What do San Miguel locals think about all the Norte Ameriacano’s who have moved to their town over the last two decades? The gardener in one of the B & B’s we stayed in told me, “They should learn Spanish.” He said it in lightly accented English he learned while working in the United States. “Some of these people have lived here for ten years and they still don’t speak our language.”
That sounded like something I might have said—or at least thought—about the Mexican immigrants in Oklahoma City.
“A little Spanish wouldn’t hurt you either,” the gardener told me.
I took it to heart. My wife and I enrolled in The Warren Hardy School, which teaches
Spanish to English speakers in courses that typically meet three times a week, three hours a day, for three weeks. The classes are pretty effective, but as you might imagine, they leave some gaps in your conversational abilities.
Mexicans love it when you make an effort. They are very patient with Anglos who try to adapt to their culture. That doesn’t mean they’ll speak more slowly so you’ll have a better chance at understanding. When a Mexican speaks Spanish, the language
comes out like a heavy object dropped from a great height. The words keep picking up speed until they crash.
“Mas despacio por favor,”—More slowly please—might work for a word or two, but by the end of the first sentence they’ve reached the speed of incomprehensibility again. Still, you pick up a word or two, and, what’s more important, they pick up a word or two, and even if what you said was wrong, they hardly ever laugh at you—at least while you are standing there.
A friend and I were looking for a good place to photograph the Parroquia (church). We ran into a man coming down w very steep hill as we were going up. Our conbersation started out great. He told us (I think) there was no good view where we were going, but he would show us a killer “Buena vista.”
Before long it was clear he was taking us back where we had started, chattering in Spanish all the way, with lots of gestures and the only English he seemed to know: “Basketball! What the hell!”
“We’ve got to get rid of this guy,” I told my friend. Hopefully, with my Warren Hardy Spanish, we could do this without hurting his feelings. With my best Warren Hardy Spanish I tried to tell him we needed to go back home. I handed him twenty pesos—something all Norte Americanos do reflexively—and said, “Necesisitamous ir a su cassa.”
He backed away a little more quickly than I’d anticipated, but it was working.
“What did you say to him?” my friend asked.
It took me a minute before I realized I’d told him, “We need to go to your house.” I wonder what he thought the twenty pesos were for.
For my writer (and reader) friends, there’s a bonus to taking Spanish lessons. You can plant Spanish Easter Eggs (as my sister in law Emily calls them) in your stories. Elmore Leonard did it in Bandits. He buried the phrase, “No es pesado. Es mi hermano,” in a letter from Ronald Reagan soliciting contributions to stop communism in Nicaragua. The phrase was never mentioned again or explained but it means: “He’s not heavy. He’s my brother.”—a joke that only the in crowd will get.