Spanish Lessons

by Jennifer Kobrin on June 29, 2011

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This post is the first in a series bringing together Foundations’ two blogs: beyondthefarm.org and languageandliteracy.org, and to explore the relationships between food justice, language and culture. Beyondthefarm.org is co-produced by staff from Foundations’ Seeds for Learning urban farm; entries focus on topics related to food justice and sustainability. Languageandliteracy.org features content from Foundations’ literacy and English Language Learner experts; entries focus on language, policy, reading and technology.

For me, the connection between language, food and sustainability is obvious. In 2006, I spent a year living on a farm in rural Costa Rica. After numerous stints trying to learn Spanish, this is where it stuck. I learned the word for the sweet pancakes we used to eat with peanut butter (arepas), the herb my adoptive mother Miriam used to tear off a bush outside her window and throw into the cooking pot in one quick motion (culantro), and the fruits we plucked from trees, bushes, vines and the roof (guanabana, mandarinos, naranjas, mangos, pejivalle, papaya, piña, platanos, bananos) .

As my curiosity grew, so did my Spanish. I learned that on a farm the work is rarely finished, especially for women. Lunch for husbands, sons, daughters and sisters working in the fields must be packed and ready at 5 a.m. Plants need daily water and attention or they will wither and spoil. Dirt, insects, leaves and tiny twigs must be cleaned from the black beans before they are sold. On market days, produce must be packed into the truck late the night before, then counted and sold for hours in the valley where there is no breeze. Baby chicks need coddling and protection from stray cats.

Thursday afternoons were reserved for advanced Spanish class. Miriam and I, spread out in her breezy kitchen making arepas, would spend an hour discussing the complexities of life and giving each other little pieces of advice (consejos). We talked often about feeling halfway between Costa Rica and America, where many young men in the village would travel to make money and have adventures, including Miriam’s oldest son. Miriam advised me not to tell my mother about my terrible bouts of homesickness.  “She will worry,” she said. “When my son called me for the first time after being in America for five months, I couldn’t say a word.  Because if I tried to speak I would cry.”  Years later, while making arepas on a return trip, I found out that her youngest son was planning on moving to Minneapolis. “Don’t worry,” I said, “It’s very cold there and it snows a lot. He’ll be back soon.”

After returning to the United States that first year, I worried about losing my Spanish, and that arepas would not taste the same if they were made in an American kitchen. Since that year, I have made American friends raised in Peru, Cuba and Venezuela. While some Costa Rican words and recipes have been forgotten, my new friends have taught me to speak Spanglish and cook a Venezuelan version of arepas made with corn. But when I return to Costa Rica, my old Spanish always comes back to me right away. Guanabana, mandarinos, naranjas, mangos, pejivalle, papaya, piña, platanos, bananos. Once you have tasted something that ripe and sweet, you do not forget how to say its name.

This photo is the view from Miriam’s house in Guayabo Abajo, Costa Rica. The address is “50 meters north of the school.”

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