On a recent trip to the Mexican resort city of Puerto Vallarta, I got a language lesson, and more, from my eight-year-old daughter. This story was picked up by the San Francisco Chronicle Travel Section for Sunday, September 14.
“Perrrrrrrrrrrrrrrro,” I stuttered, failing completely to roll the r’s as my eight-year-old daughter laughed with glee.
“No, it’s perro,” she said in a perfect Spanish accent. “Like this.” She twittered like a bird demonstrating how to do it. “You need to practice.”
“Do you think I can learn?”
“Yes. Practice all the way home.”
So I did, spewing spittle left and right as I tried to trill my r’s to my daughter’s delight. All the way home - which meant about a ten-minute walk from the beach in Puerto Vallarta to our rented apartment deep in the old part of town - I was a blithering idiot cut loose from some overcrowded psych ward, but Érne loved it. She couldn’t wait to tell her sister and mama.
My attempt to learn to roll my r’s using the Spanish word for dog had less to do with my desire to speak Spanish than with my daughter’s love for animals - at the moment, the dogs of Colonia Emiliano Zapata, the neighborhood where we were staying in this resort city. There was the fluffy mutt whose head appeared through the bars of the balcony railing on the second floor almost every time we passed, day or night; the nervous poodle that hung out in a doorway and usually had a yelp and a growl for us as we lowered hands for her to sniff; the family of Chihuahuas about as small as dogs can be at the combination piñata shop and home of a couple seemingly old enough to have ridden with Pancho Villa.
We couldn’t walk past the open doorway on Aquiles Serdan without stopping to pet the mama, daddy, and pups that lived in a cardboard box under a chair just inside. After we’d spent several days getting to know our neighborhood and passing the ancient couple’s door many times, they smiled in recognition. Their faces wore the ruts of a long, hard life, dark and brown as the parched Mexican soil. Their fingers never ceased working with the colored crepe paper they fixed to forms to create the piñatas that dangled from the ceiling - burros, sombreros, stars, bulls, other creatures large and small. Our conversation through the open façade couldn’t travel beyond “hello, how are you?, nice dogs” because of my pitiful Spanish, but it was a lesson for the children and a reminder for me.
Speaking the local language is by far the best way to get to know a place and people. Without it you can communicate a lot and get by with body language and charades, fractured sentences devoid of grammar that show you’re a good sport doing your best to meet the people on their own terms. But what does that really get you beyond a few laughs, good-natured acknowledgments and the conviction that they think you’re all right? For me there’s always the undercurrent that, yes, well, they seem to think I’m O.K., but maybe they really think I’m nuts. Without speaking the local language you can make connections that cross the divide but you cannot have a meaningful conversation about things that matter.
What could they have told us about their long lives? Had they always lived here, in this home open to the street, making piñatas for the neighborhood families? Did they settle here late in life after other adventures, struggles, pursuits, dreams? Was this a longstanding family business or something more recent? How did they view the world from this vantage point, inside a cool room open to the heat and noise and smells of the street and the sea breezes?
Of course I couldn’t get answers to these questions without speaking adequate Spanish. I was left to imagine their stories, to romanticize or trivialize their lives with best guesses based on what I saw before me. I was a tourist, on a short vacation with my family, and none of us were prepared - no matter how much we wanted - to get beneath the surface of things.
“It’s nice that the houses are open and children play outside with each other all the time,” Érne said. “I wish we could do that at home.”
Things were different here, and the girls were noticing.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to talk to that old couple with the dogs?” I said.
“But we don’t speak Spanish,” Érne replied.
“But we could learn. I could take a Spanish class. We could come back here again next year, and the year after that, and pretty soon we’d be able to talk to people. You’re learning in school. That’s where you learned to say ‘perro‘.”
She giggled. “Not like that, like this.” And she rolled her r’s perfectly again.
“Perrrrrrrrrro!” I sputtered, feeling truly like an idiot but enjoying every moment. After all, I was trying, wasn’t I? So we made our way up the street looking for dogs, cats, blackbirds with giant boat-like tails that squawked all day in the trees, and I practiced all the way home.