I can tell you right now, this is the word that I will have used by far the most times by the end of my 10 weeks here. Literally, it means “how,” but in conversation it means “what?” as in “I don’t understand, please say that again.” Needless to say, I have to use this word frequently. Also topping the charts will be “¿otra vez?” (again?). In Mexico City (and nowhere else), you can also use “¿mande?” in the same way as “¿cómo?,” though it literally means “order me.” But try that in another Latin American country, and people will look at you like you’re crazy.
“¿Cómo?” will be followed closely in frequency by “con permiso,” which is basically “excuse me” and what you say when you pass someone on the street, squeeze behind someone, make your way to the door to get off the metro, or leave any room in which others are sitting.
The other thing we have discovered is that Spanish teachers lie. They tell you that “lo siento” means “sorry” and leave it at that. They don’t tell you that where you would say “sorry” in English, there are actually about five possible things to say in Spanish, and rarely is “lo siento” the most appropriate. For example, you would much more often say “disculpa” (informal “forgive me”), “disculpe” (formal), “perdón,” or “con permiso.” “Lo siento” (literally “I feel it” is really only appropriate for commiserating, for example, if someone’s pet died). Learning this is one thing, and breaking the habit of saying “lo siento” right and left is quite another.
That said, I do feel like my Spanish is getting smoother, which is exciting! I still make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t have to think quite so hard about everything, and I can conjugate a little faster and remember to use the subjective (most of the time). Sometimes, sometimes, I even feel like I’m starting to think in Spanish. The difference between when you use por and para (both “for”) still gives me a headache, though.
Two fantastic new phrases we learned recently:
“Shot adelante” is “shotgun,” like what you yell when you want the front seat.
Una “fresa” (the word literally means strawberry) is someone who is relatively wealthy and can afford to frequent places like gyms (not super common here among Mexican women. Unless they’re “fresas.” This was the context in which I learned this word). Maybe the equivalent of yuppie?
One of the challenges of living in a bilingual house: using Spanish. The staff and many of the volunteers at the Casa are from the U.S. and speak English. It is true that the default language in the reception is Spanish, and all volunteer meetings and dinners are conducted in Spanish. Some of the volunteers from Mexico only, or primarily, speak Spanish. However, a lot of the guests (though not all) are from the U.S.; some of them speak Spanish and some don’t. And of course, all of us interns speak English and spend a lot of time together. In the one sense, it’s comforting to know that I am surrounded by people who speak English. In another sense, I have to make a conscious effort to use Spanish so that I continue to improve. My work at the Equilibrium Fund is also a mix of English and Spanish, since the founder of the organization works out of Colorado, and many email correspondences and some grants are in English.
That said, it’s also incredibly wonderful and interesting to have this mix of languages. At the comida compartida (community potluck dinner every Sunday) there might be a conversation in English with several of the refugees from Africa staying here who only speak English, and a conversation in Spanish with one of the refugees from Columbia and a friend of the Casa who lives nearby, or between volunteers. Sometimes you ask a question in Spanish and someone answers in English, or you ask a question in English and someone answers in Spanish. Right now, one guest from Camaroon speaks mostly French, so Lizzy and Clay might be speaking French with him, or Liselot and Lizzy sometimes enjoy speaking German (Liselot is from Germany and Lizzy has family there. Lizzy is the language queen). We interns are discovering the beauty of Spanglish, for example: “I’m going to dar a paseo” (take a walk) or my personal favorite from Liv, “trabajaring is for lame-o’s” (working).
Some of this post I started a week ago, so forgive me if chronology is a bit old.
We’ve gotten to meet and talk with so many interesting people at the Casa. Right now, two refugees from Nigeria, one from Cameroon, and two from Colombia are living at the Casa, all of whom we’ve gotten to know hanging out in the Sala de Huespedes (guest lounge) and excursions in the City. We got to know a graduate student who stayed at the Casa for several weeks who was in Mexico doing research at the national archives for his History dissertation. Another student our age came through the Casa for several days on his way to work at a women’s cooperative and then a border shelter. One woman was coming through the Casa on her way back from several months in Guatemala doing development for the organization she works for. We’ve recently enjoyed getting to know a student from Chicago working at a farming organization in Mexico for several months, as well as a college Spanish professor from a school in Ohio. It’s so interesting to hear what has brought people to Mexico, and just to realize the sheer number of places people here are from. Last week, a couple came for breakfast and to see what the Casa is all about who were from San Antonio, Texas (close to Austin!). The husband had worked for the AFSC (American Friends Service Committee) and they have been leading medical missions to Mexico for a number of years. Last week, the Casa had a group of more than 70 people from Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship using its conference room for an orientation (they weren’t all staying here; they overflowed into several nearby hotels). There were absolute streams of people coming in and out through reception; they were a very agreeable group!
So much to catch up on! Two Saturdays ago, we met our friends Juan and Luis in the Zócalo (historic center) and went with them to an art gallery opening in a cultural center. The exhibit was of the work of a group of artists that had made art out of the boxes that the people who shine shoes in the street use to hold their things, and then to rest the shoes on. It was quite interesting- some artists had painted or collaged the boxes, some were beautiful, some were very political and angry, such as one denouncing Obama and referencing the new Arizona law, some were made into sculpture. One artist had made the bolero box into a drum, and gave a performance. Another had made her box into an instrument that sounded a bit like an accordion, and also performed. On our way home, we stopped for coffee at a café at the top of a Sears, probably 12 stories up, which had an absolutely gorgeous view of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a grand building done in a French architectural style, and the Alameda (Park). You could actually see the mountains surrounding the City- it’s easy to forget that they exist when you’re surrounded by so many buildings, and so much smog.
And of course no blog entry would be complete without mention of the World Cup (here, the Mundial) which is going on right now in South Africa, and which is televised all over here: restaurants, the Metro, a giant screen in the Zócalo. Venders are selling Mexican jerseys all over the streets. Things pretty much stop here for the fútbol (soccer) games. At the Casa, they bring the TV down into the Comedor (dining room, where breakfast is served to guests and volunteers every morning) and everyone: staff, volunteers, guests, friends of the Casa, gather to watch the games. Mexico tied South Africa in the first match, beat France 2-0 (that was an exciting game!), and recently lost to Uruguay. I was working the breakfast shift the morning of the game with Uruguay, but Lizzy, Liv, and Andrew went to the Zocalo to see the game on the big screen, and their photos of the crowds are incredible, so I’m including some here. Sunday Mexico played Argentina and lost 3-1. It was rough. I went to a restaurant/bar to watch the game, and had to wade through a sea of people wearing green crowded around tables to get to our table. There was much chanting, and the one goal that Mexico scored, everyone went wild.
Last Sunday we went to an all-day soccer tournament at a park in the City sponsored by a number of organizations in Mexico City that support refugees and migrants, including ACNUR and Sin Fronteras, the organizations that the Casa works with providing a place for migrants to stay (its Programa de Hospitalidad Solidario). Eleven people from the Casa went, and some even played in the tournament. Many refugees and people working for the rights of refugees were there. It was a wonderful show of support. There were 4 games total, and every team had men and women, children and older people. Afterward, a big lunch in the park was provided and we all sat and talked. Sunday night was the Comida Compartida, or shared meal (potluck- everyone brings a dish) with Casa staff, volunteers, and friends of the Casa. It was, as always, wonderful.