cobble stone street with multicolored flags hanging across.

You Are What You Speak

I have struggled with what to write, to find my voice for this post and tell the story of our lives in Sayulita for the last three weeks.  My block is partly due to the all-consuming news of the inauguration, Spanish language acquisition and because part of our story is about sickness. Stomach bugs, flu bugs and cold bugs (I’ve been down with the flu for the last three days).

As you know from my last post, landing in Sayulita was less than smooth. Turns out, according to some people we have met through the girls’ school, we are not the only family with a horror story upon arrival. It seems adversity is how Sayulita greets its new transplants. Our party hostel gave us quite the introduction to this beach pueblo and the wave of nauseous fear was unavoidable.  What did we do? Despite the numerous warnings that this is a busy tourist town, I expected a magical, peaceful vibe and this was not it. Will I like Mexico? Two days in and I was already puking and now, for the past three weeks, we have each been sick with something. Is it Sayulita? Is it back to school? Is it Mexico?

I decided its airline travel and back-to-school. There are many tourists and transplants here that traveled during the holiday break and unknowingly brought back bugs. I know it is not just Sayulita because I just read an article about the Norovirus ripping through the US. Ok, so each little bug makes the immune system stronger, right?

Mackenzie and Quinn stand in front of a blue wall with a big white fish painted on it.Other than sickness, we are also finding our rhythm. The girls started school and quickly made friends. We discovered that Quinn was in the wrong grade and moved her up to the second grade where she is thriving. Our house on the hill is an oasis and in the perfect location to get to most everything in town.  Sayulita has calmed to a buzz rather than a roar.  I discovered that the beach is gold and not just figuratively. There is a mineral in the sand that shimmers like gold when the sun hits it just right. Pyrite maybe?

Mostly our focus has been on language, not only learning Spanish but also thinking about language in general. Language is connection and division, survival and desolation, inclusion and exclusion. While walking home the other day the song, “People are Strange” by The Doors popped into my head. You know how it goes:

“People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Faces look ugly, when you’re alone. Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted; streets are uneven when you’re down. When you’re strange. Faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name. When you’re strange, when you’re strange, when you’re straaaange.”

(its in your head now too, isn’t it? You’re welcome.)

I thought about this song, not for reasons related to the angst of my young adulthood, but for the fact that I cannot speak to the local people here on a level other than basic needs for food and shelter. I cannot really know the people and their culture because I cannot speak proficiently to the locals living it nor can I reveal my true self to them. There is so much richness that is missed when you cannot speak the language. While it is almost impossible to speak the language of every country, some statistics report that there are over 400 million Spanish-speaking people in the world. It is the second most widely spoken language after Mandarin. So then why, being a person from a country that shares a continent with Mexico, can I not speak Spanish?

Well, for one thing I chose not to learn it in high school or college when it was offered. Really, the time to learn a second language is not solely in high school; the time to start is in elementary school. When we are born, our brains are primed to learn any language, in fact, multiple languages.

English is the most widely spoken language in the world; so why should we become bilingual? For me, it is the simple fact that the ability to speak another language helps to develop relationships and empathy for a person of another culture. According to a study I recently read, proficiency with at least one other language can not only help keep your brain strong but creates an opportunity for your personality to be more open and flexible. This same study also looked at how language impacts culture and identity in German speakers versus English speakers.  Interestingly, in the Germanic language, the speaker often describes several events in one sentence and the verb for the main event is at the end. Often, this can change the entire picture that is being painted and, to fully understand, the listener must keep track of the whole idea. In general, this is how many German people view the world. They see the whole picture and take the long view when making decisions.

“Whenever the literary German dives into a sentence, that is the last you are going to see of him till he emerges on the other side of his Atlantic with his verb in his mouth” ~ Mark Twain

Conversely, in English, the action of the sentence is right up front and superfluous information is very often not included or is at the end (the woman walked to the store before going to school). Many English speakers are action oriented or focused on the consequences of the action taken now rather than the possible outcomes down the road.

We are in Mexico not only to have the experience of living in another culture for an extended period of time but also to become functional with the Spanish language.  I wonder how the Spanish language impacts Latin cultures. We have discovered that many words used in Spain are not used in Mexico. I imagine this is true for many other Spanish-speaking countries as well. Additionally, how is the culture impacted when the country becomes influenced by another language such as English?

We knew upon arriving to Sayulita, that this is a Mexican beach pueblo highly impacted by Caucasian, English-speaking ex-patriots. In fact, I noticed that if we want to speak Spanish we have to search it out a little. While we are shopping or dining or conversing on the streets with a native person, they sometimes assume we want to speak English and often will begin in that tongue. We have to press forward in Spanish, even if it is broken and takes a minute to find the words, as sort of a message that no, even if we are Gringos we want to speak Spanish here in Mexico. That sounds crazy to me. While we were living in Sevilla, Spain, I was desperate to find someone who spoke English so that I could get medical treatment but here it seems I need to assert myself in order to speak Spanish.

On my first day of Spanish class, my instructor told me that from the start, we should establish ourselves as a Spanish speaking family no matter how broken it sounds. Otherwise, we will be boxed into the category of English-speaking ex-pats and it will be assumed we don’t want to try. On the other hand, I heard that the local Mexican people want to practice their English skills too. Their ability to speak English means more money for their families from tourism.

Back of man and woman at women's march holding a sign "the heart has no borders"It is no secret that there is much controversy in the US related to Mexico and immigration. The political sound bite “America First!” might sound good but I wonder if we can take a more German approach and see the potential pitfalls of cutting ourselves off from our Southern neighbors. Becoming a bilingual country filled with diversity (not that isn’t that way already) can make our brains and hearts more flexible, more open to seeing people as potential friends rather than strangers. I can’t help but wonder if anxiety has taken hold of our country. The classic behavior trait of a person who suffers from anxiety and panic is to isolate and close one’s self off to society in avoidance of those tense feelings in the body.   However, all this does is create more anxiety because the fear of the outside world has been built up to an unrealistic level. For me, I am striving to become bilingual so that I can talk to my neighbors and be influenced by the beautiful Mexican culture. I want to be able to integrate that into our life and raise children who are open to embracing all people and able to speak with ease, to at least 400 million people from a culture other than their own.

“Our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is a direct reflection the character and growth of its people” ~Cesar Chavez


crowded street full of traffic in Lima

Objects in Mirror Are More Similar Than They Apear

“We are having a major problem with our Muslims in this country right now”. “There is a big fight about holiday celebrations in our schools” “there’s no more Christmas plays because the Muslims don’t want them” “We are a welcoming country and have lots of immigrants. We haven’t had problems with our Chinese or Aborigines.”

It has been an interesting political time to travel around the world. Most people we meet want to talk to us about the upcoming election in the US and mostly about Donald Trump. This particular dialog that is written above, was from a woman in Australia who must have been relating to our white commonality and felt free to share her views. Maybe she believes we have a “Muslim problem” in the US too and thought I would share in a dialog disparaging all Muslims. In actuality, her statement shocked me and made me feel highly uncomfortable. These emotions sent out red alert sirens and cut off all access to the language centers of my brain. I had no response. All I wanted to do was buy tickets for our excursions not engage in a political discussion about religion in schools.

I understand the argument in favor of the Australian woman’s opinion. It is likely something along the lines of: why should we, the majority population, give up our Christmas plays in schools just because a family who holds different religious beliefs moves into the neighborhood. Jacob and I had many long discussions about this as we drove through Australia. There is no easy answer. One solution would be to eliminate all holiday celebrations from state funded public schools. Another solution is to tell the minority population to put up or shut up. Neither seems like a solution that would leave either party feeling heard, acknowledged or respected. I was raised in the Christian faith so Santa Clause, Christmas Trees and Christmas plays were perfectly fine for me. It never occurred to me that someone else in the room was sitting through it because they had to or might have been feeling confused as to why their own religious celebrations were not reflected in the school community. This is called privilege. The world in the majority population goes along just swimmingly for its members. I get to have my religion reflected in schools, I get to walk through stores with no one paying me any mind, I get to have the floor when I am speaking and show anger without someone wondering if it is “my time of the month”, I get to marry who I want. For me though, living with this much privilege is like driving a car with a huge blind spot.

I can’t even begin to know what it is like to be a Muslim in the world right now but I do know what it is like to be targeted with cruelty from others and to feel ostracized even within my own family for holding different religious views. It is from these experiences that empathy is cultivated and I can begin to widen the view out my car window. I remember reading an article shortly after a truck plowed through a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France this past summer. The article was a about a woman who was made to remove her “burkini” while playing at a beach. I get it, the so-called Islamic State claimed the attacker as one of their own but does this really mean that all people who wear a “burkini” are potential terrorists? I wish those officers had put themselves in that poor woman’s shoes. The choice to wear loose fitting clothes and a headscarf is about modesty and covering those parts of the body that are deemed only appropriate to show in private. It was like asking that woman to strip naked on the beach and because the officers did not hold the same beliefs they had no clue what they were asking and could only see their point of view. I can imagine how I would feel: violated and abused and targeted for something I had nothing to do with orchestrating.

I feel so grateful that we enrolled our girls in school in Cape Town, South Africa. Many of the families at the school are Muslim and we were there when Ramadan began. This allowed Jacob to have a really wonderful conversation with a new friend from the school about the meaning behind Ramadan. We learned that Ramadan is not just a time for fasting but also a time for reflection on how privileged one is who has enough food. By fasting, the Islamic faith teaches, on a very real level, what it is like to be hungry and then from this place remember to be grateful for the many blessings in their lives. How beautiful! I do not have to follow this religion to appreciate this message.  The fact that this holiday was reflected at their school was a gift to our girls and opened a comfortable dialog about Islam with their Muslim friends.

I truly believe that the woman from Australia was speaking from that part of herself that felt under threat by the changes that were being requested by the Muslim community. I imagine her outrage was coming from a place of fear. Possibly fear that said, “I am afraid my kids will lose their connection to our religious beliefs if they do not get to have Christmas celebrations at school” and maybe the counter argument is something like, “When the only holiday that is recognized in schools is Christmas, I feel scared that my kids will never find a way to fit into this new community.” Is it possible to make room for all? Is it possible to learn to vulnerably communicate in this way? Brené Brown has written several books on this subject, one in particular is titled Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Parent, Live, Love and Lead. In it, she says that real courage is in our willingness to be vulnerable and to honestly communicate our feelings especially when they are fear and shame. This is when we can be real, this is when we can take off our boxing gloves and get down to what is really driving our anger.

I will probably always have a blind spot, we all do but if I can find a way to relate to the pain another is expressing, even if it is being expressed in anger, I can start to learn that my car is not the only one on the road. I want to drive on highways where every driver is looking out for others because they are each able to notice the different cars sharing the road. Then, when one unknowingly cuts off another, that driver kindly and vulnerably acknowledges that, “I didn’t see you and I am sorry” instead of flipping the person off and saying, “well, get out of the way this is MY road!” That brief conversation with the woman from Australia was a missed opportunity to be an ally for marginalized populations. I wished I had explored why she was angry with the Muslim community and also taken the opportunity to point out their possible perspective.   Perhaps this small dialog could leave us both feeling a little more connected, a little more open to a different view and willing to share space with each other.

“Connection is why we are here; it gives us purpose and meaning to our lives”

~Brené Brown


“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom”  ~Bob Dylan