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Santiago, Chile – There are many things mi mama taught me – many of which I wasn’t prepared to learn until adulthood, but slowly the knowledge seeps into the roots. One of the most important things she taught me is to be fluent in Spanish. We struggled over it. At school I spoke English, at home, it was only Spanish. She didn’t care what the nuns said, she didn’t care how many people teased me, she didn’t care how important it was to me to sound American. “Tu lenguaje es tu cultura, es de donde vienes.” Your language is your culture, it is where you’re from. She taught me to remember my culture by living its reality in the words I shaped wherever I went.
Spanish has served as an immediate lifeline, connecting me to what will soon be, by 2050,10 percent of the world population. Anywhere the winds take me, even in Taiwan, there is always someone I connect to immediately in Spanish at the most basic level of interaction from taking a bus to ordering food.
This morning as I stepped out of the airport into Santiago, Chile – thick layer of gray cloud topped with the red ball of sunrise – I was grateful again that not a few minutes after I set foot in another continent, after surviving a 12-hour flight, I spoke my mother tongue, as my mother had intended it. At the very least I did my best.
It does help that the culture of airports is similar in Latin America: a dubious entry process and close-up encounters with customs officials, babies screaming, six giant bags per person and then the wall of people that greets you as you part the sea of taxis with hand scrawled signs. Before you know it, drivers have attached themselves like plankton as you make for the open sea.
At dawn Santiago is not a pretty city. It is not Oaxaca, Mexico; it is not La Antigua, Guatemala. It is a dusty, sleepy, colonial city somewhere in Latin America where the street dogs don’t look as desperate or decimated and there’s a certain peace that lingers in the emptiness of the Sunday streets where not a single church bell rings and the buses don’t spew out plumes of black smoke. On the radio I hear old Chilean ballads from the 70s, before I was even born, or perhaps as I was coming into being in a completely different reality. In another country, where I was born. But I could just as easily, just as randomly, have been born here.
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