I learned Spanish in an informal and fully immersive way. My in-laws are Mexican with little English skills and on many a night we sat around the table drinking coffee and playing a bingo-like game called “Lotteria”. Spanish soap operas (novellas) soon followed and within a few years I was reading and teaching myself to write the language. I never planned to learn Spanish, and tell folks that I believed myself to be a Mexican those 10 years in California. I also never imagined myself as a social worker but that is who I am pleased to represent proudly. I was afraid to try the Spanish language in a “formal” way with subjunctives, reflexive verbs, and others I cannot translate adequately. However, I learned a bit that I will continue to take with me as a reminder that can’t is a different word for won’t sometimes.
Culture and history, both of which form the foundations of a society and are legitimate clues to what drives its evolution. Both are in a constant rotation, one influencing the other, like everywhere in this world. What is the most major commonality we have with others of different cultures, languages, traditions, etc.? Food. Economic successes, peace agreements, discussions about life, love, and health are met with success and sometimes failure in the midst of breaking bread. The appreciation for the deliciousness of a tasty treat or meal, and respect for the Costa Rican craft of coffee led me on a new immersion experience that yielded in me, a crop of new words, a fresh understanding, and an obsession. Yes, I brought home several bags of Costa Rican coffee and the first thing I did when I finally got home after 14 hours of traveling, layovers and LAX (grrr!), I made myself a cup of coffee at 1030p and watched the Golden Girls. Yass!
Enjoying that cup of coffee and every cup since I got home reminds me of the learning at the Costa Rican Language Academy (CRLA), meals at my Mama Tica’s home with my Hermana Tica and the whole family, and the training and exposure we were blessed to experience in the world of our fellow Costa Rican helpers- the social workers, psychologists, teachers, advocates, volunteers, and residents throughout the communities we visited. At nearly every stop along the way during this time in Costa Rica we were met with coffee and food. Our colleagues and comrades first establishing their openness in sharing their meals and/or traditions with us so that conversation is inspired. As with my familia Garcia in California, I felt welcomed, wanted, honored and humbled.
Frequently, as I sat at the table with my classmates during a presentation or during a meal at my host family’s home is when I listened and heard the most. I learned and shared the personal reflection as mothers that value education and strive to accomplish that for their children. We shared that our respective societies hold education to an elevated standard. While not perfect, Costa Rica provides resources for their citizens to pursue an affordable education. Their scholarships are like our student loans in that they provide for school and some of the expenses that come with it. The only difference is the heavy burden of debt that many of us face after we complete our education is not their experience. I listened to Mama Tica tell me of her experience of working on a coffee plantation and living in the camps with her family where everything had to be done before it got dark since they did not have electricity during these times. Different for me but similar to my mother’s experience in the Deep South of the United States. She shared her experiences with Nicaraguan refugees and how it is they know the difference in folks from Nicaragua or elsewhere. Dona Laura told me, “it’s the accent, the way they dress, the types of work they do, etc.; and of course, Nicaragua coffee is not nearly as delicious as Costa Rican coffee!” Similar to how we recognize the differences between us in our current society; dress, accent, language, and more.
One again I find that this world is not all that different than my own but I realize how I have been made different through this experience. I will put down my fear of anything new, especially after zip-lining through the jungle! More often, I will prepare a meal or snacks to share when sharing a table or conversation with someone- personal or professional. I will accept that American exceptionalism is evident in Central America as it is in the United States and not to be angry, judgmental, or exasperated by it. As my language teacher at CRLA, Maria Duran, pointed out to me when we introduced ourselves- me as an “American”. “I am an American too, from Central America.” Touché. Different countries, different cultures, true but be specific about where you come from and acknowledge what it means when you decide the own the title of “American” wholly in comparison to the rest of the Americas.