A Word on Notes … A Note on Words

Recently, a musician friend sent me this quotation and the question that follows: “If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.” — Jean Sibelius

Would you debate this one?

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata — Mozart

At first I leaned toward agreeing with Sibelius about nuance and richness of music. One reason I don’t write much about music as a generality is that I’ve read too much bad writing about music: “It always meets me where I am and never asks any questions. It can pick me up when I’m down, and mellow me out when I’m sad / mad / jealous / etc.” And to some extent that has also been my experience with music. But to a much greater extent, my experience with music is cerebral as well as emotional and tends to defy words.   Like many other people, my life has been bookmarked with music: the sweet and sorrowful memory of my great loves, losses, accomplishments, ridiculous decisions, and moments of simply living — at the beach, in the forest, on my bike, in the city, under Christmas lights, holding hands, kissing in the rain — all come with their accompanying harmonies, melodies, drum lines, oboes, cellos, electric bass, and of course, violins. Suggesting that, in fact, music does tend to speak deeper and, indeed, embrace more widely than mere language.

As I learned a second language, and came to be able to use it (relatively) well, I became aware of many limitations in my native language. As a writer who works toward a precarious mix of precision of words and bending of language to build an idea or an image, such limitations quickly frustrated me. I solved this problem by using Spanish words where nothing quite “fit the bill” in English, even though I know that most of my readers aren’t bilingual. Here again, music overcomes the limitations that culture, education, and social expectation impose on language.

But then I ran across (with an entirely unrelated motivation) a TED talk by Jamila Lyiscott in which she addresses the problems and joys of being “articulate” in her 3 languages. (It’s worth a look. Her talk / poem brought me to tears – no small feat.) She says, “I speak a composite version of your language because mines was raped along with my history. I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us that our current state is not a mystery.” Listening to her speak I thought again about the way that being bilingual has changed the way I write, and even what I write about. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve become convinced that the changes in my poetry over the last five years or so are indebted to my daily immersion in my second language. I don’t think that anything other than someone else playing with language(s) could have made me think those exact thoughts. Not even music.

nobody told you

…no one alerted you…

In the end though, I can’t fully agree or disagree with Sibelius. There are times when language reaches places that music doesn’t even try to reach. When I write a poem, I know that readers will see the exact images I write, even if they don’t attach the same emotion to them that I do. I know that I use words to reach certain unspoken taboos, emotions, memories in readers, and I’m also aware that the places my words touch are not fully predictable.

I think much the same about music. Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov and the other favorites tell stories in musical phrasing and pitch and key (and …), which have the advantage of bypassing languages and cultures in ways that language cannot, or are unlikely to do. Still, I feel certain that the government of Germany in the 1930s and 40s did not hear the same stories in Wagner that I hear. That music reaches me as a listener is without question; that the intent remains intact from Sibelius’ ear to my ear, must remain a question forever, as I cannot sit down and ask him about any given piece. His experience is not my experience, though we are both human and from Western cultures. These intersections in culture may influence my response, but I can never know if my response is the response he sought.

I’ve heard and read artists of many genres who say that it doesn’t matter that their audience “gets” the same thing that they imagined. The matter and substance that the audience picks up go far beyond the original intent, encompassing both more and less than “intended.” In this sense, art is not a spectator sport. In spectating we also participate actively, a fuerzas, and in general the artist and her intent is no longer a factor. The art becomes art via the interpretation of, and interaction with, the audience. Without that dialogue, art of any stripe is meaningless.

A little piece of me (the bogus English teacher part) wants to suggest that perhaps Sibelius should have put a bit more time into his writing, maybe experimented a bit with things outside his ken and comfort zone. Maybe in words, too, he could have transmitted more than he imagined. But then again, his music has left so much to think about, so much to experience in the worlds and scenes he weaves over our eardrums and nervous systems. Perhaps, he was right. At least for himself.

So to answer the question, I don’t think I’d debate Sibelius at all. But I wouldn’t mind sitting down over a good glass of wine and talking it all through with him in front of a Finnish fireplace. I’m certain I would learn much about how to listen and be a better audience of music. And, who knows, he might learn a thing or two, as well. ‘-)

~LD

A Poor Tribute

Preface:

Many years ago, on the occasion of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, I wrote a heartfelt poem of thanks for her daring and grief for her loss. I was little more than a child, and since then I have begun to understand or at the very least to have more experience in the twisty ways of politics, corruption, and human hate. And though I don’t know that I could have agreed — as an adult — with Mrs. Gandhi’s politics, I still see the importance of her election at that time, and am dismayed, even now, at the power of humanity to destroy the best of who we can be. My words built a fine novice poem spoken from the voice of a very young and naïve broken heart.

Twinges of that tiny outraged voice resounded in my belly today on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when I ran across an interview with Elie Wiesel conducted by Bill Moyers in 1991.

I was struck by the tenderness of Dr. Wiesel’s voice. Not his words alone, but the melody and scope of honest question and wonder that permeates the sound of his voice. I could listen endlessly to Dr. Wiesel speak. The poem that follows, poor and clichéd as it is, encapsulates my side of a conversation I’d have liked to have with Dr. Wiesel, as fine a teacher and witness as I can imagine. *Namaste*

(I find it much harder these days to share such work. Not because it is intensely personal, but because I realize now how flawed my (our) perceptions of public personas can be. I hope the spirit of my thought is clear.)

May Your Work Set You Free: A Blessing for Dr. Wiesel

Seventy years ago you stepped into
a chill, rosed Polish Dawn of human indifference,
a boy no more.
And though the words
you’ve scratched out
as you’ve trod the path since that day
shatter repeatedly against the fogged mirror
of Night in our minds,
the song in your voice seeps
relentlessly between the cracks
of our human weakness
illuminating the poetry –
not of Joshua’s wars –
but of human experience,
and we are better
for hearing
the power
in your
diminishing
years.

~LD

Parts of a letter: thinking out loud in the cold

The thing about art is, as Beethoven said (Is this true? Is this a myth someone told me to make a point when I was a youngling? I will look it up later. Anyway, in my head a grizzled, bitter Beethoven speaks) there is nothing new in music (or any art). There are seven basic notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, their sharps and flats, repeated at higher or lower pitches, but the combinations are essentially finite. Measurable. Maybe even predictable to an extent (enter math).

What varies infinitely (or seems to – maybe this depends, like so many things, on one’s take on God and creation) is the certain curve and weight and touch that imparts “feeling” to a piece. What varies infinitely is whether we hear the same stories that Maxim Vengerov does in an Ysaye piece (unlikely, unless we happen to have the good fortune of being one of his master class students), or some other story entirely. With good, solid study, the stories should come near to being the same, even among musicians who’ve never met, but are unlikely to be what Ysaye himself saw as he composed. (Insert Shakespeare and Harold Bloom as the expert here if you like. Same result.)

What this tells us about a text like, say, The Hunger Games is not that it’s bad, or even especially good, but rather that Collins’ perspective on things like feminism, survival, capitalism / socialism, the conflict between love and self are presented sufficiently intelligently and artistically to pull in readers who might not otherwise have considered such important ideas (if they were forced to read them, say, for class). Ideally such texts lead them to read and appreciate (if not always enjoy), other, more complex, more artful works on similar ideas.

Naturally, many young readers aren’t ready to go there (neuro-biology works against them), but sometimes readers go back to books (and other works of art) like an old friend after they’ve matured, and see the bigger ideas then. (And yes, there are more than a handful of knuckleheads who never get it. Still, my teacher brain insists there is hope for human enlightenment. ‘-)) Even Harry Potter has at least some artistic value for bringing the old Greek myth figures back to the front of people’s minds. Ok, maybe not the front, but not the pit of intellectual despair that was 9th grade lit class with Odysseus.

So reading those books has value to the extent that they open a door for readers to be intellectually warmed up for 1984, Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare, A Clockwork Orange, and the rest. I read “lesser” works because working with young intellects is part of what I’ve chosen to do with my life and I need to know how to talk to them with some authority about the big ideas in the little stories that get their attention. Sometimes such works even have the added bonus of being “fun”, which is too often undervalued.

Perhaps the fact that we read / enjoy / participate in mediocre and bad art eventually leads us to greater and greater feats of human imagination. At the very least, the mediocre and the bad may lead us to think differently than we did before.

I agree that the artist must create for him/herself. But it seems to me that the great value in art must go beyond the interior world. Visual image (dance, flat art (like painting), sculpture, film) and auditory image (music, speech / language) become ways of relating to the world and the experiences you live. Creating art is a way of making meaning out of the (sometimes) apparent meaninglessness of being human; I’d go so far as to suggest that art requires the artist to consider an audience, even an unreal one, to offer a serving of perspective (like a glass of wine on a tray) in order for the meaning to be, well, meaningful.

And yes, I know, I’ve just effectively destroyed all my reasons for not writing lately. I think sometimes that I work harder at not writing than I do at writing. ‘-) I’m pretty sure I’ll be cold and dead before I can really not write. Weaving language and words into meaning are my skin and heart, maybe even my soul. Only my ridiculous, flawed, grown-up human brain gets in the way. ‘-) Ego is a powerful dismotivator.

I loved what you wrote: “Art (in any form) is a gift from God … designed for … people who understand it to keep them happy even when everything else is shit. (I could not find a simpler and more complicated definition than that). Life is like running in the freezing cold in the middle of the woods, and art is like finding a nice cabin with a fireplace inside, to stay there forever. One who enjoys art should never have to quit [the cabin] ever again.”

Once in a while the only way to get to complexity is simply. I’d add that life is like running NAKED and BAREFOOT in the freezing cold. But I can’t help thinking that art need not be a consolation prize.

~LD

Certain Gravity — NaPoWriMo #16 — a “translation”

Certain Gravity

Carry draws you forward
Seas latch land and forest

Men are grown faithless
One came with four carriages
Sea raid. One cymbal, sounds.

When I didn’t deal help
People arise, no clap heard,
Not demanding. Dimmed wave

In dawn and mourning my love
Many melt withering over our
Men sons, down my long harbor

Men tenderly attracted sinner
So men here my east or west
Faith dredges, have flown

Men only want amenities
Many called, even minnows tanked
Then finally jeweled grail

Men are faithless in military garret
And certain attempts in loves
go delighting between sight and fall.

~LD

* * *

Today’s NaPoWriMo challenge was intriguing to say the least. Look for a poem in a language you don’t know, and write a “translation” using the sounds you imagine and deduce. I looked up this Welsh poem this morning on the Poetry International Language List site. I don’t know thing one about Welsh in a practical sense, though I’ve heard it spoken and as an English speaker I thought I might “hear” something. No such luck. My piece is an intuitive mess and makes little to no sense at all either as a work of its own or as a (ahem) translation, but I got a kick out of trying to keep same words the same, and similar sounds (that I imagined) similar. I thought it was interesting, too, the way my second language (Spanish) influenced what I “heard” as I read and worked on this piece.

After the initial word-for-word “translation”, I went back and tried to make some kind of sense of my own words, but struggled to do so, even though in some places it seems to string together with some pretty rough-looking knots. I did not change punctuation, though it sometimes affects meaning adversely. Ah, yes, and for speakers of Welsh, I’ve included the text of Menna Elfyn’s (really, could there be a more wonderful name?) poem. Perhaps not so remarkably, writing this post-script reminded me of writing the edition of an 18th century play back in grad school. Fun stuff.

Tomorrow, ladies and gents, is hump day. And well met. ~LD

Post-PS: After a little searching tonight, I’ve found the author’s website where you can find this video of the author reading of one of her poems in both English and in Welsh. Made my poem choice both ironic and lovely.

CERDD GAREGOG

Carreg ddrws dy fodolaeth,
Sy’n llechen lan y bore

Maen ar gronglwyd f’enaid,
Un cam wrth fur cariad
Sy raid. Un syml, sownd.

Wnes i ddim deall helfa
Pobl am risial, neu glap aur,
Na deiamwnt. Dim ond

Diolch am y meini mewn llaw,
Meini mellt weithiau o’r awyr,
Maen sugn., dwy long mewn harbwr,

Maen tynnu atat synnwyr
A’r maen hir mewn oes o raean
Fe dreigla, heb fwsogli.

Maen hogi fy ymennydd
Meini cellt, yn mynnu tanchwa
Dan feinwe’n chwarel grai.

Maen ar faen yn gerrig milltir
Y cerddaf atynt yn llawen,
Gan delori fel clap y cerrig.

-Menna Elfyn

Mexican adventures with Mom

The chanates (grackles or crows, whichever) were making their usual spring ruckus in the tops of the trees while I was making oatmeal muffins, when Mom came in and said, “I thought you were in here frying bacon, then I figured you probably don’t eat bacon.” I registered the racket from the park across the street and laughed, “Of course I eat bacon, but not often, and alas, not today.” Mom and I drank tea and ate hot oatmeal muffins before heading over to the park to take a look around.

While I filled her in on the general agenda for my one and only skip day of her trip to TRC, she identified plants by their names in English for me and (I’m guessing) tried to take in the familiar, the unfamiliar and the long unseen. The morning was leisurely, and eventually, the chanates flew off to scavenge the day.

About midmorning, Mom and I trundled ourselves into Jose’s cab and went downtown to the Museo Arocena with a plan to have an early-ish lunch at the Copa de Leche, an old diner-style restaurant downtown that I’ve been going to ever since I first moved here almost fourteen years ago.

Mom goes to TRC and finds COW.

Mom goes to TRC and finds COW.


Writing about a museum visit leaves something to be desired, but I will say that we talked about Mexican history (Oh, how I wished for Mr. Miranda, our History of Mexico teacher!), were fascinated by the Arocena House with its hand-pieced parquet wood floors and stained glass windows. We oohed and ahhed over the “portable” desks with all the accessories from the early 20th century that make a desktop computer with screen look positively featherweight. Almost as an after-thought (we were getting pretty hungry at this point), we remembered the Jorge Marin sculpture exhibit, where we lost ourselves again in considerations less historic and more spiritual, philosophical and Newtonian [Please go to Marin’s website http://jorgemarin.org/ where you can find a gallery of his work]. We even made a cursory tour of the bookstore with mental notes for a return visit if needed.

We beat the lunch rush to the Copa at around 12:30 or so, but we were both pretty famished (we had missed almuerzo which is usually around 10 or 11 am, and lunch proper isn’t until 2 or 3 in the afternoon). We ate, talked and browsed the pamphlets we’d picked up at the museum. The bolillos [French-style bread rolls] with salsa instead of chips was a hit, and lunch (chile relleno for Mom, and huevos a la Mexicana for me) was delicious.

When we finished, I had the bright idea to walk down to the Mercado Juarez, where I promptly wound up walking us in circles until we ended up back at the museum. We took a stroll around the Plaza de Armas — lately armed at catty corners by big Mexican Marine Hummers full of young men in fatigues carrying big guns – grabbed a cab and headed back to my place.

The Mexican Flag at the Plaza Mayor in Torreón, Coahuila.

The Mexican Flag at the Plaza Mayor in Torreón, Coahuila.


Because a trip to the Comarca Lagunera is incomplete without a trip to Chepo nieve, on Sunday I decided we should head over to the Alameda where there’s an authentic Chepo franchise (for the uninitiated, the “original” Chepo is in Lerdo, a couple towns over) as well as the pulga, a public library, and a 7-11 where the restaurant Chihua’s used to be. We ate our lime, coconut with strawberry chepos on a bench in the square and watched people, listened to a student banda de Guerra (war band – drum and bugle) practice. The morning was exactly perfect, sunny but not hot, with a breeze, but not windy.

We spent another chunk of time in the library. It’s really a pretty little library. Cluttered around the edges, but the stacks are orderly, even if many of the volumes are outdated, threadbare and scant. There is even a media center with five or six (ancient but functional) computers for free Internet use by patrons. The stained glass window in the library designed and produced by a local artisan and a local glass company took our attention for several minutes as we deciphered what the window depicted.

Finally, we decided to head over to a little restaurant a colleague had told me about on the opposite corner of the Alameda. At El Sureño, surrounded by colorful paper maiche, clay and wood masks from all over the world, we enjoyed a lunch inspired by foods common to the southern part of Mexico. But not before our waiter plied us with a long list of various tequilas and mezcal. We demurred, asking for limeade with mineral water. Even I couldn’t fathom tequila on a late Sunday morning. While we considered the menu, we enjoyed black bean dip and a couple of kinds of salsa with our totopos. Once we had asked one hundred and one questions about the menu, we settled on tamales in banana leaf and a kind of empanada stuffed with fried squash flower, all drenched in cream and cheese. I don’t think either of us was especially in love with the empanada (the cream was a little sour and unexpected — it might grow on you with practice), but the tamal was MUAH! Absolutely amazing. Something about the flavor the banana leaf adds to the cornmeal changes the nature of the tamal completely. Our lunch that day was long, slow and delightful and bracketed by the library, a few gift purchases in the pulga, and the waiter who was pushing Sunday, late morning booze, and the intriguing masks all around us.
El Sureño masks
El Sureño wood masks
The rest of the week we spent at school. The first morning, I pointed in the general direction of things of interest on campus, walked Mom over to the elementary office and went about my business. By the end of the day, she’d been “roped into” (I don’t think this was a particularly challenging roping job) substituting for a second grade teacher on Wednesday, and wound up as an emergency substitute on Tuesday, as well. We came home at the end of that first day and Mom told me all about the first graders she had worked (played?) with, trying to remember names and picking out personalities when she couldn’t remember names. All week my seniors and sophomores hassled me, “Where’s your mom?” they asked with a slight whine (a la first grade) in their voice. “We want to meet her.” Naturally, when they finally got to meet her, on Thursday, I think, most didn’t know what on earth to do with her. I had to laugh. One student needed no introduction and hugged her when he saw her in the hallway, intuiting that she’s family by extension.

Finishing up their proof of having actually learned something.  I have the best students. (I only included this photo and not the others because I didn't really want to post recognizable people without permission. Y'all don't be mad.)

Finishing up their proof of having actually learned something. I have the best students. (I only included this photo and not the others because I didn’t really want to post recognizable people without permission. Y’all don’t be mad.)


I see this view everyday; occasionally with less haze.

I see this view everyday; occasionally with less haze.


3rd floor CAT_southwest
In the afternoons after school we mostly crashed and burned and then made dinner, but we also did a few other things, like visit the pottery shop where I’ve been going all these years for super cool, genuine Mexican things (like ceramic, hand-painted house number tiles). Mom got most of her loot there (a ceramic lizard, her house number with frame, a time pig for the youngest grandbaby, a ceramic plaque reading “Casa de la Abuela” – serendipity is everywhere), and I was pleased to see the señor owner who had been absent last year. One afternoon after class Mom had the dubious honor of hearing me rehearse an Art Festival song with the band made up of other faculty members, far more skilled than I. Mom was duly impressed. Luckily, I have pretty decent day job that I actually like.

When I went with Mom to the airport on Saturday morning, I pointed out the places she needed to know and talked her through what came after we checked her in. And then I left her there and made the mad dash back to my house where I made all the calls to all the people who needed to know that she was safely deposited at the airport and would soon be back within reach. And then, I had a little siesta. ~LD

P.S. I am terrible about taking photos; even if I carry the camera around with me, I forget to capture moments. I hope these will give you an idea in spite of me. ~LD

Winding Roads: A Mobius Strip (massive revision and finally complete)

I negotiated the last of the airport hurdles at customs, and was the lone passenger who turned to the right, rather than left to make a connecting flight. Many people lined each side of the wide walkway running from the arrival doors between the coffee shop and the seating against the windows; some held up sheets of paper with a surname printed in large, dark capital letters. Others waited to recognize a face gone absence-blurred. As I scanned the faces for my own white-haired lady, I saw disappointment and waning patience registered in strangers’ eyes, and then there was Mom moving in her determined, crooked stride to where the walkway is no longer bounded by barrier rail. The strangers’ faces disappeared in her wide, wonderful smile, and arms warm and strong.

At my departure point, my house, a few hours earlier, I patted the cats and told them to behave, opened them a bowlful of kitty treats. Cats don’t give great hugs, and mine had spent the night on the couch. Intuition (or the packed bags by the door) alerted them to my imminent departure. I said goodbye again in spite of their indifferent glances, as I dragged my luggage out to the waiting cab, and I tried to remember all the things I ultimately forgot (boiler left running full blast, and at least one forgotten change of clothes), but couldn’t think of anything and rolled on out toward the local airport in the hours before dawn, closing and locking the big, black metal door behind me. When I bent myself into the cab, I saw Orion standing guard over the western hills.

***
As we drove through the city, neighborhoods flashing by in sunlight-dulled Christmas ornamentation, I had a parallel experience to one I had upon first arriving in Mexico. Winter lawns adorned with holiday lighting and grinning Santas, Rudolfs, and nativity scenes made garish in the gaudy Texas sun slid past the car windows on both sides of the car. Even with the ribbons and bows and lights and gewgaws, the homes we passed seemed shockingly naked. Windows, doors, driveways and lawns were left shamelessly unsecured, exposed to the wiles of random strangers.

That night I lay bundled under the covers of the twin bed my niece had graciously lent for my stay. I lay there warm enough, but troubled by noises and anxiety. The scrabbling of night animals outside the window facing a big empty field and a small forest of old growth brought to mind Poe stories and horrors. I kept perfectly still, measuring my breaths, being invisible. The buzz of the refrigerator and electronic devices were remarkably loud, and though I could pick them out device by device, they felt ominous. Weighted down with winter, I made an empty promise to pay attention to the volume of electric and electronic racket in my own house.

The surprise of feeling unsafe came over me as goose bumps sometimes do when I first step into the sun.

***

I can only imagine having driven along the streets of Torreon the first time, noticing that every window and every door of every home, every business was adorned with sturdy metal bars (rejas) built into the concrete window and doorframes. I don’t remember finding the measures unusual, but I must have been at least a little intimidated to know that virtually everyone found them necessary.

Over the years, I have come to find these architectural features more beautiful than strange. Some homes are bounded by a metal fence around the perimeter of the yard. Spear-like decorations often menace any would-be entrant from the upper railing of the fence. “There will be no climbing,” they shout. Other homes are surrounded by walls of concrete block along the top of which the sun dances among a garden of colorful broken glass set in concrete.

Occasionally, I wonder who the bars protect, me or random strangers who might want whatever it is they think I have. But these days, I’m merely glad to have them. Combined with the home alarm, the bars on all the windows and on the carport and over the atrium keep me safer. I try not to think about the fact that should someone find the weak point in my defenses, I am left without an escape hatch. I try not to rehearse how I will manage to get out in one piece, but sometimes I rehearse escape anyway: bathrobe, keys, panic button, steady sanity to get the key in the deadbolt, out of the deadbolt, my Self out the door, locking it behind me. My heart races picturing my bare feet slipping and sliding on the slick tile floors as I flee.

***

The next morning, while my coffee heated, I checked door placement in Mom’s house and figured I had a reasonable chance for escape if needed (God forbid). While I stood there pondering doors, and how fast I could get from the laundry room, across the garage and out to the yard, I realized about the windows. They lock, of course, but they are not troubled by the permanent and unyielding adornment of rejas. I felt my body and brain let go of anxiety all at once as I stirred a little sugar into the coffee. Maybe they weren’t there to protect me, but they weren’t keeping me from running away, either.

***

As the plane circled above the city on my return flight a week or so later, I watched Orion doing cartwheels at the apex of the inky winter sky. I smiled at his undignified behavior, and my own. I picked up my suitcases at the luggage carousel — bookended by soldiers with big guns — negotiated immigration (where I was scolded for my tattered and beaten up residency booklet) and customs and walked toward the frosted glass doors of the arrival area. I turned right through a crowd of expectant faces; some held up sheets of paper with a surname printed in large, dark capital letters. Others waited to recognize a face gone absence-blurred. I grinned at their disappointment and waning patience, and kept walking to the terminal exit, where I hailed a cab. We made our way through the neighborhoods still lit up with Christmas. Lights wrapped white or multi-colored stripes around rejas outside windows, gates and doors. Their light warmed my heart and welcomed me home. ~LD

Defining “Pocho”

[I unintentionally took a couple of weeks off from the old blog to worry about my mom’s broken arm — she’s fine, thanks — and go through the first quarter paper-grading experience. Alas, it wasn’t a true vacation, but I seem to be back and ideas are kicking around up there in my head again. I take it as a good sign for things to come. Thanks for your patience. ~LD]

(with love and a wink for the sophomores)

As I understand it, (feel free to correct me if I’m totally off base) “pocho” is an insulting term in Spanish for a kind of messy speech in which bad English and / or bad Spanish are randomly mixed with false cognates and other novice language errors. In general, if it’s applied to a person (Ella es muy pocha) it suggests ignorance, lack of adequate education and an overall misunderstanding of both cultures. The term is pretty common here in TRC and probably other cities relatively close to the US – México border. At CAT, the international American school where I teach, the term has become a kind of weird badge of honor. Being “pocho” at CAT means you’re not afraid to totally mangle your new language, of being misunderstood, or of poking a little fun at yourself and your cultural biases.

Anyone who has tried to have a conversation in a language they studied, but may or may not have ever used in anything more sophisticated than a staged meeting of a friend on the street in a class role play lesson, knows that conversing in the second language is trying at the best of times. You may be cruising along on your explanation on your point of view, say, about the relative wealth of your native country and stumble on an expression that you don’t know how to express in the second language and so you do the natural thing: word for word translation. I did this the other day with the workers tearing up the water mains on my street.

The workers are replacing the old ceramic water main pipes with shiny new PVC ones. To do that, they have disconnected homes block by block from the old water main and temporarily connected each home to what amounts to a clear plastic garden hose, and then they reconnect to the main after the new pipes are in. The entire process takes about a week. The place they needed to hook me up to the garden hose, my water meter, is inside my carport where they couldn’t see it, much less get to it. I noticed when I came home from school one afternoon that the houses on all sides of me were ready to be connected to the garden hose, but they hadn’t made a connector for my place. In something of a panic over the prospect of no water for a week, I asked a worker who happened to be standing there about the problem, explaining, “. . . es que el metro esta adentro.” I’m sure he thought, “Yeah, lady, I bet there’s at least one meter [think measurements] inside that carport, maybe a few more.” I laughed when I finally realized a little later what I’d actually said instead of what I meant: “el medidor [literally, the measurer] esta adentro.” Que pocha.

A common complaint from CAT students used to be the local teachers who were forced to teach in their second language, but didn’t have a great command of day-to-day English vocabulary. One year there was a teacher my students told me about who called the “parking lot” an estationament [falsely cognated from “estacionamiento”], among other butcheries. At the time it was nice to know that we native speakers of English weren’t the only ones going around thoughtlessly butchering a second language with words like “hamburgero” and “fritos” for hamburger and fries. Far from being misunderstood, the teacher in question was quite clear, as long as his listeners were at least as bilingual as he was. And then there are students who get stuck trying to explain their idea and just flat out, intentionally use false cognates, knowing full well the word is not a word in the language they’re trying to use at that moment. My favorite example was told to me by a friend who related the story of one student who said, “Don’t be amargated [“amargado”], Mister.” The student in question knew the teacher would understand, but couldn’t come up with the word “bitter.” I bet the student will never forget that word now, though.

Lately, among my bilingual colleagues of both nationalities, I’ve noticed a trend toward not only slipping back and forth between languages in a single sentence, or conversation, but the intentional and unintentional pocho-ization of words and phrases as we go through our workday as a kind of mixed-culture humor. These come hard and fast in the midst of quickie questions in the office and as a result, I can’t think of a specific instance, but when I asked one of the other office-lurkers if she could come up with an example, she replied, “Let me think ’cause they are usually expontaneas.” It’s not the best example, in fact, but it certainly shows one way we intentionally pocho-ize as a way to poke a little fun at the way the two languages blend and stick to each other without our thinking about it. The real beauties happen by accident, like the times I’ve started explaining something to a mono-lingual person not in their language, but my other one. I have also caught myself speaking Spanish to people who I know don’t have English as a first language, but may not have Spanish as a language at all – a mom from Korea or France. So embarrassing, sometimes, to be pocha.

In a way, these slips into my second language are a compliment. My brain is programmed to speak to people in their native language out of courtesy. Unfortunately for me, not all languages are English or Spanish. Spanish just happens to be my default “other” language. Nevertheless, I’m a little bit proud of being “pocha”, and maybe I’m the only one, but I think there are a great number of us at CAT who feel the same, even if we’ve never said it “en voz alta.” ~LD