Swallowing Fear in San Miguel de Allende

Travel Stories: Kristin Van Tassel's ideal window for learning a foreign language closed over 30 years ago. Is there still time?

09.16.12 | 5:12 PM ET

San Miguel de AllendeSan Miguel de Allende (iStockPhoto)

When I meet a Mexican college student named Jorge and discover he speaks flawless English, I feel the urgent need to talk with him. About everything. I can’t remember the last time I felt so much happiness in simply having somebody understand me.

After several days in central Mexico I’ve discovered that just because English and Spanish share hundreds of cognates doesn’t mean I can, for instance, ask how to use the @ symbol on the internet cafe computer keyboard. I’ve been mired in my own inability to speak Spanish, self-consciously restricting each conversational exchange, knowing even the simplest of questions will elicit responses I probably won’t understand.

But this young undergraduate gives me my voice back, and the floodgates open. The momentum of words startles even me. Seriously, I can’t shut up. I deluge him with questions about his coursework in Modern Languages at La Salle University in León, where in addition to his native Spanish he is studying English, Italian, French, and German. When Jorge explains he wants to translate literature one day, I babble about the various English translations of Homer’s Iliad, and speculate on what it would be like to read Don Quixote in the original Spanish. Jorge shares my enthusiasm for Cervantes’ novel. “Sancho Panza is such a tender character,” he tells me. “He is so loyal.” 

I spend a lot of time with 18- to 22-year-old university students. Since the college where I work in central Kansas has a tiny English department, I teach a broad mix of classes—from American literature to Western World literature, first-year composition to Literary Criticism. Some English majors take six or seven classes from me. This means I get to watch their writing develop over the course of three to four years, and introduce them to the writers who move me most: Herman Melville, Wendell Berry, Homer, Toni Morrison, Annie Dillard, Frederick Douglass, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tim O’Brien. Sometimes my students and I travel together on literary field trips; other times I take them camping. By the time they graduate, I find our shared project has not been merely intellectual—it has been emotional as well.

Jorge’s characterization of the hapless Sancho as “tender” is endearingly unguarded, and it snags on my heart the way an unexpected student insight moves me when I’m teaching. It brings to mind those moments when I decide I’m the luckiest person in the world because I spend my days talking about the stories and characters I love with young people whom I come to love as well.

I’ve traveled to central Mexico to check out the colonial cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende as possible destinations for the travel writing class I teach every other January term. I timed my visit to coincide with an international literary festival in San Miguel, where a number of my favorite writers will speak: Margaret Atwood, Joy Harjo, Naomi Wolf. Jorge says he’s most excited about seeing an author named Elena Poniatowska. I’ve never heard of her.

“But perhaps you know La Noche de Tlatelolco,” Jorge says. “It is about the 1968 military shooting of hundreds of Mexico City university students. In English it is called Massacre in Mexico.” 

I shake my head, faintly ashamed: I don’t know the book, or the massacre.

The next day I’m eating my lunch a few blocks away from the conference hotel, in a tiny shop selling quesadillas and tamales, when Jorge peers through the doorway, smiling. I wave him in and motion to the chair beside me. I have so much to tell him! In my morning workshop session I learned about a website called Words Without Borders, a site where people like me can find people like Jorge to translate their work.

When I finish eating, I get up to pay the señora behind the grill. “Cuanto cuesta?” I ask her. How much? This question is strictly a formality for me. Unless the cost is less than 10 pesos, which it never is, I won’t understand the answer to my question. I might as well have just asked her if she could please, in Spanish, clarify my lingering questions about string theory.

My standard practice here has been to hand over what I guess to be ample funds and hope for correct change. I give her a 100-peso bill, but she shakes her head, says something, and hands the bill back to me. I decide she must need a smaller denomination. I gaze at the coins in my hand. She repeats the price. Did she say 13 or 30? Surely it was more than 13. I slowly hand over 10, 20, 30 pesos, watching her face as I do so. Twenty-year-old Jorge—reader, writer, and speaker of five languages—waits patiently beside me. 

“You have enough,” he says, pointing to the coins remaining in my hand. “Just give her two more pesos.”

My ideal window for learning a foreign language closed over 30 years ago. I squandered it taking ballet lessons, becoming a mediocre piano player, and reading the Little House on the Prairie series 27 times. I took two years of Latin in high school, and one semester of French in college. I endured mandatory French and Spanish reading classes while I was in graduate school, but I was never required to speak either language aloud. All of these courses were either optional amusements or gateways to a larger goal, and I treated them as such.

That evening I see Elena Poniatowska for the first time. “There she is, on the front row,” Jorge says. I strain to look. She is a small woman, in her 80s, with sleepy eyes and a large smile. “I can’t believe she’s here without security protection!” he exclaims.

Poniatowska’s biography in the conference booklet states that she writes “testimonial literature.” Much of her work seems similar to what Naomi Wolf does—collecting the stories of others and weaving those into one’s own in order to make a political argument, often in order to speak for the silenced. But Poniatowska also writes fiction. Moreover, she has the kind of devoted following and cultural status unique to an elder statesman of letters; the best American comparison that comes to mind is Joan Didion.

The following night is Poniatowska’s keynote address, and she devotes it to American, Canadian, and British writers who influenced Mexico’s cultural life during the 20th century. Many of the figures she explores are familiar to me: Hart Crane, Katherine Anne Porter, Langston Hughes; yes, I knew they had spent time in Mexico. But that’s all I knew. I hadn’t bothered to consider what living in Mexico or interacting with Mexican intellectuals had meant for these American writers.

After the keynote Jorge decides he wants a picture with Poniatowska, so we make our way through the crowd. While we’re waiting in line, we meet Katarzyna, who is Polish but in Mexico to research her dissertation topic, an exploration of socialist theory in Poniatowska’s work. She and Jorge pose for photos with Elena, and return excited, laughing and interrupting each other.  Katarzyna, who doesn’t realize my Spanish stops after “Buenas noches,” turns to me, a big smile on her face, and delivers a stream of sentences, all followed by exclamation points, nodding her head vigorously. I laugh. I can’t help it. This is all so exciting! Even though I don’t know why! I look at Jorge for help. 

“The angels love her, apparently,” he says, gesturing at Katarzyna. He explains that she has not only landed an interview with Poniatowska but has also been asked by the Mexican author to fact-check information about Poland in her latest book draft. As we walk down the cobblestone streets to an open-air taco stand in San Miguel’s central garden square, Katarzyna relives in breakneck Spanish the remarkable request, periodically punctuating her excitement with a little jump in her black heels. I’m swept along in the current of collective thrill—in the joy of unexpected opportunity, in the sound of language, in our affection for those whose words carry power and beauty for us. 

San Miguel is a city straight out of a picture book. Its magnificent pink sandstone Oratorio San Felipe Neri church and color coordinated stucco colonial row houses are so idyllic they seem made up, like something created for a Hollywood movie set or a Mexico-themed Thomas Kinkade calendar. But between the workshop sessions and keynote speakers I haven’t had much chance to wander the pretty streets. After the last session of the conference, Jorge has several hours before catching his bus back to León, and he wants to show me something. On the way to the conference hotel he discovered a sprawling plant market in a park. When we arrive, every houseplant I’ve ever seen back home is sitting outside in San Miguel’s warm mid-February sun: aloe, jade, philodendron, ponytail palm, India rubber plant, devil’s tongue. I name them in English. I also name the mourning dove I can hear calling above in the trees, a bird that I won’t hear in Kansas until late spring. 

“Mourning dove,” Jorge repeats thoughtfully. “In Spanish we just call it paloma.” He turns to me. “So what Spanish have you learned here?”

Unprepared for this question, my heart starts hammering. I feel like the teacher just called on me, and I haven’t read the homework.

What have I learned? I know how to greet people at three different times of day. I can say please, thank you, and bathroom. I can ask how much something costs. I can say “No hablo español bien,” which, of course, is a spectacular understatement. 

I’ve traveled before in regions where I didn’t speak the language, like southern China and the Middle East, and felt the disorientation and sense of loss that comes with that. But I’ve never been so embarrassed about knowing so little. Maybe it’s because the sound and script of Cantonese and Arabic are far enough from English that total ignorance is more readily forgiven. Maybe it’s because hanging out with a multi-lingual reader at a bi-lingual writing conference has shown me how much I’m missing from an aspect of life I love: stories and writers. 

My response is defensive. “If I could live my life again, I would learn to speak a second language,” I say. “I really regret not knowing more than one.” 

Jorge frowns at me. “You can still learn to speak Spanish,” he says solemnly. Then he smiles, reinforcing it with a nod.

The day after the conference ends I head out on a walking tour with 53 other gringos. Jorge has returned to his home, so instead of chattering on about the joys of literature, I’m shuffling en masse past colonial homes renovated by San Miguel’s American expatriate millionaires.

There is one young mother in the group, and she’s brought her 21-month-old son. He totes with him a small lemon he’s plucked from an ornamental plant. “Ball,” he cries again and again, gleefully. He throws the lemon up in the air, lets it fall, retrieves it, and shows it to us yet again. “Ball.” He grins. “Yes, you have a ball!” his mother exclaims.

I watch this charming toddler resentfully. My spoken Spanish is about where his English is. The little boy shoots me a flirtatious look and tosses the lemon to me. I stoop down and roll it back to him, knowing there’s nothing charming about a 43-year-old calling a “limón” a “pelota.” 

When I return home a few days later, I am determined to read a short story Jorge has written, in Spanish. The tale won a $1,000 prize awarded by the León Cultural Institute, which Jorge has told me is “kind of a big deal.” Equipped with my fat Spanish-English dictionary, I blunder from one sentence to the next. Every morning for a week I spend several hours listing and looking up the words I don’t know—which is to say almost all of them—and then struggle to keep the cases and verb tenses straight. 

Throughout this task an uneasy memory keeps swinging into my line of vision: the memory of me, in a moment of hubris, reassuring Jorge that “reading Spanish is much easier than speaking it.” 

I finally appeal to a friend who grew up in Mexico City and works as a professional translator; she helps me read the story. It is about a student in an analytical geometry class who has been arrested for vehicular homicide. The plot structure mimics a geometry problem. The narrator is warm and funny as he wanders from one digression to the next, circling the horror of what he’s done, though in the end he must face his complicity. There’s a line in the story that stays with me. In recalling the act of falling in love as a 16 year old, the narrator describes it as “that age where you feel like the whole world can be contained in your mouth.” An age, in other words, that is foolish in its confidence, but also fearless in its hope—characteristics we spend the rest of our lives trying to both overcome and reclaim.

After I fail to read Jorge’s story on my own, I enroll in a Spanish course offered through the local library. The first day of class we practice reading the alphabet in Spanish. Every time it’s my turn, my heart is in my throat.

Later, at home, my 12-year-old son sees the class booklet, with its colorful illustrations of the vocabulary words. “What is this?” he asks. “It looks like a kindergarten book.”

“Well, it is like a kindergarten book. It’s a book for beginners.”

A month earlier in San Miguel, on the night of her keynote address, when I had only the faintest sense of who she was, Elena Poniatowska began her remarks in Spanish. Just when I’d decided to settle in and listen to the sound of her words rather than their content, Poniatowska stopped.

“Now I will swallow my fear,” she said. The rest of her talk was in English. When she did not recall which word to use, or believed she’d used the wrong one, she stopped and asked the audience for help. 

Stories can help us face the anxieties and uncertainties of being human. And the people who tell these stories can also challenge us, or inspire us, to learn again what it means to live in this world.

An 81-year-old Mexican writer, a literary luminary speaking English in her home country—and a young student who loves her—showed me what it means to speak with courage, to take a risk, to offer language to another as a gift.