Teaching English to a group of young Mexicans can be interesting, especially if you have high expectations for your students. It isn’t a path strewn with flowers. One of my classes consists of 8 people, and four of them are teenagers. Lately I’ve been wondering how to break the chain of passivity that afflicts the four younger members of the group – it’s hard for me to brighten the corner where I teach; attempts at creative, independent thinking fall flat because it isn’t encouraged at school and because the idea of saving face is generally more important than a ‘can – do’ spirit. They seem to have a horror of making mistakes. Part of my job is to pass through that delicate hour with them without ever inflicting upon any of those four kids the horrible pain of embarassment.
D. has been with me for two years. He’s tall and ‘guapo’, and very smart – as a 16 year old he divides his time between high school, surfing, and English classes. His mother despairs of him never speaking at home. Another adolescent of the same age who has recently joined us is A. – he’s also tall and good-looking, with a slightly higher sense of self-respect and responsibility, and when he brought his ‘girlfriend’ T. to class, it brightened up D’s attitude quite a bit and changed his passive approach to learning English into a more purposeful style, a delightful thing for me as well as the other students, for D. really began to shine, thinking nothing of writing sentences on the board for others and helping them with their exercises. Now he seems to be at his happiest when he’s going to someone’s aid. He is unfailing in his amiable courtesy to others. I’m sure his mother would be surprised. Is it because of little T. with her beautiful athletic body who has no problem exhibiting her femininity with her tinkling laughter and her black eyes which still hold the glad laughter of childhood? Or is it just because they simply love being together, and any chance of being together is an opportunity to laugh and enjoy good fellowship?
My biggest challenge is J., partly because he’s never been to school. Some very sweet American neighbors of his are paying his tuition because he has charmed his way into their lives, doing odd jobs mostly, tending their garden. He comes into the class like a visitor still, not quite sure of his welcome, but he gets bolder as the class progresses. I have put books in front of him, there to open his mind and his heart to possibility, and I’ve all but mouthed the words, I have put cards into his hands and he plays with them, shuffling them – I’ve tried everything in my repetoire of skills save putting the actual words into his mouth, and even the others have tried. Especially L. She’s 33 and she brings her 3 year old niece to class with her. She’s working hard to pass her high school exams and get her diploma so, she says, she can help her daughter with her homework. L. is driven, determined to succeed. She has a strong work ethic, unlike the others she is fond of pointing out. Especially J. One day J. painted L’s niece’s face with felt pens, and L. exploded telling him how ‘flojo’ he was, how lazy. And then she lectured him the Mexican way, with a stream of easy invectives. I like her, and unlike the others whose heads swivel to catch a comment coming their way, she is self-directed and keeps her mind on her work.
I must learn to regard J. as an opportunity and not a difficulty. There are, after all, two ways to deal with a trial: one way is to get rid of it and be thankful when it is gone, and the other way is to recognize the trial as really a challenge for being able to eventually claim a higher blessing. Besides, I’ve learned a lot from him already. Slang, for one thing. And that’s a very good thing for me, because Mexican Spanish is replete with slang and colloquial expressions and both make up a large part of informal conversation.
It’s not about overwork ( and I’m guilty of that ) – it’s about overflow, and that sometimes victory means just standing still, or just watching.
Words have histories, emotional associations, story-influenced connotations. The best kind of language is the kind that reveals inner reality, and the worst kind of language is pretentious, a violation of the genuine core of language itself. When the Catholic bishops came to Mexico centuries ago, they brought traditional etiquette with them, and Mexicans inherited a refined form of behavior that showed an attachment to formalities; the use of the words ‘Don’ and ‘Dona’ were titles to categorize people as well as honor them. In those days, if you didn’t have a title you were a nobody. ‘Don’ in Latin means ‘master’, ‘master of the house’, or ‘lord.’ ‘Dona’ from ‘domina’ means ‘mistress of the house.’ These were titles for the ruling nobility, or royalty. Many of us remember Don Corleone of the ‘Godfather’ series, the Italian crime boss claiming signs of respect at his daughter’s wedding, the scene in his den capturing the grandeur of his power as various men await his benevolent protection, or offers they can’t refuse.
Michener does a great job of presenting the complexities of his many characters in his sprawling novel of 1300 pages called ‘Texas.’ I enjoyed the rough Garza, a man who had been called by the king of Spain to move to the wild Texas area from one of the Canary Islands, the one with the poorest soil and the most illiterate of creatures; the king thinking that, under changed conditions, people like Garza and his family might become useful citizens of Texas and thereby contribute to the advancement of the kingdom, the Spanish kingdom because it had conquered the Canary Islands and brought it into the bosom of Spanish culture and religion. In the 1730’s the Spaniards had controlled what is now Texas for some 200 years, and while it was true that they had contructed a glowing chain of cities in Mexico like Puebla, Guanajuato and Zacatecas, they hadn’t accomplished much in the remote areas of Texas. So when the need to develop a civilian community reached the king, he dispatched a number of islanders, farmers, to northern Mexico, those ‘recalcitrants in the islands.’ Hence Garza moved 5800 miles due west with a group of Canary Islanders, and upon his arrival he made the startling demand that he and his company be called ‘hidalgos’ for their bravery in securing homes and wintering in the wilderness. In Spanish society the word ‘hidalgo’ meant ‘hijo de algo’ or son of something, or ‘son of someone important.’ Garza was an illiterate peasant with 5 kids and one eye, having lost the eye in a fight with a mule. He refused to wear an eye patch and moisture trickled out of the gaping hole. He was the most litigious man in the area, initiating lawsuits against everyone, even the Spanish Crown. This colorful figure was the most stubborn in resisting authority, yet he gained the use of the honorific for himself and his group of peasant farmers. The Canary Islanders became aristocratic hidalgos at the stroke of the king’s weary pen.
Today the use of the honorific is sometimes used in addressing a senior citizen, a community person of long standing, or a doctor or governor. It’s considered a little old-fashioned, a bit pretentious maybe. Perhaps you could say that it’s out of favor in egalitarian societies where the same level of respect is shown to a drop-out and a triple P.H.D. , or at least someone wearing a tie, a ‘licenciado’.
It’s been fun reading Michener’s quirky, tongue-in-cheek dialogues as well as learning so much history. We get the timbre and touch and rhythm of the charcter’s speaking voice as well as an understanding of the settlers’ extraordinary need for respect. This interest in reputation, or image, still prevails in Mexico today, and we as Canadian and American citizens in this country would do well to remember that. Study their language – it’s an intricate culture in itself.