In order to rescatar mi lengua (rescue my language) from an anti-Spanish childhood (my white father had ordered Mamá not to speak to me in her native language when I was a child), I studied like a fiend. Every night, before moving to Nicaragua in 1985, I memorized thirty Spanish words a day. Before getting on the plane, I had about a thousand words in my head, and used them while talking to my proud mother, who helped me take my torpid Spanish to the next level.
Michelle and I had moved to Nicaragua to join with activists from all over the world, who were protesting against Reagan’s illegal war against the country. He was paying millions of dollars to the Contra forces, a mercenary group made up of old Nicaraguan National Guard soldiers, who were famous for their death squad tactics.
Our job was to report on the Contra’s activities, specifically, their attacks on the civilian population. Which meant we had to learn the vocabulary of war.
Pertrechos. Metralla. Matanza. Degollado. Tierra arrazada.
Military supplies. Shrapnel. Massacre. Cut throat. Scorched earth.
We didn’t need these words back home. But in Nicaragua, they were table-talk, ones used during supper, along with cólera, lombrizes, disentería, hambre, all the words used among the poor, the sicknesses of amoebic dysentery, the specific vocabulary of infant mortality.
Nowadays I don’t use these words much, unless I’m telling stories, in Spanish, about those days. But they’re in me, and I’m glad they are. I learned a great deal about the world and myself in Nicaragua. I learned about collective suffering.
The Nicaraguans reminded me of something inherent in our Central American cultures: people of struggle must rely on one another to survive and thrive. Community–I learned that in Central America. It was so different from the individualism of gringo America. So much more life-giving.
But I learned more than just a vocabulary list of suffering. I learned the responses to all that pain, words that have stuck in me with a vengeance, words that protect and rile me into action: Organizar. Luchar. Revolución.
And one of my favorites: Alzarse.
Returning to my Latino roots has meant a constant uprising against the demons of the past and the sickness in my head. I know, this may make no sense to you, the notion that finding your culture can help you survive the horrors of this life. You’re just going to have to take my word on this. My vocabulary.
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