Speaking the Language

Speaking the Language

In the spring of 2005, as a first year graduate student, I accepted an opportunity to travel to Guadalajara, Mexico, to live, study and learn for six months; I was working on a research project and, in addition, eager to improve my proficiency in the Spanish language.

Like many other students who choose to study in foreign countries, my experience was organized by a local university (Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara) and several students were transported, together, from the local airport to the university that day to meet our “hosts,” or the individuals with whom we would live during our stay.

I’ll never forget my initial meeting with Magdalena, the woman with whom I’d been matched for my stay in Mexico; Magdalena is a widow and, at the time, her 27-year-old daughter was living with her in a beautiful home built by her deceased husband, an architect. She was polite, friendly, and relatively quiet…until I got into her vehicle and we began the trip to her home.

After 3 years of high school Spanish, 30+ college hours of Spanish as an undergrad, and some preliminary work with the language as a graduate student, I felt relatively well-equipped to communicate and comprehend; I was wrong. Magdalena began rattling off what seemed to be rather important information at an alarming rate of speed; I caught familiar words, intermittently, like “key,” “gate,” “difficult,” and “bus.” Hmm. I could feel my heart racing, the anxiety building and I thought, “there is no way I’m going to survive this.” 

Historically, I’ve always felt a need to have everything figured out; to have all of the answers lined up, everything planned, before I start something or try something new. I want ALL of the information, so that I can feel as comfortable and in control as possible, control being the most important element in this formula. Without the ability to speak the language, it’s tough to get the answers and even tougher to ask the questions; I felt ignorant, embarrassed and, worst of all, dependent on others for assistance.

I’ve been gradually reading over the letters that I wrote to Jonathan while I was in prison; they are each labeled at the top with the date and the day (day 1, 2, 3, etc.) of my prison stay, and they are quite illuminating. I’ll likely begin sharing excerpts from some of them here because they are my own little prison diary.

On day 10 of my stay, which was the day before Thanksgiving, 2014, I wrote that I’d had a really nice conversation, in Spanish, with an older woman in my unit; Spanish was the native language to a large percentage of the population in this camp.

She was really friendly and asked me how I’d learned Spanish and what my experience was with the language; she thought I spoke pretty well for someone who doesn’t practice much. She began to tell me how difficult it is for her to understand the other women here, especially black women; she says that they ‘cut their words off and speak in a different dialect.’ That sounds similar to the way many of us feel about those who speak Spanish!

In prison, an entirely different type of “language” exists; it’s the language of bureaucracy, cost-efficiency, scarcity and despair. In another section of this letter, I related my first encounter with the uncertainty of our prison existence; it would be a prevailing theme throughout my experience.

There are two women I met who used to be at a camp in Illinois; one of them is from Iowa and the other Missouri. One day, the camp administrator walked in and told them that the camp was closing; there were plans to turn it into a men’s facility, and that they were shipping out in 2 days - women were sent all over the country, and the two of them ended up here. They rode a bus from Illinois to Oklahoma, then ConAir (it’s for real!) from Oklahoma to Orlando, and another bus ride from Orlando to Coleman. The ladies told me they got pb&j the whole trip; this whole system is so fucked up.

As an inmate, I learned to expect the unexpected which, as it turns out, has been an invaluable tool in my life; while I certainly haven’t completely lost the impulse to retain control, I have been able to unfurl my tight grip and recognize that, sometimes, my inability to speak the language can lead to enlightening discoveries and broadened perspectives.

It's just a mile.

It's just a mile.

Red Light, Green Light: The Girls and Homegoing

Red Light, Green Light: The Girls and Homegoing