At around four years old, I learned my first words in Spanish: ojo and rojo. I remember these two words in particular because even though they sounded similar, they meant remarkably different things. Over the years as I “studied” Spanish (with greater and lesser degrees of commitment and interest), I must have managed to absorb enough to keep my “other language” neurons ticking because when I came to México to work in 1999 it only took me about six months to carry on a reasonably intelligible conversation. I didn’t know I had really “done it”, though, until one afternoon riding the city bus I overheard and understood a conversation between mother and daughter about the girl’s latest novio. I wanted to kiss them both, as if they were somehow responsible for the flip of the switch in my brain; with difficulty, I restrained myself.
By the time I arrived in Torreón, I had studied Spanish off and on for a minimum of eight years in various formal and informal settings. I had snuck my way through tests of mastery of vocabulary, regular and irregular verbs in all the various voices, tenses and times (I still tend to say “rompido” instead of “roto” for broken). I tried out my spoken Spanish for the first time ever at eighteen years-old on a mission trip to Monterrey, Nuevo León with my grandparents, and while I couldn’t haggle in the market to save my life, I guess I’d have done no better if the language had been English. Thankfully, Pa was a good haggler in any language. A few years later in grad school, I even wrote a halfway intelligible essay analyzing El Lazarillo de Tormes, a picaresque novel by an unknown Spanish author that I’d guess everyone who takes Spanish lit reads. On paper, at least, my Spanish language résumé was quite respectable.
In practice, my second language was, well, something less than the A+ indicated on my report cards. After years of having only a handful of teachers who ever actually spoke to us in Spanish or obligated us to speak in Spanish, the first months in México I resorted to old high school favorites to get by: I copied and out-and-out plagiarized. Luckily, this wasn’t school, it was life, and so no points were deducted. While waiting in line at the grocery store (in those days Gigante, now Soriana), I learned how to ask what the total was by eavesdropping on the customer in front of me. In line at the convenience store, how to ask for cigarettes and how to pronounce the name of the brand I wanted. From a nearby table at a restaurant to ask for an ashtray, bottled water, limeade with mineral water, and whether or not the salsa was hot (¿Pica?). As I gained confidence, I gained new vocabulary and expressions from taxi drivers, students, the bands my students listened to (El TRI!, Maná, and Mecano) and bag boys at the grocery store (one in particular from the Gigante days I am still acquainted with – he has since studied in the U.S. and now works as a manager in the mall. Big step up). Roughly around 2006, I began to be forced to add words and expressions to my vocabulary that no one ever wants to learn, in any language.
The words of violence in the two languages I know are ugly, but curiously graceful. Gunshots, assassin, deceased. Balazos, sicario, occiso. Disparos, balaceros, granadazos, asaltos, robos, secuestros, narcos, narco-manteles, narco-fosas, narco-bloqueos, nuco, calcinados, explosiones, detonaciones, chivas, federales, marinos, zetas, malandros, agresión, extorsión, “las llamadas feas,” mucho movimiento, amenazas, encapuchados, and malitos — among far too many others. To remain informed, to feel reasonably safe, they were words I had to learn. I’d have preferred my new words to be more literary. But then, these words are literary, I suppose. Or will be, one day. Literary the way the language of the mob became literary in Chicago and NYC. Literary the way the language of the Holocaust became literary. Over time. Far too long a time.
All that brutal language, barren and empty and soiled as it is with the blood of tens of thousands of lives lost — lives of the wicked, the ignorant, and the innocent — is like the desert. While the drought rages in waves of heat and hate, the regular guy on the street keeps moving. Gets up, goes to work. Works an honest twelve-hour day, earns an honest, if insufficient wage (not like me with my seven-hour work day and relatively high salary). Comes home to watch the Santos game — rejoicing in a win (GOLAZO!!!) and mourning a defeat — or to see an old movie or telenovela, to put the kids to bed after dinner and homework. He joins in the occasional carne asada in the neighborhood and has a couple of beers or four. And then, after a six-day workweek, takes a well-deserved day off before starting all over again.
When the rain finally comes to end a drought, desert life starts again almost instantly. The greens jump out of the landscape, the cactus bloom, and the desert frogs rise up from under the ground where they’ve waited with patience. We need a rain like that to grow new language that can replace the one we’ve had to create and learn as a defense against scary, unpredictable times. I hope when that rain finally comes, we will have found out that no matter how much has been broken (rota, rota, rota) by the dirty words, we can re-build language in ways that not only change what we talk about, but fill us with hope again. Then we can leave the words of violence out in the wilds to gather dust and erode in the wind of time. ~LD