Nothing Much

By: Maggie
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In February, 2006 I was utterly confused and irritated by Latino culture. In August, 2006 I was not.

Statement Number Two:

This paper is not about Latino culture.

I didn't do anything. I guess you could get technical and say that I learned their language. But that seems minimal. We honestly did nothing.

The "we" I referred to in the previous statement is my familia. Yaneth, my mama. Anna, my aunt. Amel, my neighbor. Alfredo, my little brother. And Alexis, my nephew.

They are not really my family. I met them when I was twenty years old. And I lived with them for only six months. But if human hearts could be tattooed, my familia would be there; an artwork of ink depicting Spanish phrases and dark laughing faces.

Oregon, USA-July 27th, 2005:

Children of the Nations called and asked me to come to the Dominican Republic for six months to teach sewing to impoverished Haitian women. Six months is a long time. 182 days. I will be in a completely new place, amongst a language I don't understand, with everyone I've ever known many miles away. It is a sobering realization to know what I'm embarking upon...nevertheless I am excited! I have such great plans! There is so much I could teach...

There is a kind of collision that happens when an Oregonian is scurried off a 747 jet plane into a Dominican world. The Oregonian has a job to do. She has a plan of action for the following six months. She is thinking in English. She is sporting her American day planner, the numbered boxes already half-filled with hopeful expectations of what the days will hold. She has shared with well-wishers back home what she hopes to accomplish. The expectant and anxious curl of her SPF 30 chapstick-ed lips begs to not be disappointed.

The world that greets her has exactly the opposite plans for her. It plans to slow her down, introduce her to every person she comes into contact with, and spend hours talking about nothing terribly important with each of them. It wants to savor her. It wants to patiently teach her its language. It wants to befriend with her, and could care less about her goals.

Oregon, USA-May 16th, 2005:

 "Okay, it's one o'clock, let's get started with class!"

"But Abigail isn't here yet, Maggie."

"That's alright. She's late. We'll get started anyway."

I looked sharp and I sounded professional. I was a sewing teacher. My students were five girls, aged ten years old to twelve. They were excited to be there, excited to learn to sew. I was excited to teach.

Barahona, Dominican Republic-2006:

"Hola, Maggie!"

"Hi Innocencio," I said in Spanish to the principal of the batey (village) school. "Sorry I'm late, the guagua (public bus) had to make some extra stops by the gas station to pick up a man and his chickens. Then, some passenger wanted SkimIce from the street vendors." I sighed, exhaustedly, "Are the students in the classroom?"

"Oh, no. We must go fetch them. They do not know you are here."

"They what? Inno, I told them to come to class at one o'clock! Why aren't they here?"

"Oh, they're probably cooking lunch, or bathing their children. Come, come, we'll see."

It took time to circulate the village, peeking into dark mud homes and calling for my students. We found most of them. Hilda was visiting a friend. Milca had taken her son to town on an errand. Sonilda was at the creek washing her laundry. "She'll come when she's done," said a boy who resembled her. "When will that be?" I asked. He shrugged.

It was two o'clock by the time I crossed the doorway of the tiny concrete classroom that housed three treadle sewing machines. Three women, Yulisa, America, and Loida had trickled in while I was still searching for Sonilda. Behind me was Yohanny, Yoleiny and Kenia. Lola was tagging along about fifty feet behind us, holding the hand of her two-year old, and looking none too happy about being awakened from her afternoon siesta.

We all crammed in. It was hot. Sweaty. There was no ventilation except for the horizontal slats in the windows that were blocked by beautiful black children's curious filthy faces, fighting for a spectator's spot to watch the "Clase de Costura."

I wanted to look sharp and I wanted to sound professional. I was a sewing teacher. My students were eleven women, aged fourteen years old to forty. They were excited to be there, excited to learn to sew. I was excited to teach.

Barahona, Dominican Republic: April 25th -

I went to Batey Los Robles today. I was not looking forward to it very much, because I feel like we're so behind in the lesson plans. But today I started to realize that I need to put my expectations by the wayside and just concentrate on love. That's why I'm here right? Because of love? Learning their names, practicing Creole, letting them wrench my hair out, piece by piece, as they apply their knowledge of coarse, cornrow braiding to my fine, slippery, straight hairs. I think I love every second of it.

Every night after sewing class, my family and I went to church for an hour and a half, and then came home to sit on our porch. We lived in a concrete block house the size of a small Starbucks. It was pink; we called it Casa PeptoBismol. The front porch was also concrete block. It had an eight-inch concrete railing that made a lovely seat for Yaneth and me and our visitors. Amel always came over. He lived next door (twelve inches from my bedroom closet, to be exact) and came over to trade Spanish lessons for English lessons. I call Amel my brother because he and Yaneth (my mama) are like son and mother. They love each other like family, and fight like the two headstrong latinos they are. I think the majority of my Spanish lessons happened as I listened to them argue. Yaneth is precious. She is a nurse for the mission I worked with. She loves me as if I had actually been her birth daughter.

Anna is Amel's mother, and Alexis is her grandson. Anna pops over every day at five-thirty a.m., peeking into my tiny bedroom to say, "Goos Morning, my luf!" I always grin, freezing from my cold bucket shower, and say, "Good Morning, Anna, how are you?" in English. "Super fine!" says Anna. We giggle. That is all the English she knows.

Alexis is her grandson. He either hates me or loves me, I can't tell which. He loves to roll his pelota (ball) back and forth across the porch with me for hours during the Dominican sun's hottest hours, but when I come home from working and ask for a hug, he runs away like I'm the first white person he's ever seen.

Alfredo brought the most joy. Alfredo is a six-year old in a twenty-year-old's body. He is the sweetest, kindest, most sincere person I've ever met-but also one of the most clueless. We love to tell stories of Alfredo. "Amel, tell me the story of Alfredo spilling lotion in the drugstore," I would often beg. Amel would chuckle, "You mean the time he got so scared that he threw the lotion bottle three aisles over so he wouldn't get caught?" One day Alfredo came by looking very glum. This was odd since he'd lately been quite happy over the acquisition of his first job as a waiter. "Alfredo, what's wrong?" I asked. Amel and I worked to keep straight faces as the story ensued. Alfredo had grown to dislike his job after about four days of working there. Finding that he didn't wish to continue working there, he went to work and stood against the wall with his arms crossed-refusing to work-for an hour until they fired him. He was upset because the restaurant refused to pay him for his four days of work.

It was there we sat. It was there we talked. It was there I learned Spanish. It was there I did nothing.

Dear Mom,

Here in Barahona, every day is a down-to-earth lesson in patience. I love the fact that last week in our twenty minute taxi ride home we took a fifteen minute detour to the taxi driver's house to get him some lunch when we were just five minutes from our destination. I love that we left an hour late from the capital because we had to fit about thirty-five Dominicans and their luggage into a twenty-five person bus. I love that when you ask what time church starts nobody really knows because people just get there whenever they can anyway. I love that when someone invites you over for dinner and you arrive at the set time, that's when they start cooking.

Mom, it's crazy, but I love the DR.

Fond in my mind are days when I grocery shop, do homework, clean house, get caught up on emails, cook a good dinner, go for a run, and balance my checkbook. Like any good parents, mine taught me the essentials of life: walking, talking, eating, believing. But somewhere snuggled within that list of essentials was the big one-efficiency. It's as much of a drive to me as hunger. Could I be any more western-minded in this area? Probably not.

There is something in our western culture that pricks our heels and tells us to hurry up. Jolly St. Nick himself can't even wait for the turkeys to be gone before he is prodding us to fill his disingenuous sleigh with much-desired bargains. "Get your shopping done by December First!" he chimes and we are inspired.  Could it be the constant drive to succeed more, to get ahead, to outshine the proverbial Jones family? Or is it that we simply value accomplishment, the full-belly feeling of having checked with gusto every box that lines the left side of our "To Do" lists?

Part of the Efficient Me misses the days filled with conversations, visiting, eating, talking, laughing, and making new friends. Days filled with inefficiency and fun, when failing to accomplish a goal was smiled upon because it meant successfully filling your time with pleasurable, relationship-building activity. So what if Yaneth doesn't cook dinner until eleven o'clock p.m.? At least she didn't miss Alfredo's visit, as I surely would have done, had I been in charge of the meal preparation.

I learned Spanish in only three months. It took me about five months to learn to do my job. Efficient Me cringes just to put that into writing. But Dominican Me wouldn't change it. Not for anything.

Barahona, Dominican Republic: May 19th -

I left to catch a bus to Batey Algodon at 2:00. Then at the bus stop an old man waylaid me, calling me his cousin and kissing and hugging me. Bystanders mumbled to me not to mind him, he was the town loco. Why is it that my white skin attracts these locos more magnetically than the ferocious sun?

I finally found a spot on a rickety, stuffed guagua and we headed to Algodon. Halfway there, however, there was a roadblock at La Joya because there has been no electricity for three days: something to do with the elections. Anyway, we sat there in the blessed guagua for over an hour, waiting for the police to come break up the riot and get the branches out of the road. A chatty woman buzzed in my ear the whole time. I know everything I could ever want to about her family. No one in the guagua cared a whit that we spent the whole afternoon doing nothing. There was no point in ME getting irritated, unless I wanted to further establish myself be the ‘odd man out.' I might as well try to fit in with my attitude...since my skin refuses to tan.

 I finally got to Algodon at 4:00. By the time I got there, my ride HOME was leaving and I had to get back to teach my English class. So I came home. Nobody learned anything about sewing today, but this curious culture jerked me to a standstill long enough to paint a mural on me.

It took me some time to realize that no one felt restless like me. It took me some time to understand why we regurgitated memories so often, and laughed and made each person feel so loved and special....every day. It took me some time to appreciate the feel of the green plastic chairs mimicking my sitting body, knowing that this was the time when I would know and be known, listen and talk, learn and teach, love and be loved. It took me some time to accept that it was something to do nothing.

Barahona, Dominican Republic: July 28th -                                 

Went to my last class today in Algodon. I went with a heavy heart, knowing I must leave this dear second home, feeling discouraged that six months' hard work only had a smattering of dishcloths, tote bags, skirts and shirts to show for it.

We had pop and crackers and the women gave typical Dominican speeches. Sonilda tried, but started crying and just hugged me. America was crying, Carolina gave a speech saying, ‘Even though we are dirty and live shabbily, and are black, you don't care about our skin, or how we live, we can see your love...' I was crying. Then we took group photos and each one gave me a long hug; some were crying. Then the women took me on a vuelta (walk) across the road to a beautiful grove of fruit trees, grasses, and nursery gardens. We ate fruit and took pictures and laughed. Then we went back to Algodon and went around to see the flowers growing that we'd planted after class last week. My feet were dirty so we had to get in the river and wash them.

The best part was when my students put on a fashion show. They all modeled their one outfit they had made. One outfit-plaids that didn't match-a bit of a misfit left sleeve on Loida's blouse-a row of grinning models more beautiful than those of the most glamorous runway. Ever. 

It is like trying to explain the meaning of the Spanish word "ahora" to an English speaker. I teach my Spanish class that it means "now", while warning them that my loose translation is just the tip of the iceberg. Ahora can mean now, right now, in a little while, a little while ago, and can be paired with other words to increase the plethora of meanings. There is also the word ahorita-a more specified amount of time. The "ito/ita" suffix in Spanish signals that the root word is being minimized. For example, "hermanito" is little brother: hermano (brother), -ito (little). One might think that ahorita is a little amount of time, right? Oh no. It means a little longer from ahora (now) than ahora. Ahorita means a little longer than a little bit.

This dissertation on Spanish grammar was planned in hopes of completely confusing the reader. The inability to describe the proper translation of ahora exactly mimics my inability to translate the gap between my two cultures. I have not yet found a common measurement by which to compare the two. Ahora-now. Relationships built-tasks accomplished. It is a wonder job applications do not have a square box to check for "bi-cultural" beside "bilingual." You can study language in a classroom. But culture lessons happen on the front porch of pink, concrete houses.

Statement Number Three:

Latino culture knows something we don't about relationships. Can we learn it from them? Of course. After we finish working. Yes.

Maggie Kercher is regular contributer to

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