As hard as it is to believe, Christian and I had our last Spanish class yesterday. After a little more than seven weeks, our time is up at La72, and we’ll be heading to Mexico City on Wednesday for a few days of tourism, reflection, and much needed relaxation before heading back to the United States on Sunday. It’s been quite a trip, and I will definitely not go home empty handed.
My primary goal in coming to Mexico was to improve my Spanish and that definitely happened. I would be lying if I said that I’m not a little disappointed in the amount I learned, but I never intended to leave the country fluent in just two months; this experience was always supposed to be the first of many along the road to fluency and I am happy with the foundation that it offered. We learned some basic vocabulary, ten different verb tenses (yeah… our teachers lied to us when they said there’s just “past,” “present,” and “future!”), and many common phrases, enough to get by in many situations.
As many of you know, though, language is much more than asking for things and calling objects by their correct name. It’s about knowing situations, being informal, and yes, knowing when and how to swear. And let me tell you: Mexicans know how to swear. Whereas English has only a handful of rude or vulgar words that are repeated over and over in rap songs and movies—the only “creative” ones being horribly offensive and filled with hate—Spanish, or maybe more accurately Mexican Spanish, has a plethora of hilarious, playful, and powerful “bad words.” For some, this might seem like a strange thing for a friar to be talking about. Swear words? Two things: 1) knowing something bad doesn’t mean that one has to use it, but it’s important to know what’s going on, 2) “bad words” in many places here depend on context, and it is often completely acceptable to call a friend a terrible word in jest and to use that same word as an incredibly offensive slur in another situation. Will I use these words often? Probably not, but it was worth a few laughs.
As I wrote a few weeks ago about race and privilege, this experience has partially opened my eyes to things I never knew, partially solidified thoughts I already had. In many ways, it has been such a contradictory experience. On the one had, I have felt marginalized and left out in ways that I had never known before. Not knowing the language, the culture, the sense of humor, or the way things normally go, I was constantly bombarded with feelings of being different and inadequate. I was never “in,” but rather stuck out like a sore thumb in every situation. And yet, that very sticking out was in fact a sign of privilege in other situations. Even though I was different, being the only white guy among people of color is not the same as being the only person of color in a culture of white people. Even though I was someone different and outside, I was at the same time “special,” looking like the people on tv, the heads of of companies, and those leading the nation in politics. Despite how awful and excluded I felt sometimes, how different and “minor” I thought I was being, others around me were still experiencing minority and powerlessness in a way I never could. This was challenging to navigate as a “friar minor,” and I will have to do a lot more reflecting once I return.
Some unwanted lines
Waist and tan, that is. This trip was by no means a day at the spa. While Christian and I certainly had some great excursions to the river and some of the popular sites of Mexico, the regular day-to-day activities were pretty mundane, pretty unhealthy, and pretty lethargic. Ranking nearly as high as the US in obesity rates, the major problem for people in Mexico is not that they have appetites like we do in the US but that much of their food is low in nutrition and fried. Vegetables are very expensive and uncommon, replaced instead with a diet of rice, beans, fried meat, and corn tortillas. Delicious, don’t me wrong, but not sustainable. You add that diet to an American appetite and a daily routine that involves sitting in a classroom and laying on our beds studying, and you end up with two friars returning to the US with a little more “cushion” than we left with. As far as I can tell (and hope) the extra pounds aren’t that noticeable. I can’t say the same about my tanlines…
A Fraternal Experience
Above all of this is a powerful experience of fraternity. Despite the fact that Christian and I lived in the same house two out of the last three years, our paths never really crossed for very long. In a house of about twenty very busy and scattered people, it’s impossible to spend quality time and connect with everyone on the same level meaning that, honestly, we were not very close.
There was no shortage of quality time this summer.
Besides the time we spent in class each day, Christian and I made it a point to pray together, go out of the house to share a meal, and reflect on the theological, social, and human aspects of our trip everyday. Our discussions were frank and thoughtful, challenging each other when we saw something differently and supporting each other when the trip through us bumps in the road. And there were bumps. In many ways, this has easily been the most difficult experience of my life, feeling disappointment, frustration, sickness, isolation, and inadequacy on a regular basis, and I don’t know how either of us would have done it alone. We got through it, together, on the foundation of our Franciscan fraternity.
For many, it is this very fraternity that attracts people to our way of life, the oneness that we share in life as brothers. What many don’t realize, though, is that just because we’re in this life together with similar values and professions doesn’t mean that fraternity will naturally come. It is not something that can be taken for granted. It requires humility. It takes work. It cannot exist without love and commitment to one another, knowing without a doubt that you are willing to sacrifice for the other and that they are willing to do the same for you. In our relatively comfortable lifestyle in the US, in our potentially institutional lives with separate space and time and jobs and money, this is not always felt so strongly. Just as Christian and I were able to live together for two years without a particularly intimate experience, fraternity within comfort and privacy is not always challenged, and thus, not always realized. More than any other time in my life as a friar, I have been dependent on my brother and seen the need for true fraternity, that is, not just living and working together but being vulnerable, intimate, inter-dependent and committed to someone that I did not hand pick. That’s what I experienced this summer, and that, more than anything, is what I will take back with me. If you ask me, even if I don’t remember a single word of Spanish the minute the plane lands, this has made the whole trip worth it.