Languages

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Remember those kids in school who would make up elaborate lies about themselves in order to impress you, and then would develop those into even more outlandish lies in order to keep up the momentum?

If I could tell you all of the disparate, outrageous, terrible events happening to our family right now in Guatemala, you’d think that I was one of those kids. For now, I can’t tell you because things are really sensitive, but as I fly down to Guatemala right now, I’m steeling myself for some of the greatest challenges yet in my life. Things are really bad right now, and for reasons separate and beyond the painful loss of Glendi’s dad.

If you are reading this, please be thinking about us. When you eventually hear about some of this stuff, you really won’t believe it. It’s like the worst greek tragedy one could write.

However, in a brief distraction of positive news as I wait for my plane to board, I just finished and incredible month long intensive to become an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher. It was super hard, but so fun! I forgot both how much I love everything to do with languages, and also how good I can be at school. I actually kind of shocked myself by how well I did in the program. But then again, I barely slept. It is also really weird how a month ago I was completely locked in the non-profit executive mindset, and now my mind-set–beyond the immediate crises–is now very, very oriented toward teaching. And I am really excited about being a teacher!

With all the love in the world for you who read this, and with trepidation in the face of the coming weeks…

So, like many folks, I believe that our society’s gender binary system (that is, the simplistic division of our species into two fixed categories of men and women, without any flexibility between them) is really messed up, and I really want it to change.

One of the ways that many people have tried to change this system is by tweaking the English language in ways that allow us to blur and even dissolve gender distinctions…especially regarding pronouns.

Instead of “He and She” and “His and Her” people have tried things like “Zhe and Hir” and “Squee and Squir”. I’ve always liked this, in theory, but to be honest the pronouns have always been a bit clumsy coming out of my mouth. Surely, this owes a lot to years and years of living in the gender-binary system, and not being accustomed to other ways of expressing and talking about gender…but I also just think that the sounds are a little bit hard to make…

And so, I want to show you another way to mess with gender and pronouns that’s really creative and really easy to use. It was thought up by friends Briana and Eva.

Very simply, you just turn the first letter of someone or something’s name into the pronoun. To make it possessive, just add ‘s to it. So simple. So, for example, my pronoun is J. So, “Jeremy’s birthday was yesterday. J turned 26. J’s friends and family were very happy to celebrate with J.” or…”Jeremy was talking to Briana last night, and B thought that J had made some really good points…”

See, it’s simple, and it’s cool. And what if you don’t know someone’s name? Then use P, for person. If it’s an object, use the name of the object, or sure, use T or O for Thing or Object. It’s cool!

My Spanish

Something that I’ve noticed is that I really don’t write much about the main thing I’m doing down here: studying Spanish. I really haven’t discussed how easy or hard it is for me…mainly because there’s so much else to talk about. However, while I’m still in this country, I want to dedicate some space to it.

I have loved learning Spanish. It has been coming very easy to me. The grammar has always been really interesting to learn, and it has also come relatively easy to me. My teachers have told me that I demonstrate a strong capacity to learn languages and I don’t really know if that’s true because I’m really insecure…but I’ve recieved enough strongly positive comments from enough different people that I believe it a little.

However, I do know that talking is hard for me. I’m slow, unless the conversation is politics, and then I speed up and talk a lot better…and I still can’t understand a thing when people are talking fast…but when things are slow, or I can read it, I understand everything but the smattering of words I don’t know…and that’s just a matter of learning more and more vocabulary.

My writing is my proudest thing. I’ve written probably about 20 pages worth of papers in Spanish here, and I think they’ve been some rather interesting papers (my last one was basically my atheism post, but in Spanish, as preparation for a really interesting conversation with my evangelical teacher this last week)…and I think my writing style translates well into Spanish, so I can actually have nice rhythm and imagery.

Now, when I get home to Seattle I have a difficult road ahead. I have to keep reading constantly, writing, learning new words and many idiomatic expressions, polishing the few points of grammar I still find a bit slippery (prepositions and actually a little bit of past tense which trips me up sometimes)…but especially talking. I don’t know, I think I might become one of those white people who orders in Spanish in Mexican restaurants…is that a bad thing…I don’t know…

For some reason, I really want to watch the lord of the rings trilogy in Spanish…

It’s really strange and beautiful…these little things that keep happening, these little coincidences…I’ll learn a word in Spanish just accidently, then 15 minutes later in a totally different situation it’ll end up being a key word in a conversation…little bits of serendipity.

Por ejemplo, I had just wrote that post on my blog about my anarchist atheism, right? Well, last night, me, my friend Peggy, and my friend Terezia (who actually spent a year in Guatemala and a year in Mexico, so she speaks fluent Spanish…leaving me feeling awe-inspired, jealous, and inadequate all at once) decided to hang out at the house of their friends…one of whom is a teacher at my school. So they are two young, hip Guatemalans…and from 10pm to 4am we hung out at their house, while they all drank rum and cokes (me, just cokes with lime juice…since, of course, I don’t drink), and we talked in Spanish… and…serendipity…the discussion was about anarchism and about atheism! In Spanish, I actually had to hold my own trying to defend and explain my ideas…why I wasn’t just totally naive and stupid…why being anarchist is more than their stereotype of someone who wears all black, has dreadlocks, plays hack-sack (?), and juggles with fire sticks (?!)…and it was an incredibly fun night, that felt exactly like all of my favorite nights of staying up with friends having political conversations…and I just would pause periodically and be like…this is in Spanish!….this is in Spanish! And it felt like just another night with friends (although my talking was obviously slow and full of errors)! Just 5 weeks ago, I knew 100 words in Spanish…and I couldn’t say anything out loud…and now this…I not only could defend anarchism, I actually got them to acknowledge the beautiful and elegant philosophy that it is (much of this was framed in a debate between anarchism and communism…which they are more familiar with…and I tried to bring feminism into the equation as well…of course).

So, it was a great night…and it was a great way to say goodbye to my time here in Xela as I head for the mountains. And there’s something interesting about this, as well…

I can’t remember if I wrote this here…but for my graduation at the mountain school two weeks ago (they have a graduation every week for students who are leaving…where the students are asked to do something, sing, dance…etc. in Spanish) I did an activity of popular education which we do here in the states…this group brainstorming activitity that is meant to counter sexism and build consciousness about the difference between how men are raised and how women are raised…it’s called the act like a man/act like a lady boxes…anyway, I did this activity, facilitated it and explained it totally in Spanish…and it worked! And the two male teachers got kind of defensive…and one of them started arguing with me in Spanish…so I had to try to argue back in Spanish (very, very hard!). The women, however…at least most of them…loved it.

So, what I’ve been hearing is that teachers have actually been talking about my activity still these last two weeks…one of the women even did it with one of her students! Ooh, how flattering…cross-cultural solidarity and movement building in just a little way…so I really look forward to going back there and seeing those folks again.

See you in a week!!!

La Escuela De La Montaña, Part 1

Okay, I’ve just got a few minutes before I’m heading off to a workshop on human rights in Guatemala, but I really need to get moving on my stories from the mountain school, as new stories pile up each and every day…

Here are the basics:

The mountain school is sister project of the same collective that runs the language school in Xela, and it was started in 1997, I believe. It is a school in the country, located on land that used to be a finca (a plantation)…and I believe that the school building itself used to be the finca owner’s house.

The climate in this area is very warm and humid, with sun and warmth almost every morning and heavy rain EVERY afternoon. The property itself has all sorts of trees, coffee trees, banana trees, chickens, three dogs, two cats…and now…two ducks (who arrived while I was there)…the property is super comfortable, except for the billions of mosquitos that ripped my arms, legs, belly, and face apart. There are hot showers and electricity…and all of the students (12-14 at a time) live in the school…it’s a total dorm atmosphere, which was really fun…

Now, the school is located on the same old finca property as two small villages, Fatima and Nuevo San Jose…both of these villages are completely composed of families that used to live on fincas (that is, they born out of many generations of people who have lived on the finca, worked on the finca, and died on the finca…basically straight up peasants in the feudalistic sense of the term), but the finca owners ended up screwing with these folks too many times (in Nuevo San Jose’s case, by not paying them AT ALL for more than A YEAR!), and so the families organized unions (having to meet secretly in the Catholic church under the guise of worshipping, for fear of being killed or persecuted as “guerillas” since this was during the civil war that lasted for 36 years until the peace accords in 1996), and struggled, and struggled…until they were left with no choice but to leave their homes on the fincas (carrying all of their possessions on foot in the rain for miles and miles…all at once…at least in Nuevo San Jose’s case). So, now there are these two collectively built villages, Nuevo San Jose which is 11 years old, with 25 families, and is composed of two parallel dirt roads (more like wide dirt paths) with houses on both sides…and Fatima…which is 5 years old, with something like 15 families, and which is one dirt road with houses on both sides…through cooperation, solidarity, and struggle, they have built a school, they have gained services like electricity and water (Nuevo San Jose at least, Fatima still doesn’t have water)…and who knows what will come in the future…but it was always a joy to hear the stories of these important places from the families…and the mixture of pride and sadness (because the fincas were their homes…and they had thought they would grow and die there, as unjust and hard as that seems to me, and probably you too) was obvious on their faces.

Now, although the students live in the school, we each had a family, which changed each week (so I had two total), and we would eat three meals a day with our families…and that is where I’ll have to leave off right now…but when I return I’ll talk about the families, about the school, about the teachers and students…and poco a poco…about all this made me feel.

In the meantime, I’m doing fine here in Xela…I’d rather be in the mountain school still, and I’m a little bit overwhelmed by my studies right now (only my fourth week of Spanish and I’m studying the “advanced” track of grammar…subjunctive tenses…youch).

More later, and much love to you all!

No time to describe my daily life today, once again…but that’s okay, because I’d rather discuss the process of learning a language and the power of it for me…

For me, learning a language feels something like walking around, gathering precious stones…with each word I pick up, memorize, use, whole new avenues of discussion and sharing are opened up. I learn the word baño, and suddenly I don’t have to hold it in anymore. I learn the word cuesta and I can find out how much things cost…I learn the word ejercito (army), and then the story of Guatemala begins to unfold. The story of CIA organized coups, US supported massacres, kidnapped and tortured activists (many younger than me), North American and European corporations gobbling up this land and its people for centuries…the story of a country that many of us in the United States would have trouble even finding on a map (including myself, even four months ago!)…with each word I can come so much closer to a person, to buried histories…and it’s beautiful and endlessly satisfying.

But it’s exhausting too…as I find myself spending entire days trying to figure out what I want to say to my “host family” (I’m living with a mother and her two sons, 18 and 21 years old)…do I want to ask about movies, or do I just want to talk about food…not many options yet…and a couple of days ago I was just pacing around a group of stores because I was scared to go in and have to ask for la espuma (shaving creme)…because here in Xela, the stores are counters with their products behind them…so to buy something requires human interaction and communication…and each night I have no problem falling asleep, because my brain has been fully active for sixteen hours…trying to find the right endings to verbs…trying to figure out whether I’m saying “of” or “for,” trying to figure out just one more way to understand people’s stories…

I go to bed each night feeling full intellectually…but its impossible to sit completely comfortably here…because this is not my country…and my country does not have a pleasant history here…and my responsibilities, as someone who wants to struggle for justice in my country alongside folks struggling for justice here in Guatemala…my responsibilities feel very real to me…and that’s primarily why I’m here, learning Spanish…so I can be that much better at fighting for a better world alongside others…

…and it’s important to recognize how much farther ahead folks down here, in Latin America, are in that struggle than those of us in the States are…we have much to learn, and much to inspire us. I just want to keep gathering these stones…just want to keep listening and paying attention…

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi