10 October 2013

spanish is the language of rotten eggs

ever since attending a symposium called "latinos and the politics of language" hosted by latino studies at iu, i have been thinking about language even more than usual. at the symposium, ana celia zentella provided numerous examples of the ways spanish has been racialized in u.s. cultural and political discourse. according to zentella, because talking about embodied race is no longer p.c., language serves as a smokescreen to talk about race in an acceptable format. in some circles, then, calling spanish the "language of the ghetto" is not only reasonable but receives applause.


i was thinking about this today as i was tutoring a 5th grader, a mexican-american bilingual. he seems shy about his spanish most of the time, and one need not stretch the imagination too far to wonder why. we were reading the name of this book is secret, a fantasy novel for kids, which is mostly delightful. it uses mystery, puzzle, and metafiction to get kids excited about turning the pages.

on page 20 something disturbed me, though. when describing the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of a magician, the realtor of his house explains that the gardner alerted her to the death when he smelled rotten eggs. 

the thing is, the words used in the book are not "rotten eggs" but "huevos podridos." you know, because the gardner is obviously hispanic. this rather insignificant plot development in which a nameless gardner--the only nameless character in the book--speaks spanish delivers a double blow to the language. (i should mention that all of the characters are anonymous in this book, but they each receive carefully-selected pseudonyms). not only is spanish relegated to the language of the anonymous lower class, but the only spanish words mentioned in the entire text correspond to one of the most noxious smells to the human nose. also, how ridiculous is it that a spanish-speaking gardner living in the u.s. did not know how to say "rotten eggs" in english, but that the english-speaking monolinguals understood him? spanish is the offensive language of the linguistically-impoverished ghetto?

suddenly, i found myself in a difficult place as a tutor. how do i explain to my ten-year-old bilingual tutee the problem with this authorial choice that most likely would go unnoticed if i did not bring it to his attention? i felt obligated to at least try, but i wondered how much work i could do as one person against a widely-circulating stereotype. does a child believe you if you are one of the only people telling him that spanish lives in philosophy and literature and politics, too? 

where is the juvenile fiction that gives spanish equal status with english? no, really, where are these books? i would like to find them and recommend them to my tuttee. and while i'm seeking advice, can i call his teacher and explain to her why i think she should remove this book from the classroom?

04 July 2013

Interview with Edgar Escobar, Homeopathic Skin Product Salesman

Tell me a little bit about what you're doing here.
I'm Colombian, Caldense, from the beloved Caldas. I work with natural products; dietary products; homeopathic, natural and alternative medicine, especially related to skin problems, venous insufficiency and varicose veins. I work with products made of snail slime, mother of pearl, lamb fat, and I also know about all sorts of other creams like eucalyptus cream, marigold cream, chuchuhuasi cream, uña de gato cream, berry creams, aloe cream, and also coca cream. All of these creams are for arthritis pain, rheumatism, muscular pain. Snail slime and mother of pearl are treatments that rejuvenate the skin, erase any kind of skin spots, pimples, all kinds of burns, wounds, scars. Lamb fat is for stretch marks, and it's a natural sunblock. It's good for facial and body massages. It tones the bust and the behind; it makes the hips firm. Snail oil is especially good for drying out varicose veins, for veinous insufficiency, too. It also treats arthritis pains, rheumatic pains, and muscle pains. I also prepare treatment for multiple ailments, physical fatigue, mental fatigue, anemia, and hepatitis complications. And I've been doing this for 8 years, and I like what I do. I feel good physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Where did you acquire all of this knowledge?
Mostly in books. I began with reading books and also as one starts working, one enriches practice with reading, on the the internet, in botanical books, naturalist books, you know? And every year one updates his knowledge and practice regarding new skin problems and varicose veins.

What is your work schedule like?
I work at the intersection of Carrera 7 and Calle 24 in downtown Bogotá. I work Monday through Saturday from 8am to 4pm, and Sundays and holidays from 8am to 6pm. My cellphone number is 315.393.5949.

How much do you sell in a day?
Quite a lot. There are good days of 100.000 to 150.000 pesos (app. USD$50-75) more or less.

(translated from Spanish)

02 July 2013

Librería Merlín, Bogotá

Bogotá's small and desolate Callejón de la Vera Cruz is just off a bustling strip of new, used, and pirated book stores. The few store fronts on this tiny alley are tucked away and easy to miss. You will be delightfully surprised, though, to wander into Librería Merlín--which doesn't look like much on the outside--to find three floors of book lovers' paradise.

Located on Callejón de la Vera Cruz, near the Museo de Oro, Centro

obligatory Bolívar portraits in Colombia section
piles and piles of books!
carefully placed thematic decor
3rd floor

Merlín is stacked to the brim with books, magazines, artifacts, art, antiques, and trinkets all thoughtfully arranged to complement one another. One of the dreamiest book-browsing experiences I have ever had!

24 June 2013

Connectivity Abroad

Recently, Jonathan Safran Foer published an op-ed piece in the NYT about how handheld technology rewires our brains away from empathy and compassion, "The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care." While the idea of connectivity disconnecting us is not new, Foer's emphasis on our diminished ability to care begs consideration.

I was recently privy to technology-centric conversations among a large group of U.S. teenagers on their way abroad for a short-term language immersion program. Some of them would be boarding a plane for the first time. At the airport gate, they discussed whether or not to update their Facebook statuses with pictures of the wait. They leaned over each other's smart phones sharing emails from host families in Germany. While very few of them made eye contact with each other, they laughed at how "funny" their host siblings English was, while they themselves struggled to remember the word for "tired" in German. 

Their tiny screens were very mediated windows into what their lives would be in Germany; they were a way to connect without having to relate, for crowded around the screen were half a dozen people who would validate and reaffirm their cultural biases and misjudgments. Likewise, I could not help but think that the ipads and smartphones would serve a similar function once abroad, allowing them to relate experiences back home to an audience of like-minded Americans without having to process and adapt to cultural difference in a more intimate way in Germany. 

As people step into a new place with a live feed streaming back home, what incentive is there to be present in the host culture? Without being present, how much can you say that you have truly arrived to a place? Arriving is difficult. It can be painful. Culture shock is an uncomfortable alienation from oneself that overwhelms the coping mechanisms, and connectivity is a powerful analgesic that takes the edge off, dulls the senses. With a quick fix mind-blowingly close at hand, addiction can easily block experience. And harrowing as it may be, experiencing culture shock and coming out the other end broadens one's perspective permanently. Connectivity, though, can shield us from the other person's perspective. And if I may be hyperbolic for a moment, seeing things from another's point of view--understanding other ways of life--inoculates us against all sorts of evils in the world--discrimination, oppression, exploitation, violence.

I am not saying that staying connected must always impede cultural adaptation. Neither am I advocating for a nostalgic turn to a past without technology. Certainly, the ease of communication back home must soothe many a parent's heart and assuage fears of going abroad, thus encouraging more people to travel. Furthermore, for more longterm stays, having connectivity with home probably mitigates the effects of reverse culture shock, keeping people from losing touch completely with their home culture. Connectivity works better in this way--as a safety net rather than a harness. 

My unsolicited advice to the teenagers off for a four-week language immersion experience? Immerse yourselves in experience. Disconnect a little for this tiny fraction of time that in the grand scheme of your life will be nothing--but will be even less if you stay too close to home. Do not speak English. Make friends locally. Let your parents know you are okay often but don't reveal too much. Let yourself feel the trauma of being very far from home in a very different environment. Let the meaning of your experience steep like a strong tea until it is almost too difficult to swallow and then sip it slowly, naming each aroma, each flavor. Digest. Internalize something that cannot be summarized in 140 characters. Arrive.