This is a post about language and communicating between cultures. It is meant to be frank and has some humor and absolutely no offense is intended either in the original conversations or in this recreation of them. I use humor to diffuse when working with others … the question is does that work in another culture?
“Jesus is loose on my Ingrid 38. I cannot find him and I’ve looked everywhere!”
Seems like a simple enough statement.
If you read this blog, you probably know Carolyn and I usually find a church to attend when we are staying for any length of time in a Mexican community. This is a Catholic nation with a capital “C” and conservative Spanish Catholicism. But for Americans familiar with a Latin mass, the transition to church here is not too hard even with moderate language skills.
This all began simply enough. I have a small rosary that hangs from a small hook in the boat’s main cabin. It is a good place to keep it and it also functions as an inclinometer. You can just look up and see how much tilt the boat currently has. This is in line with the philosophy that everything on a boat does double duty … everything has at least two functions … including a rosary.
One morning after we got to Barra de Navidad, I first noticed that the small figure of Jesus was no longer on the cross. All that remained was the small scroll over his head. He was nowhere to be seen.
No problem! The boat is a closed system. He can’t have gone far.
A search of the cushions revealed 22 pesos, two peanuts, a ball point pen, and a rubber band–but no Jesus. Under the cushions we have storage area covers with small holes, so the next places searched were the holds. Again no Jesus, but we did find three more pesos.
Now this particular rosary has meaning for us. We have had it since my wife and I got married. It was a gift and handmade by a dear friend– an elderly gentleman, who was a devout Irish Catholic immigrant from the old country in the best traditions of ‘Erin go Bragh’ and green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. So, after a short discussion we decided to replace the small Jesus on the crucifix with a new one. Shouldn’t have been a problem as there are more than a few tiendas (small stores or tourist shops) in the two communities, where we go most commonly, that sell Rosarios ( a rosary). Many of these are handmade and have small silver “Jesus” figures.
I went across the bay to Barra de Navidad to see if I could get it fixed. I forgot to take the rosaary, figuring my Spanish would suffice for this simple request. In retrospect, that might have been a little mistake.
When working in a foreign language, I commonly use gesture, mime, humor, the language, tone, and any other handy tools to get my point across. I do the same thing in my native language. Why should Spanish be any different? I don’t typically use Google translate or my iPad translation and conjugation program unless we are doing something with immigration or Mexico’s government in which you have to be exceptionally careful to be clear.
So armed with only my native wit and communication skills, I went to town.
I found a small shop across from the doors of the Catholic Church and engaged the young boy who was watching the store for his mom and dad. Our conversational exchange started normally enough. I said, “En mi barco hay una cruz. Jesús estaba en él. Se escapo. Yo buscado por todas partes y no lo puedo encontrar. Necesito a Jesús de regreso en la cruz. Me puedes ayudar?”
In English, remember I am trying to keep my language and ideas simple for me, not for them. The loose translation is “In my boat, there is a cross. Jesus was on it. He is not there anymore. I have looked for him everywhere and I cannot find him. I need Jesus back on the cross. Can you help me?” I think a more creative translation is more like “Jesus has escaped from the Cross, and I need your help to put him back up there!” At least, I am pretty sure that is what he heard.
The young boy was about 12 (14, I found out later). His eyes got saucer big … this is sometimes an early sign your communications may have gone awry. Laughter–especially uncontrolled laughter– is another.
He, however, definitely was not laughing. “Que?!!” “What?!!”
This time, I began with “Disculpe mi pobre Espanol; habla Ingles?” “Excuse my poor Spanish; do you speak English?”
“No, Señor.” “No”
Next, he quickly made the sign of the cross. This particular non-verbal gesture is also a sure indicator that you may have unintentionally crossed some type of cultural line. I’m not dense; I picked up right away that the conversation was not going as planned. So, I pointed at a necklace with a cross on it.
“Entiendo; pero absolutamente no te puedo ayudar, Señor.” “I understand, Senor, but I absolutely cannot help you.”
“Gracias,” I said politely, as I started to leave. Obviously this part of my communication was successful, because he breathed an audible sigh of relief as I walked away.
Tried another small street vendor. More or less the same reaction. So, I returned to the boat with no Jesus.
Carolyn and I talk every day about dealings with others so that, in theory, we learn together. Carolyn calls this learning from my husband’s mistakes. She was born and raised a Catholic and spent time in a convent as a young woman. It well may be that this experience makes her a bit more sensitive to how what I said could be misconstrued.
The following week, after attending Sunday morning Mass in Barra, Carolyn and I were walking around town on our way back to boat when her “yardsale radar” went off as we passed a small store. There were rosaries with Jesus on them. I approached the owner and started to say, “I only want the Jesus” when she elbowed me … This is our shut up-and-let-me-handle-this signal.
I whispered, “Don’t we just want to fix the rosary?”
I have found looks can communicate as well. I got, The Look! It translates roughly into “Silencio, idiota!” More gently that is “Peace, be still!” or “Hold your tongue!”
Anyway, the story ends with the lesson that it is difficult to get someone in a small Mexican community to take a tiny hammer and put Jesus back on the cross no matter how good your Spanish is.
It is much easier to just buy a new Jesus on the cross. We ended up buying just the small crucifix and keeping the old rosary beads.
In hindsight, a little more preparation before going to town was in order. A better way to have started my conversations with the shop owners and their children might have been the following sentences in Spanish, “Tengo un rosario. Aquí lo tienes. La pequeña figura de Cristo se ha perdido. Me gustaría hacerlo reparar. ¿Puedes repararlo?” Having the damaged cross in hand, the sentences read, “I have a rosary. Here it is. The small figure of Christ is lost. I would like it repaired. Can you fix it?”
You know, I just noticed the unique Crucifix in our church. It is called the Cristo de Ciclon, the Christ of the Cyclone. It has its arms at its sides, unlike most of the figures of Jesus on the Cross where they are outstretched.
I wonder, “Tengo un rosario. Aquí lo tienes. Se puede romper los brazos de Jesús para que cuelguen a los lados.……?” “I have a rosary. Here it is. Can you break Jesus’ arms so that they hang at his sides …?”
My wife just looked at me and asked, “Do you have Tourette’s or some problem with impulse control? You are going to get us killed!” She turned and walked away mumbling with all the love a wife can muster … “I will pray for you.”
Perhaps, she is right “Some thoughts are best left unsaid.”
The story above is 99.9% accurate with only small changes for story-telling purposes. I hope you enjoyed it and see the humor. I have since been back to talk with the dad and mom at the first shop and explain what I was trying to convey. No lasting offense has been inflicted. It is a story of intentions and language– unpredictable and, sometimes, humorous outcomes. Keep working on your Spanish, you can never know enough.