particular, I could not only better understand my mother, who missed her so much it was palpable, but I could better apprehend and affirm my own aspirations in the world. So I appreciated the Mexican tradition of building altars for the Day of the Dead, which I came to know in California. In graduate school in Berkeley, I participated in the building of a class altar, and I remember the moving exchange of memories and tributes by classmates as one of my most powerful learning experiences. And this year, I loved the colorful photos that dotted my Facebook newsfeed of altars built by Mexican-American friends around the United States. In the end, these are rituals that remind us what it means to be human. To reflect on their meaning together with friends who are also uprooted by migration and cultural change was a gift.

The lessons to me from this weekend’s festivities were simple: Speak to your neighbors. Remember your ancestors. Talk about these customs as often as you can, to recognize the many different ways we have of celebrating the human spirit!