I took the required language classes at Kyrene Middle School. Señor Pulskamp taught me that, "dar means to give." He would say it with such gringo gusto that it is burned into my memories. I can still remember the hand gestures he would make when he said it. When I took Señor Brown's class at Marcos de Niza High School, I learned all about "o, a, as, amos, an," which proved to be helpful when I would finally learn to conjugate verbs 5 years later. I also learned how say that I had to use the restroom, ask where the library was and the true significance of "puto," when a Chicano classmate coughed out the word from the back of the class.
However, I really learned Spanish in Pioneer Park in 2005. At least that's where it really began. I had moved out of my parents house a few years prior but it wasn't until Pioneer Park that I finally lived on my own. Prior to that I had always lived with Chris, and had financial crutch. This was my first venture into true independence. I was on my own.
On my first night in Pioneer Villas I clogged the toilet. I tend to have that effect on toilets. Of course I didn't have a plunger. Fuck, I didn't even have silverware. Actually, I'm pretty sure all I had was a mattress, some crates I had stole from the back of a Circle K, a box of books, my clothes and an ashtray. Yep. That sounds about right. I paid my rent and deposit on the apartment with my tax return.
So what's a girl to do? I didn't really know anyone in Mesa. An ex-boyfriend a couple miles away. I wasn't about to call him. I was still hurt. Everyone else I knew was in Tempe. I didn't have money to run down to Walmart and buy a plunger. I didn't have the patience to drive back to Tempe. I briefly considered using a hanger or my hand before I decided I would just ask one of my neighbors. Sounded simple enough.
My next door neighbor's windows were dark so I headed downstairs. I knocked on the door and it was opened by a man in his mid-40's. His face was dark and weathered. He donned a heavily worn Western button-up and faded blue jeans, lightly covered in thin coat of dust. The Hispanic man instantly smiled at me, revealing slightly yellowed teeth, one gold, and a gleam in his eye.
Hi! I just moved upstairs. This is a little embarrassing, but do you have a plunger?
I'm so sorry... I didn't mean to interrupt....
Es que... mi no speake English...
Ohhh... Ummm... lo siento! Ummm... baño... muy full. No flush. Tu... understand?
Baño no hacer schhh schhh schhhhhh...
(making cyclone-like motions with my hand)
You know... Nevermind. I'm so sorry to bother you. Nevermind...
I ran upstairs, completely embarrassed, silently chastising myself for not paying more attention to Señor Brown. My face was buried in my hands when I suddenly remembered that although I didn't have any shampoo, I was pretty sure I had a Spanish to English dictionary in my box of random books. Sure enough, there it was. Stacked right between Betty Crocker's New Cookbook and Anthony de Mello's Song of the Bird. I'm pretty sure it's a stolen dictionary as the sides read "WHS," and who knows where that school is, but whatever. I quickly looked up plunger and ran back downstairs.
I knocked again, with a little bit more confidence behind my fist this time. My neighbor opened the door and that same smile spread across his face again.
¡Guera! ¿Que te pasó?
¡La guera tapó su pinche baño guey! ¡Dale el destapador!
They may have been laughing, but that moment is something I still remember to this day. There was something about their laughter that stuck out to me. I didn't feel like they were making fun of me. Their laughter was sympathetic, almost appreciative. And maybe I was just really high, but that thought stuck with me throughout the years. In all of the times when I should have or could have been self-conscious of my shitty language skills, I remember that day and remember not to be embarrassed and to try my damndest.
It's worked out pretty well for me so far.
After moving to Pioneer Park my entire social circle shifted. The park may be across from an impressive Mormon Temple but it's a whole different world my friends. I hung out with Mexican immigrants almost exclusively. Most were from Sinaloa. Los Mochis. Mazatlan. El Fuerte. Choix. They were day laborers during the week, eagerly posted outside of Home Depot or in front of the Circle K on Mesa Drive and Broadway, hoping to earn $50 for a day's worth of landscaping or construction work. But on the weekends? They would order Domino's and watch English movies and make small talk with as many of their gringo neighbors as possible.
I quickly became enamored with their language and culture. It was easily the most exciting time in my life. I was going through a lot at that point and subsequently made some of the most fantastic friends. I will never forget them or that fucking park or the memories we made. I'm not in contact with any of them now. Migrant workers don't really delve into the online world so we haven't been able to stay in touch. But those friendships and all that they entailed led me to meet Ray. And they changed my life forever.
When I met my now husband, I had just broken up with Antonio from Choix and still spoke very broken Spanish. I decided to make a major life change and move 2 miles down Mesa Drive to Mesa Villages. I hadn't yet learned how to conjugate verbs which made conversations with me quite difficult. There were a lot of misunderstandings. I was determined though. I eventually learned how to properly conjugate the verb "estar" and started using "iendo" and "ando" to get through conversations. I didn't know how to say "I ate," (Comí,) so I would say "Estaba comiendo." I couldn't say, "I worked all day," (Trabaje todo el dia,) so I would say, "Estaba trabajando todo el dia." I tiptoed around verbs in this manner for quite some time.
I'm not going to lie, being on drugs played a role in all of this. I was uber focused and had no responsibilities and all the time in the world. I would stay up until dawn writing vocabulary lists and translating songs I heard on 105.9. I would write poetry in Spanish, pressing my pen into the page until it almost broke through the paper. I'm not saying you should give up on Rosetta Stone and pick up a pipe. I'm just saying.
My dictionary and I were attached at the hip. I took it everywhere with me. It was small enough to fit in my purse and to this day it is dog-eared and highlighted and marked up like a college text book. I was determined to be understood by my new group of friends, Gordo included. It was even harder with him. He wasn't that impressed with me and my attempts to speak Spanish so I had to try even more so. Although we connected immediately I also knew immediately that he was different. He wasn't like the rest of the lot.
We began to argue right away, just as we bicker back and forth today. I love to argue but I hated arguing with him then because I felt so misunderstood. And so I began writing him letters in English and then using my dictionary to translate the letters word for word. This was in 2005 but Google Translate was still foreign to me. I could barely afford toothpaste, much less Internet or a computer. I would write these long, dramatic letters to him, talking about some disagreement we had had the day before. Surely he thought I was insane.
But he loved me all the same.
A year or so later I finally stopped using drugs for the last time and began to look for work. I think I saw the ad in the Arizona Republic. It was for a receptionist position. Bilingual a plus, it read. The office was close to the bodega Gordo worked in and since we only had one car, it seemed perfect. I didn't even have a phone at the time but my mom put the last of her hopes in me and my promise of sobriety and set me up with a Cricket phone so I could put a contact number on my application. I fudged a bit during my interview and said I was bilingual. I wasn't quite there yet, so it was quite a risk. But what did I have to lose?
I got the job and once again, my life changed forever.
I instantly felt bad for lying on my application and became newly dedicated to learning Spanish. It was around this time that the novela, "La Fea Más Bella," aired on Univision and the Conceptos set was the perfect place for me to learn Spanish for the workplace. Professional Spanish. I tuned in Monday through Friday, without fail. As I fell in love with Jaime Camil and practically died in the anticipation that lead to Leticia's makeover, I began to really learn Spanish. Verb conjugation and all.
I immersed myself in the language and gave up English television and music for quite some time. I fell in love with El Coyote y Su Banda and skipped the 6 o'clock news on ABC for Noticias Univision. I passed on Dr. Phil and opted for Cristina instead. Slowly but surely, I became "bilingual," for the most part. Finally.
I still don't consider myself to be completely bilingual and know that I have so much to learn. I would guess that I have about a 5th grade vocabulary. Enough to get through life with but not quite enough to completely understand a lawyer or doctor. I have frequent slip ups and there are plenty of words that I continue to confuse, even years later. I say alimendras instead of almendras, cascara instead of cráneo, pulgas instead of pulgadas, condicionacion instead of acondicionador... I really could go on and on.
Some bad habits are hard to break.
Ray is good to me though and rarely laughs at me like I laugh at him when he says things like "peanut botet," (peanut butter.) I aspire to have his understanding and seriousness and much more. Maybe that's why I've been able to learn his language while he still struggles with mine? Maybe my laughter is too much for his ego? I still can't quite figure that out.