Learning to speak love in her language

“oxlajuj baktun es nueva oportunidad… de los Garifunas y de los Xincas, de los Ladinos y del pueblo Maya…” This moment – all by itself – solamente – was worth the trip to Guatemala.

For days I had been struggling to understand the recent and ancient history of Guatemala, and where the people I cared about fit within it. For days, as well, Jose had been telling me that he wanted to teach me to play his songs on my guitar and take them back to Los Estados Unidos with me.

We finally had found the time. I had tuned my guitar in my little room on top of the house, and returned downstairs to find Jose sleeping while his son worked on memorizing his catechism for his First Communion in October. I gently placed my guitar next to Jose so that he would see it when he awakened. A noise startled him and the gentle man, a Mayan by birth and a teacher by trade, opened his eyes and smiled to see the guitar. It was time.

He retrieved the first song that he wanted to teach me, a mixture of Tz’utujil and Español. It spoke of the year 2013, the time when the Mayan calendar ended but the world did not. Therefore, it presented a vision glorious of the new opportunity that all the people, plants, and animals of his country now had to begin life anew.

It was the last two lines that revealed that his heart for his people was like my heart for my people – speaking of the four main ethnic groups of Guatemala moving forward united. Through music, we began to understand one another.

For people like Jose and Gloria, their country had been in a civil war for more years of their lives than it was at peace. That cruel 30 year war had led to the Guatemalan government being condemned for atrocious human rights violations and ethnic massacres against the Mayan people, and to the disappearances and deaths of countless community leaders and priests.

I would not have been able to understand why the last lines of Jose’s song were so important if my teacher had not taught me that morning about the word “Ladino.” She had told me that Gloria was a Ladino; and then, of course, I insisted that she explain to me what that meant. And, of course, we had an hour long conversation about oppression, and discrimination, and everything that she learned in the sociology class she took in Panachel.

In its most simple definition, a Ladino is a non-white Spanish-speaking person… which would be the demographic of those that the Mayans fought against in the 30 year war.

At lunch, I spent quite some time trying to think of both the vocabulary and the non-intrusive method of confirming my teacher’s statement that Gloria was a Ladino. I finally turned to Jose and asked him why the family preferred to speak Spanish in the house rather than Tz’utujil.

“Esta por Gloria” (it is for Gloria), Jose said glancing lovingly over at the wooden stove where his wife was creating her own music, the constant pat-pat of tortillas made by hand. My teacher had described her as being “de la cuidad” (from the city) as the explanation for why she spoke Spanish and did not wear the ropa typica of the Mayan. I knew very well, however, that Gloria had grown up on a coffee farm in a rural area; that both her parents had died when she was a teenager, near the beginning of the 30 year war; and that she had married young to Jose, a handsome Mayan boy that played on her brother’s soccer team; and that he would become a teacher while she raised their four children.

I understood now why Gloria had responded with what seemed like sadness when I had commented that her family seemed modern. In this community, being “modern” – dressing in American style clothing, speaking Spanish, and having educated daughters that worked full-time – was what had always made her different. Like the person who has lived in a small Maryland town for fifty years, but people still refer to as a “come-here”, she was definitely a part of the community but also always on the margin.

The world is one in which people seem always to seek difference, and then use those points of difference to create division, and use that division to consolidate power, and use that power to oppress the “other.” Many times that has taken the form of dividing people based on appearance and the color of their skin. But ever since the Tower of Babel, we have also been divided by language. And ever since the people of Gilead used the pronunciation of the word “Shibboleth” to determine whether a person was on their side or an enemy refugee to kill (Judges 12), we have been discriminating against people based on language.

In Guatemala, the Ladinos in the government – people who were either non-indigenous or were indigenous people who had adapted to Western ways and language – spent decades in military conflict with the indigenous forces. Sometimes it was nothing more than language and cultural mindset that separated them, and not any difference of appearance or ethnicity.

In South Africa, during Apartheid, the Afrikaaners attempted to force the indigenous speakers of Zulu and Xhosa to speak Afrikaans in school and found themselves with a protest on their hands, and responded with a slaughter.

In the United States the language associated with those experiencing oppression has shifted with time. Many waves of immigrants – from Germany, Poland, China and the Ukraine – have rushed to lose their language and give it up for English; have rushed to eliminate the part of their identity that marked them for discrimination. Currently, the language most associated with discrimination in the United States is Spanish. For many reasons, people are not rushing to give it up so quickly.

In the meantime, to be white and speak Spanish in the United States attracts the attention of employers; to be non-white and speak Spanish attracts the attention of the authorities. One situation compounding privilege, the other compounds oppression.

It does not follow, however, that people of privilege in the United States should not learn Spanish or other languages common in their communities. I know from more than three weeks of being surrounded by non-English speakers that it can be isolating to not be able to tell people who you truly are, what you truly care about, and what your story is.

Even if you are trying to learn the language, as many people are trying to learn English in the States, unless someone really slows down their speech and really listens to yours – you still cannot understand despite all your labors. Whether they are speaking Spanish slowly for you, or you are speaking English slowly for them, it is necessary to break with our normal rhythm in order to express genuine interest.

Without the ability to communicate, we will miss seeing the common ground upon which we must build the foundation of the beloved community; because knowing one another’s stories, and sharing one another’s joys and sorrows is still the best way to build.

Within their family, Jose has spoken Spanish “for Gloria” to create a space that is safe and loving; after having asked her to marry him and move into a community where nearly all of the conversation took place in Tz’utujil; during a time 30 years ago when those who spoke Tz’utujil were at war with the Ladino leadership of the nation. An unusual marriage for the time.

These days, discrimination still exists; if you go to the city, it will be difficult to get a job if you insist on wearing the ropa typica of the Mayan and speaking your indigenous language, rather than becoming a Ladino and wearing Western clothes.

Here in the community of the Mayan, on the other hand, you will be loved but will always be a little different if you do not wear the ropa typica and speak Tz’utujil.

So Jose dreams of a day of unity and an end of discrimination of any kind.

He has chosen to write and sing about unity between the Ladinos and the pueblo Mayan.

He has chosen to spend his life as a teacher, setting an example for decades of children that being Mayan means being proud of your own ancestry, but also inclusive of others. “Todos somos iguales” – We are all equal.

And in his home, the multilingual teacher has chosen to speak love in the language that his wife understands best.

Language can create division where no division needs to exist, which is exactly why overcoming that barrier can be so powerful. It is a wall that can hold back a flood of stories, and prayers, and dreams, and worries, and joy, and love. When that wall falls and the flood rushes in, we find true solidarity.

After my guitar lessons, the rain fell heavy on the roof of Jose and Gloria’s house where I lived, and I sat in the dim light of the kitchen downstairs. I finally had enough Spanish to have more “real” conversations with Gloria. She asked me what she had been wondering, after watching my behavior for weeks – was I something like a sacerdote (priest)? She then asked me if the next move of my calling would take me a great distance from my family. The wall crumbled as I said that I was and that it would, and we cried together as I admitted for the first time how painful that was for me and how important my family truly is to me; and as we realized that soon I must leave this place as well.

Two people who would always be a “little bit different” in their communities, because of how they talked; who would always love the communities where they lived, while missing the communities from which they emerged; two people finding solidarity, empathy and profoundest respect as the wall of language fell.

Like her husband Jose, I had learned to speak love in her language.

As a nation, as a church, as individuals, can we not learn to speak love in one another’s language?

Can we not say “Bienvenidos” as we work to make sure it is true?


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