See I, Je, Yo; Me, Moi, Mi: The Cultural Power of Language

Karen Gross
7 min readMay 25, 2024

--

As some of you know I spent 8 days on a medical mission to Cevicos in the la Republica Dominicana. Readers also know I have had trouble writing about this remarkable experience; words have failed to capture what I experienced: what I saw, felt, heard and tasted. My most recent blog addressed that set of issues.

https://karengrossedu.medium.com/an-absence-of-words-but-no-shortage-of-feelings-thoughts-a-mission-to-cevicos-in-the-republica-e8e4531f69b6

But, I’ve had a wee epiphany. (Is there such a thing as a “wee” epiphany?) To grasp it, I need to share a bit about my upbringing. I grew up with a Swiss father and a truly mentally ill mother. Both are now decreased.

Quite the combo. My father spoke to me in French at dinner and when he drove me to school every day; my mother did not speak any language other than English (which she thought she pronounced like the Queen of England — untrue). Think about that odd, unusual intimacy between father/child.

A Synopsis of Parts of my Growing Up

When I turned 16, I had a normal (in my book) teenage rebellion. I didn’t feel like I belonged to my family; I was an outsider in too many ways to describe here. I’d need a blog or a book for that. So, I took the only action I could, short of leaving home altogether: I stopped speaking French altogether and learned the only Romance language my father did not know: Spanish.

I had a marvelous high school Spanish teacher from Peru (Sandra) who remains one of my closest friends to this very day. My best friend Nancy was in the class. The teacher discarded the normal Spanish text book, which she thought was dry and lacking in imagination. Instead, together we read Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (the Spanish version more or less of Romeo and Juliet). Amazing. What else could touch the heart of a teenage girl so profoundly? It was passionate; it was moving; it touch my heart.

My strict, stiff, dispassionate mother was dismayed. She said I changed whenever I spoke Spanish. I was animated and passionate and appeared far less studious. (Both Nancy and I added Spanish to our college majors later on.) My mother thought I used my hands too much when I spoke Spanish. And when I pierced my ears, she was over the top concerned. I had turned from reading the aristocratic (but beautiful) French poet Baudelaire to reading Latin American poets (see later in this blog), whose words were filled with life and feeling. Nothing but emotion appeared in those Spanish poems.

If I hadn’t fit in before, I surely did not fit in now. I envied the music, the bright colors, the intensity of Spanish culture. I kept thinking: I must have landed into the wrong family with the wrong skin tone. And my mother, who thought primarily in terms of social class and social status, thought I had plunged head first into the barrio. For her, I had lost my way, just as I thought I was finding it.

Decades Ahead

Skip ahead 4 plus decades. When I was recently in the Dominican Republic on the medical mission, I spoke Spanish with the hundreds of children with whom I engaged. I read to them in Spanish. I played with them in Spanish. I did games with them in Spanish. I listened to their mothers in Spanish. I folded paper into cups and bug catchers. I showed them how to maneuver their fingers to create schools and churches filled with people. (Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people). At other times I translated for the American nurses running the pharmacy and other missionaries assisting patients. I spoke to the Dominican Nun who worked with us (filled with life and joy and energy) in Spanish continuously (she was Puerto Rican and I had lived and worked there in my youth). At times, I spoke Spanish to the other American missionaries; my head was filled with Spanish. And, when I speak a foreign language, I don’t translate. Like French, I just speak and the foreign language emerges somehow from somewhere.

And, I was animated and happy and engaged. More importantly, I saw and felt the vibrancy of people with whom I was working — the colors, the clapping, the singing, the laughter, the passion, the dancing. Add to this that the church mass was nothing like I had experienced in the US (for the record, I had attended Catholic masses in the US although I am not Catholic). It wasn’t somber or serious. There were songs sung in harmony. There was swaying to the beat and clapping of hands and joy. There were many hugs (even among strangers). There was a depth of feeling and sense of life and absence of complaining (complaining being something of an American past time sadly). Zero complaining. Gone.

Here I was in a nation with so little and yet, I felt so much. And in a sense, with the little the Dominican people had, they seemed to feel more and experience more and live more than those of us in the US. Of course this is an over-generalization. Of course there is a price to be paid for scarcity in all senses. But somehow, amidst the absences, there was plenty. That is not a sentiment that appears much in the US.

Poem

On the last morning before we departed, the four new missionaries were asked to lead the morning reflections. One of them (a young student) read a poem by Pablo Nedura in English (I acknowledge that he has somewhat of a checkered past with women but did win the Nobel Prize in Literature). Another chance to read Latin poetry that harkined back to my youth. Then, I read the last stanza of that same poem in Spanish. One of the missionaries remarked: it sounds so beautiful in Spanish. (I will quote it at the end of this piece and perhaps even record it if I can figure out the technology on Medium).

And, when I returned to the US, several things happened. Some of the kids from the DR reached out to me on What’s App. I looked at the many photos we took which to some appeared sad. But, I did not process, and have not yet processed, that sadness. I am sure I will eventually.

But, what I saw was vibrancy in color and spirit in a place that had so little. I did several meetings on Zoom since returning where I appear horizontal — no joke. I am sideways on the Zoom screen — which is akin to how I feel. And I can’t seem to fix it. I am literally and figuratively off-kilter. I am somewhat mellower; I am imbalanced in some ways and strangely balanced in others; I sense something different in me: how I feel, how I look, how I communicate. I wrote about how I cannot express myself yet about this trip, and I still have too many thoughts and feelings, not too few. People who have seen me notice something has changed in me.

Now

So, somehow, in speaking Spanish, what I absorbed unknowingly and without intention was culture. (By the by, to learn a language well, it is not about memorizing words; it is about understanding culture).

I was not just speaking Spanish. In my head and my mind and my body, I was living Spanish — I was sensing the joy that comes from this amazing language that is imbued with spirit and vitality and warmth. In short, I have had a cultural transformation — that’s my epiphany. I have adopted without design or initial awareness some of the culture to which I was exposed. I am a tad less serious; I am more joyful. People who see me say I look prettier and happier than I did before. I feel differently. I am less tolerant of complainers. I am more open to feelings and their expression. I am somehow seeing through different lenses (yet again). They are not rose colored; they are Latin.

Steve Leveen, who writes and presses for increased bilingualism in the US, and I have chatted about the power of language when coupled with culture. He does podcasts about that. I did one with him where I spoke in Icelandic. Long story there. Here’s the link:

https://www.americathebilingual.com/43-buds-of-bilingualism/

He’d welcome the idea that my speaking Spanish invoked more than word recall. It opened a door to the vibrations of a culture that I adore, admire and aspire to fathom and retain.

In short, here’s my wee epiphany: I am now more Latinx than I was before — and yes, I know I am not really Latinx. My mission brought me backwards and forwards; it changed me. My now deceased mean mother would say I have regressed yet again. I’d say, “I’m alive and hear my own heartbeat beating when I talk, listen and engage. For me, that’s progression.

Now the words of Pablo Neruda. Let me add: I live, as did many of the missionaries, near or on the water. I am in Gloucester, MA — literally on the water on all sides of my home. The poem in English is titled Oceanic Dawn. I thought it captured what we can bring back home from the DR….

Here is the last stanza:

y el mar, el mar,

aroma

suspendido,

soro de sal sonora,

mientras tanto,

nostostros,

los hombres,

junta al aqua,

luchando

y esperando

junto al mar,

esperando.

Las olas dicen a la costa firme:

“Todo sera cumplido.”

The idea here is hope. We have hope. We bring hope. We experience hope. Would that we could have hope in this world gone crazy. Would that we could retain hope and vibrancy in the midst of more crises than can be counted on one hand.

Yo tengo (tango?) esperanza.

Note: Those who know me know that I do still have a living mother — a marvelous mother to me for the past 50 years. She is an educator and worked until she was 86 and now lives at age 97 in Chicago. I consider her my mother, although the mother described here can take credit for biology. My Chicago mother, as I call her, stands in sharp contrast to my biological mother and while she did not birth me literally, she is my mother in every sense that matters. Logical and emotional, not biological, families abound.

--

--

Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor