Small Acts: Finding Friendship with My Online Spanish Teacher
Courtney Maum on the Way Worlds Open Up Through Language
Like many artists I know, I spent a good deal of the post-2016 US election trying to counteract Donald Trump’s bigotry, racism, and general misanthropy in empowering ways. Writing letters, making phone calls, donating money to everyone and anyone who propounded to stop Trump was important—is important—but as anyone who has tried to settle on what makes them the angriest about Trump’s policies will know, there are just too many offenses to choose from. It is impossible, virtually impossible, to land on any issue (women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, you name it) where he doesn’t incite rage.
It’s easy to feel both hopeless and helpless in Trump’s America. No matter how much you fight back, there’s this nagging guilt that it’s not enough, that it’s not the right way, that you should (or shouldn’t) just sit back and enjoy your life once in a while. Although I fully identify as an incensed American feminist, I can’t drop everything and make fighting Trump my full-time job, nor can I handle—on a psychosomatic level—a heart filled exclusively with rage.
As 2016 passed into 2017, and Trump’s day-to-day rhetoric became even more incendiary, I vowed to find something concrete that I could do that would be a sign of my resistance—and also bring me joy.
I decided to learn Spanish. Specifically the Spanish spoken in Mexico, a country that Trump has decided is composed uniquely of “rapists” and “criminals” who he intends to wall off from “American Americans,” despite the fact that, primero: what is an “American,” if not a cultural turducken, born of genetic contributions from our neighbors far and wide?, and segundo, the “American way of life” that Trump supporters are so hell-bent on defending exists thanks in a large part to the cheap Mexican labor that US citizens profit from.
Learning Spanish was a way to show solidarity with the Mexicans and the Latino Americans that Trump’s hatred also touched. It would not be easy, learning Spanish at age 40, but it was a challenge whose progress I could actually track, unlike my mailed letters and the hoisted protest signs, whose impact was less clear.
Children pick up new languages quicker than middle-aged, overworked adults. Young kids either don’t have, or are just embarking on, formal language instruction, so instead of balking against the lawless mayhem of irregular verbs, they passively absorb everything about a language and run with its linguistic odd-men-out. “To be able to” is poder in the present, but its stem changes to “pud” in the perfect simple preterite? Well, sure, why not!
With a full-time work schedule and a young child of my own, there wasn’t going to be any passivity in my pursuit of Spanish fluency. I was going to have to be active: R-trilling in front of bathroom mirrors. Study sessions with flash cards. Stupefaction in front of stealth letters like H and G that were there, but not necessarily said out loud.Learning Spanish was a way to show solidarity with the Mexicans and the Latino Americans that Trump’s hatred also touched.
But the first thing I had to do was find a native speaker to teach me Spanish. Easier said than done in my rural Connecticut town. When my search for private teachers on MeetUp and Craigslist turned up nothing, I looked into DIY programs like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, and Babble. But I was ethically opposed to learning Spanish from my iPhone—I still blamed the damn thing for distracting left-leaners from the rise of Trump. Plus, I didn’t want to learn Spanish from a disembodied voice. As a writer, I spend most of the workday alone, grappling with narrative conundrums in my private mind. For my Spanish endeavor, I wanted connection, a human pulse, a person I could talk to. I wanted to be bossed around and given homework. Linguistic S&M.
My search eventually led me to TakeLessons.com, a company that offers group and private video lessons in everything from “Broadway Singing” to the cello to astrology. For me, even the decision to take an online video class was a feat in itself. I’m so Skype-averse that I’ve driven multiple hours to book clubs, just to avoid interaction with strangers via screen. But the prospect of being able to communicate with the members of an entire culture that Trump was denigrating got me over that hump.
In order to choose a teacher from TakeLessons, you have to browse through teacher photographs and bios, which felt online-datey to me, but I suppose I was, in fact, embarking on a relational journey of sorts. I chose a teacher named Hilda Rueda because she is an artist (so I felt she would understand my work-life, if I advanced to a point where I was able to talk about it), because she spoke French, as I do, (so she would understand any French-informed mistakes I made in Spanish), and also because she lives in Texas, which is a state that—much like Florida—I would like to understand better so that I can forgive the way they vote most of the time.
A lot of things happened between me and Hilda in our first Thursdays together. I sold two books to different publishers! I adopted a cat that was supposed to be in upstate NY but turned out to be in New Orleans, and when he finally arrived in Connecticut, another surprise was that he was not the charming kitten I’d signed up for; he was a four-year-old, traumatized, flea-bitten, chin-acne-bearing stray! Meanwhile, Trump was grabbing pussies and The Handmaid’s Tale was becoming prophecy instead of fiction. These were roller-coaster times.I stopped listening to NPR and embraced “News in Slow Spanish,” a program whose reporting I found more trustworthy and far-reaching than the American news outlets who often forgot that there were other countries outside of the US of A.
Because I wasn’t capable of communicating anything other than the very present present in the Spanish I was learning, I found myself paying more attention to my feelings in the here-and-now. Like many romance languages, Spanish has two forms of “to be,” which made me even more reflective about the nuances in my reactions to current events. Was I angry? No, that wasn’t quite right. (What was the Spanish word for “dread?”) Was I sad? (Not right, either. What was the word for “shame?”)
Compounded with the fact that I was linguistically incapable of opaqueness, I found myself speaking to Hilda in a fashion that was so free from artifice, it soon felt like I was getting psychotherapy alongside Spanish lessons.
And so began a grounding routine of linguistic #resistance: video lessons on Thursdays, with the rest of the week seeing me conjugating verbs in pencil, so I could correct my many mistakes; watching hilariously outdated sitcoms like the 2002 Extra en Español, in which most of the action centers around a Madrilenian and her stationary bike. I bought Juan Rulfo’s Mexican classic Pedro Paramo, and the Argentine Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama, and I continue to move through these books at the Concord pace of three pages a month.
Spanish, contrary to what many people told me, is a difficult language: quick-paced and colloquial, with Rs I don’t have the flare for and “ñ”s my tongue can’t get right. I’d also been told that my French would help my Spanish, but I find it a hindrance. In Spanish, “él” is “he,” while in French, “elle” is “she.” In French, “les” is a definite article; in Spanish, it’s a third-person plural indirect object pronoun. And yet, a beloved French swearword is “Putain” (whore) and in Spanish, it’s “Puta madre” (of a mother whore), which told me all I needed to know about how deep, and strong, and far down the roots of sexism go.
I stopped listening to NPR and embraced “News in Slow Spanish” instead, a program whose reporting I found more trustworthy and far-reaching than the American news outlets who often forgot there were other countries outside of the US. I listen to the “Radio Ambulante” podcast while I cook dinner for my daughter, and while I only understand 37 percent of the stories being told there, that amount is growing by a (half) percentage point each day.A shared language allows you to extend a hand for holding. It is a tool for building bridges, and a tool for breaking walls.
In the meantime, Hilda has become both my teacher and my friend. She bought all of my books and has been a true cheerleader in the lead up to the publication of Costalegre, which takes place in western Mexico. She assures me that it will be a success when I tell her that I feel anxious, and was one of the first people to see its cover design over Skype.
Over the course of the research trips I took to western Mexico for this particular book, I started forging friendships with people in Jalisco and Mexico City, and those friendships have deepened thanks to the fact that my previous, potentially offensive declarations that “I just love Mexico!” are now complemented by me putting the real work in to learn about the culture through its native tongue.
It’s a small thing, my efforts to learn Spanish, and of course, my weekly Spanish lessons play no part in the larger immigration crisis that is ruining so many lives beyond the border, nor does it have an effect on any of the ongoing geopolitical crises at all. And yet, I have been in situations recently—both in America and Mexico—in which I was able to speak with someone—connect with someone—I otherwise would not have been able to engage with in a meaningful way if I didn’t have some Spanish.
I am continuing with my Skype lessons, my scribbled conjugated verbs, my evening podcast sessions and my leaden progress through the Latin American canon. A shared language allows you to extend a hand for holding. It is a tool for building bridges, and a tool for breaking walls.
Courtney Maum’s Costalegre is out now from Tin House.