I almost called my book “The Language of Love” because that’s one way to explain how we began a 30-year marriage with a Spanish-English dictionary.
The dictionary was a paperback edition from my college days. We wore it out the first year.
When I met Sixto in Mexico, where he was born and raised, he spoke a little English that he had picked up from American tourists.
I spoke a little Spanish from college classes that taught me to inquire about someone’s health, but left me mystified if the person responded with anything beyond: “Muy bien. ¿Y usted?”
Nevertheless, Sixto and I fell in love (at first sight) on a train through Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) and were married in 1988, two weeks after Sixto arrived (through a hole in the fence) in the United States.
We could communicate, in part, because we believed we could understand each other. We had a shared purpose. We knew what we wanted.
There was an urgency and an intensity in those days. It was about being together and staying together.
He made it his goal was to learn English as fast as possible. He enrolled in English-as-a-Second-Language classes at Pima Community College and insisted we speak only English at home.
I was fine with that. After all, it let me off the hook — at least temporarily.
He was surrounded by English speakers — my mother, my friends, my church. He learned fast.
Meanwhile, I thought I was making great progress with my Spanish. Why not? I had all those dog-eared pages in the dictionary to testify to the many times we’d translated something.
I had my illusions. He had an expanding knowledge of English.
By the time we made a trip to Mexico with my family in late December of 1990, he could talk to my mother and sister with little difficulty.
I only thought I could speak Spanish — a delusion my overly generous mother-in-law encouraged by — apparently — reading my mind.
She always seemed to understand what I was trying to say — even if I had to ask Sixto what she said in response.
I got a lesson in how little I knew from his brother Porfirio, who did not believe he could communicate with me.
It happened at a time of crisis.
We were visiting Sixto’s mother in her village near Los Mochis, Sinaloa. The Rio Fuerte had flooded and we’d all been forced to evacuate to a small hill in the middle of the fields.
We’d been stranded together on that hill for several days: Me, Sixto, my mother, my sister and my nephew, along with much of Sixto’s family and most of the village where my mother-in-law lived.
I was pregnant, so as soon as the water receded enough, his family insisted we try to get to the city. That meant walking out through water that was still thigh-deep.
Their homes were flooded, so they had no intention of leaving until they could assess the damage and start cleaning up. But the supply of food and water we’d been able to take to the hill was dwindling fast.
That was another reason we left: After we made our way to the high ground in Los Mochis, Sixto’s goal was to get supplies to take back to those we’d left behind.
This is how I got another language lesson.
From “Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders”
The city was crowded, but the hotel had plenty of room. Few of those who fled the flood could afford to stay there. They stayed with relatives or friends. The stores downtown, on the other hand, throbbed with those who, like Sixto, had promised to bring back water and food to friends and family.
We had barely set down our luggage in our room when Sixto was on the phone trying to reach Porfirio. He left a message with Artemia, which took a long time because he had to fill her in on the news from Los Suarez and Cohuibampo. Then he made sure the others were comfortable in their rooms before he headed out to line up the supplies he planned to take back to the hill.
My assignment was to wait for Porfirio to call. It seemed simple enough.
When the phone rang, I made my first mistake.
I said, “Hello.”
There was a sigh, followed by loud breathing. Then I heard a muffled voice as a man spoke, not into the receiver, but to someone in the room with him. I knew it was Porfirio. He was telling Artemia I was speaking English to him. He sounded desperate.
I said, “Hello” again, in my most cheery voice. Surely hello is a universal greeting.
Porfirio came back on the line, speaking too fast for me to follow. I could only make out “Sixto.” Of course, I thought, he’s asking for Sixto. I can handle this.
“No está aquí,” I said slowly. He is not here. It didn’t get any more basic than that. Even with my accent, that should have been easy to understand.
Porfirio responded with even more rapid-fire Spanish. Again, I could only make out one thing with certainty: “Sixto.” This time, the name was bracketed with large question marks.
“No está aquí,” I said again, very slowly. If we can just get past this part, I thought, we can work on something more meaningful.
I could hear more muffled side talk as he consulted with Artemia. He came back with something I didn’t understand, and I again repeated my phrase. Finally he got it.
“¿No está Sixto?” he said. Sixto isn’t there?
“Sí,” I said. “No está.”
I started over. Eventually we got back the question “¿No está Sixto?” and I correctly answered “No, no está.” No, he’s not.
We were making progress now.
Then I made my next mistake. I tried to get the information necessary to take a message.
“¿Está en casa?” I asked. Are you home?
More excited talking to Artemia.
“¿Que?” he said very loudly when he came back on.
“¿Está en su casa?” Are you in your home?
I thought this was pretty clear and understandable. Of course I was using the formal pronoun, which was wrong and would have made him think I was talking about somebody else’s casa. But really. I’d just walked through floodwaters after spending days wondering if my baby was going to survive. The least he could do was respond to my pidgin Spanish.
All he had to do was say “sí” or “no.”
Sixto would have understood me. Doña Sole would have understood me. Tía Chayo would have understood me. Artemia would have understood me, if he had just put her on the line. But Porfirio could not understand me for the simple reason that he didn’t expect me to speak Spanish. I was undercut by a stereotype, but I kept trying. Eventually he slammed down the phone.
By the time Sixto got back, Porfirio and Artemia were in the lobby, demanding to know what room I was in and acting so crazy that the nice young woman behind the desk refused to tell them.
The phone call had convinced them I was under duress, and that Sixto was trapped in somebody’s house. They’d rushed over to the hotel. When Porfirio told Sixto about our phone call, Sixto was convinced I must be delirious. He ran up the stairs without waiting for the elevator and burst in our door calling, “Mi, amor, what’s wrong?”
Porfirio and Artemia were close behind.
Nothing, I replied.
Porfirio whispered a few curses as we sorted things out.