The Language Barrier as Bloqueo (blockade)
May 5, 2010
May 5, 2010
I am more comfortable attending a Mass in English than I am attending a Mass in Espaňol. But since I am living in Latin America, I usually attend Masses in Spanish. Some worship experiences, however, have been meaningful for me, despite the language barrier. For example, in the second week of Lent, Joel and I joined our neighbors as they participated in the Stations of the Cross. In a circumscribed section of our neighborhood, fifteen homes had erected shrines representing each station of the Cross, culminating in the fifteenth station, that of the Resurrection. As Joel and I walked from one shrine to another with our host couple, Lily and Henry, we knew that the physical act of walking from one shrine to another was enriching our Lenten experience. So on we walked in the darkness, from one lighted shrine and then another-- kneeling, singing with the seminarians whose guitars and voices floated through the crisp air, listening to the Scripture and praying with the neighbors, and finally, getting a blessing from the holy water that the priest had blessed at our own house. This experience needed no translation from Spanish into English.
In the church itself, when one stands, sits, and kneels in one place for a long period of time, it is helpful for the mind to have something to latch onto. The Easter Vigil that I attended weeks ago was a long one, and in Spanish, of course. Without a program to follow and no liturgical guide, I was lost in a sea of Spanish, occasionally clinging to the words that I knew. The Vigil was beautiful, with candlelight, music, and much of the liturgy in song. To my own surprise, though, I began to feel like a child, forced to sit through a service that I was not a part of and did not understand. I felt suffocated and wanted to flee from the church during the long Mass.
The part of Mass that I miss the most is the homily. I need to know what the minister is saying, the way the Living Word is being channeled through the homilist. My experience of Mass is emotional (the music and the message), intellectual (the liturgy and homily), and spiritual (particularly in the Eucharist itself, but throughout the service). I needed to hear the words of the homily in English, but as a person in an immersion program, I felt that my desire for a homily in English was dodging my main reason for being in school, to learn Espaňol. Still, I longed for the intellectual experience of hearing my favorite priests’ messages before the Eucharist: Fr. Steve at Holy Rosary in Nashville, TN, whose homilies formed the foundation of my knowledge of the Catholic faith; Fr. Pat, the Catholic chaplain at Furman University in Greenville, SC, whose homilies seemed to address whatever problem I was having at the time; and Fr. Joe Nangle, the Franciscan priest whose homilies at Casa San Salvador always included the new missioners’ reflections on what he had said and what we thought about the readings for the Mass. (We were a close group of friends during those Masses.) When I left these celebrations, I had received the body and blood of Jesus as well as God’s message to me, both of which sustained me as I went back into the world of stress and deadlines.
Here at Maryknoll Language Institute, there are many priests who are studying Spanish, beginners and veterans. Some come from the United States. Because of the demand for pastoral ministry among the growing Hispanic population in our country, North American priests need to be prepared for conversational Spanish, and Maryknoll is a good school for both cultural and language immersion. Priests from the U.S. also study here because they, like us missioners, are going to work here in Latin America. What better way for the English-speaking priests to prepare for celebrating Masses in Spanish than for them to have Mass for the rest of the students? Thus these Masses are generally said in Spanish, which is part and parcel of the language immersion process.
For a couple of weeks, however, when the congregation consisted only of English speakers, we were lucky enough to have a Maryknoll priest say Mass for us, and he celebrated the entire Mass in English! How wonderful it was for me to connect sound and sense in worship! What’s more, after the homily, all of us discussed both his homily and our own responses to the liturgy. It reminded me of the Masses at the Franciscan mission house, with Joe Nangle.
Now, at Maryknoll (and I want to add that these Masses are arranged for by the language students themselves), we celebrate Mass in Spanish, but the current celebrant, a young priest from Georgia, gives his homilies in Spanish, followed by translation in English. Another priest from Boston, who has just begun to celebrate Mass, follows his example, but gives his homilies in English, with apologies, of course. Fortunately, the small group there has been English-speaking.
With time, practice, and lots of Spanish classes, I am getting closer to comprehension of the Mass. Like most Catholics, I know the liturgy of the Eucharist, and as I added some simple Spanish words to my vocabulary, like pan for bread, and tocar for take, along with pronouns and prepositions, I could follow the words of the Eucharist. Gradually, I came to learn the Lord’s Prayer, the Gloria, and the congregational responses in Espaňol. On Thursday mornings in our Spanish classes, we read the entire liturgy of the Word aloud, in order to improve our pronunciation. As I read the words, I now have minimal difficulty translating them into viable English. Still, the written word is far easier for me than the oral one.
And so last Friday, the first Friday in May, I was walking back from the Immigration Office, where I have spent so many days trying to complete my visa for the coming year, as well as getting my carnet, my identification card for Bolivia. As I passed the church at Cala Cala, St. Ann’s, I noticed that the doors of the church were open—they are usually locked with a heavy iron gate barricading the entrance. It came into my mind that this was First Friday. As I gingerly peeked into the small chapel at the back of the church, I saw that it was almost filled with older women, praying the Rosary. On the altar was the Monstrance, flanked by flowers. I was definitely the youngest woman present, and no men were there. The Rosary was repeated in Spanish, and the women were singing hymns together, in harmony, truly a beautiful sound. I found the program, sat down with them, and prayed the Rosary with them. Yes, I had learned how to say the Rosary in Spanish. In this moment of time, I was one of them.
There is no happy ending to this story yet. But as I spend more time in this country, these times of affinity and understanding will multiply. Tomorrow, I will go to Mass at St. Ann’s, where I go each Sunday, and the homily will be in Spanish. I will comprehend the readings from Scripture because I have studied them in Spanish, the rites because I am accustomed to them, and maybe a little more of the homily than I did the week before. This is all that I can ask for.
Here are two pictures of the Maryknoll Chapel: a view of the front and one of the side chapel.
May 21, Part II
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” Matt 18:3
Sometimes it seems that my ability to communicate in Espaňol is determined by the desire of the other person to communicate. When I am in the position of a consumer, that is when I am in a taxi, at the supermarket , or in a store, the driver or salesperson seems to have a lot of patience when I convey to him or her what I need. The guard in our neighborhood, our Bolivian family, and of course, our instructors at the language school listen carefully to me when I express my thoughts and needs.
What can be difficult is listening to presentations in another language. Joel and I went to the International Conference for Climate Change here in Bolivia last month, and found it difficult to follow the panel discussions and talks there. For a week, we went from one talk to another at the Univale (University of the Valley), a large, modern university in the neighboring town of Tiquipaya. I could follow the general thrust of the ideas, but was at a loss as to why the audience cheered when it did. Eventually, we found the headsets that enabled us to hear the presentations in English. What a difference! And even now, this week, when I attended a long talk on children’s rights at the Franciscan Social Center, sponsored by Franciscans International, I checked with other missioners to make sure that I had my facts straight. I have had to write emails in Espaňol, as well as attend dinners and lunches where the only language spoken was Espaňol. I made an announcement to the Institute about making plans for our graduation—in Espaňol. This was indeed my first time to make a public announcement in my new language. To my surprise, the people gathered around me applauded. Why? They knew that I had crossed a threshold.
I think that now I can put my biggest challenge, and worst experience, back in February, in perspective. This experience has to do with my efforts to extend my visa and get my identification card (carnet) for my three-year residence here. With very little Espaňol, I went to the first police station to have my fingerprints made as well as two photographs, one serious, and one smiling. I supposed at the time that both photographs could serve the authorities well, especially if I were a “wanted” person. This was just the beginning of many afternoons and mornings of attempting to get a carnet. All five of us missioners went to have blood tests, to be sure that we did not have HIV or tuberculosis. The understanding here was that any mistake made by either ourselves or the official was our problem to correct, whether we had to get another test because our results had been lost or our name had been typed incorrectly.
Our second-to-last stop was the police station by the lake. I went there four times to get my papers. I did not make friends with the officer who was in charge of my papers, and I felt that this was due to my inability to speak effectively. The directions and commands were put to me in a harsh way, in another language. When I stood there, not knowing what to do, I was basically told to leave the crowded room. I felt the tone of the command, but only eventually did I realize that I no longer had any business being there. I was upset about the way that I had been treated, and frustrated because I could not understand what had happened. Still, I had to return three more times to get my paperwork done, and had to make a special effort to convince the people there that I was married, not single. Did I have my marriage license with me, they asked. All seemed hopeless—but someone just handed me my papers with the correction on the back (yes, my marriage did exist). I was free at last to go on to the immigration office, the last way station in our efforts to work legally as volunteers in Bolivia.
The important point here is that everyone is alone when he or she goes to the various stations for a visa. The immigration office is the last stop, and I have been there three times and will go once more to get my carnet. After moving from one room to another in the building, I got to the point where I was to fill out a large form in Espaňol. I doggedly began filling it out, noting that I had mistakenly told someone in the previous office that I was 67 years old, not 57. Ouch! I was as eager to correct this error as I was to make sure that it was official that I was a married woman. In a timid voice, I asked one of the officials if I could correct this. It won’t matter, he said, but then asked me if I would like to speak in English. His words were gentle, “Don’t worry about this. I will help you to fill out the form.” He was pleasant, smiling, and generous with his time. For the first time during my efforts to get my visa and carnet, someone was speaking English with me as I tried to complete this important and significant task.
All of us missioners encountered this kind young man who helped us to complete our final application forms. But because I was the most needy, I was the most grateful. I made a mental note to be a better United States citizen when I returned home and noticed someone from another country who seemed unsure or afraid. I understood from my own experience the need for drivers licenses to be given in one’s own language (I have flunked the drivers license test in my own language . . . .), even when someone is basically fluent in the new language.
Yesterday when I was walking to school, I passed a blind woman on the sidewalk, carrying her child in one arm and tapping her walking stick with the other. I was concerned about her crossing the busy intersection ahead. Where was my Spanish now? What could I do? Directly behind me was a guard from Maryknoll. He spoke Spanish fluently but between the two of us, we could think of nothing to do. We could not walk her home or to her workplace. Would better Spanish help me at this time? Later in the day, Joel and I encountered a four-year-old on the street whose brothers and sisters had run away and left him alone. We saw him crying and Joel called out to him in Spanish. He was too upset to answer, but when we saw his brothers and sister, we told them that he had gone around the corner. They flew after him.
The demands for us to know the language here are great, and we keep trying. I was discouraged yesterday from my performance in my classes. I took this sense of discouragement home with me, and as I wrote my blog last night, I decided that a cup of hot chocolate would cheer me up. I went downstairs to the kitchen, where Lily, our host mom, was soaking her arm in a large bowl of hot mantequilla tea. Her grandson, Sebastian, had tattooed his grandmother’s arm—totally—with the magic markers that Joel and I had given him for his saint’s day. She was laughing as she performed this unusual ritual. We talked about the problems that we were having with our families, not new topics for us. I told her that I needed hot chocolate to make myself feel better about my Spanish. She looked at me intently and told me every day I improved a little more. She meant it.
When we first came here, Dan Moriarty, a Maryknoll lay missioner, told us that speaking Spanish was a way of taking on poverty. As Joel has put it, we choose to be marginalized when we chose to come here to speak in a foreign language. As an English professor and editor, I have always appreciated the power of the written and spoken word. I was well armed in my communication skills. Now, I am a beginner in this language, and sometimes need the help of others to communicate. I am the marginalized one, despite my education and experience. But as Lily told me, each day I get better, and so just as a child learns to talk and read in his or her own language, I too will mature in this new medium of communication. Poco a poco . . . .