I have a new friend, I’ll call her Maricela, with whom I can barely speak. I’m technically her English tutor, a job for which I am really not qualified since she speaks only a few words of English and is, to put it gently, not gifted at language-learning. I, however, am.
She desperately needs to learn English, and she knows that. I think she desperately needs an American friend too, and so, 85% of the times, she speaks Spanish to me instead of working at her English. Even though she knows that I don’t speak Spanish, she bares her soul to me. She tells me, in Spanish, about her seven children, about her work cleaning hotel rooms, about her daughter who is pregnant and the baby’s father is in Mexico and can’t get a green card. She tells me about the house she and her husband are trying to buy and about how the American mortgage system is driving them crazy, and stressing them out beyond bearing.
She tells me all this in Spanish, and so Maricela is teaching me much more Spanish than I am teaching her English. I try. I prepare lesson plans, and I always put the vocabulary in both languages, so I’m learning a lot that way. But mostly I’m learning because when I can’t understand what she’s telling me she holds my hands across the table and looks into my eyes and tries to speak right through my incomprehension. And, amazingly, I am starting to understand quite a lot. I wish I could say the same for her English.
The other day, for some reason, she was talking to me about going to church. In Spanish, of course. And she told me that she’s Catholic, and devout, and then she wanted to know about my religion. She ran down a long list of religious affiliations, leaving out judia? (for Jewish) but asking adventista? (for the seventh day folks). And finally, after I said no to each and every one, she looked down and asked me very softly “crees en Dios?” And I had to say no, no creo. And you don’t need to know Spanish, or even anyone Mexican, to imagine how crestfallen she was to hear that.
But she rallied, and let me know that it didn’t matter, and that we were still friends, and invited me to her daughter’s baby shower. It’s strictly forbidden by the tutoring association that we ever go to each other’s homes. I tried to explain that it’s not allowed, that I had signed a contract. And she said that we just wouldn’t tell them, and that there would be lots of good Mexican food, and that the party would be fun even though I wouldn’t be able to understand more than a few words anyone was saying.
Somehow I understood all that. Fortunately she knows how to say “baby shower” in English, even though she has no concept of the verb to be. And there’s that pesky document I signed saying I wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t go to her home. But just as something is parting the sea of language that separates us, so too something is making that signature seem like such a little thing, so much easier to ignore than the way she holds my hands.