I was looking through some old stuff on my computer, and found my application for the fellowship that brought me here last year. It reminded me why I`m here, and why learning Spanish is both a huge opportunity and responsibility.
When I first decided to learn Spanish, it was because I wanted to say “thank you.” I had arrived, sleeping bag in hand, at Blanca’s door just moments earlier. I would be staying in the cinder-block house of this family of maquiladora workers in Nogales, Mexico, as part of a trip for a college course on the U.S./Mexico border, and I couldn’t even say thank you. I had, of course, said gracias as Blanca, the mother of the household, began serving dinner that first night, but that garbled attempt seemed inadequate coming from a privileged American student who had literally just been airlifted into the lives of this struggling Mexican family.
I still remember the pregnant silence that descended over the table arrayed with bean stew, meats, homemade tortillas and guacamole; so many conflicting emotions and thoughts roiled in my head, but I was deaf and mute, unable to communicate with my hosts. Unable, that is, until Blanca’s sister Carmen joined us.
Carmen could speak some English, and upon learning I was in Nogales to learn about the border, she began recounting painful stories of migrants attempting to flee poverty and hunger in Mexico. She told me of children drowning in the moat-like canals lining the border as they tried to cross with their parents, of old women being abducted and robbed by smugglers, then left to die in the swaths of desert engulfing much of the border, and of cesarean sections performed with kitchen knives in Chiapan homes due to the lack of basic health services in rural Mexico. She told me that Carlos, her son, had lived in the U.S. since age two, but was expelled by the INS just after being accepted to a visual arts school when he was 18; he now earns less than two-hundred dollars each month driving a forklift at a landfill in Nogales. She told me it was too painful for her to go to the side of town where a twenty-foot corrugated metal wall separates it from Nogales, Arizona, and by the silent watchfulness of the rest of the family, I could tell she was speaking for them, too.
As the meal ended, Carmen, in tears now, thanked me for coming to Nogales and listening to her stories. Sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears myself, I found some small piece of redemption in her gratitude. Blanca’s family had given me so much and I had so little to offer in return, but maybe, for an American to travel to Mexico, to listen to the humanizing, heart-breaking stories of the people many Americans dismiss as “illegals,” was an offering in its own right.