I am … halting, at best.

I have never studied Spanish.

I wish I had. If I stay in the US after I graduate this summer, I fully intend to. Moving to New Mexico brought me to the realization that being a citizen of this country and not knowing the Spanish language ought to be considered scandalous, if not exactly criminal. Free passes to those who have already struggled to learn English as their second, third, or fourth language. The worst glares go to those who, like myself, barely have a grasp of the tongue we were born into.

I have picked up a bit just in living, though. My former roommate was quite fluent, as were at least half of my coworkers, at one point. I can listen in on a conversation with small children and understand what is going on. I can read out loud in Spanish, sing songs, and recite prayers.

I never speak, though. I’m too shy. Too perfectionist. Too embarrassed. Too ashamed.

Except for ten days in 2007, when I traveled to the only place I have used my Spanish openly and unafraid.

Nope, not Mexico.

Israel.

Of course, Israel. Why not?

The entire trip was a surreal experiment in selfhood. From the time I hit New Jersey, people started walking up to me and speaking Hebrew. I’m only half Jewish, and I don’t think I particularly look the part. I was dressed pretty conservatively for an American, it’s true, but you’d think El Al security would be better at picking up on these things. With my Hebrew vocabulary consisting of “Lo Ivrit!” and enough grasp of the alphabet to pick out which train I wanted to be on, I made my way to Haifa, the center of the Baha’i world, and to the Port Inn: my home at the bottom of Mount Carmel.

I was sharing a dorm room with eight other women: a Norwegian backpacking across the Holy Land, an extended family from Seychelles, and three sisters from El Salvador. It was with these three–Sarah, Laura, and Fatima–and with Luis, a guy my age from Venezuela, that I fell in. We were all young, and in a strange country without our parents. Rachel, who ran the Inn, took us under her wing and made sure we ate a good breakfast each morning. These were my siblings, and we quickly became inseparable.

Luis, Laura, David, Fatima, myself, and Sarah

And so while all of my official pilgrim visits were with English speakers, all of my unofficial explorations were with Spanish-speaking ones. And in this crazy mess of people trying to communicate in English, in French, in Persian, in Spanish, in whatever seemed to get the point across, I found myself speaking. Words, mostly. Courtesy phrases. But speaking aloud. I was still shy. I still listened more than I spoke, and sometimes accidentally answered in French (also surprising, since my French is worse than my Spanish, for all I studied it in school) but I could participate in conversation.

One day this group went out to explore a few of the sites not visited formally in our group tours. An Iranian man told stories in Persian, and another man translated them into Spanish. I understood at least half of what was said. A couple of hours later, the Persian gentleman asked me, in English, where I was from. “New Mexico, in the United States,” I said.

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have told you the stories in English. We all thought you were from Spain!”

Apparently, I look Spanish as well as Israeli.

A photo was snapped, and it became official. I went down in scrapbooks forever as part of the Spanish and Latino group.

Making history.

I left for this trip as someone who was known to be terrible at languages. I returned as a person who could speak a language I’ve never studied, in the right environment.

Because speaking is like dancing. It’s a performance. It can be nerve-wracking. It can be humiliating. But it will never be beautiful until you let yourself believe that everyone around you is your loving family, and allow your fear to drop away.

I’ve never done it since, but at least I know it can be done.

“La Tierra es un solo país y la humanidad sus ciudadanos.”

I know I’ll find my crazy family again someday, somewhere. And the words we speak will be beautiful, whatever they are.

 

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