Friday, December 17, 2010

A Day of Immersion in Miami

On a couple of occasions I have taken former students of mine to Miami for a full day of Spanish practice.  I got started doing this after discussions with classes about field trips and going abroad.  What better place than Miami for a taste of Latin America without leaving the country?  However, I only took people who had had at least 2 semesters of study because true beginners would be even more overwhelmed and not get that much out of it.  I was hoping to further motivate these students by sharing a small part of what I knew of the language and culture and letting them experience some of it themselves.
      The week beforehand, I went down, planned my route, made some arrangements and recorded some of the most popular songs of the moment for them to listen to on the way for ambiance and to learn some phrases by singing along with the chorus (I printed the words out).  On the itinerary were a tour of Little Havana, stops at a Cuban bakery, a Cuban restaurant, a Colombian bookstore, a Latin supermarket (suggested by the 2 ladies I took on this trip), and a Colombian café.  I was very organized - everything planned down to the minute.  I thought it would go exactly as expected.  The morning began with excitement and anticipation.  At 7 am sharp, I picked up my passengers at their house.  It was too early in the morning for salsa music so I held off on using the tape I made.  There wasn't much conversation because of their limited Spanish but I stuck to my promise to not speak English (even if they did).  We ended up using repetitive questions like ¿Quieres? or  ¿Te gusta?.   But no matter.  Repetition is good, right?  By the time we got to Miami, we were a bit hungry, so first stop-a bakery for Cuban coffee. I figured I would have to order but since they knew the numbers I was hoping they'd listen for our ticket number.  Not this time around.  No, this wasn't going to be linguistic at all.  This was my first indication that I had taken this cultural familiarity for granted.  While I was ready to order and eat they seemed to be entranced by another world infused with it's own exotic sights and smells.  "What's this?" they asked, peering into the glass case filled with unfamiliar looking sweets.  "What are you going to get?"  "What do you recommend?"  They sat back and watched it all unfold in front of them.  I got the feeling they were experiencing sensory overload.  I got them café con lechepastelitos de queso y otros de guayaba.  They did say they enjoyed the food without much more commentary, so I left it at that.  We were already on  Calle Ocho the main artery through  La Pequeña Habana, and site of an annual festival every March, which was the next leg of our tour.  This part was mostly for its visual impact of seeing most store names and signs in Spanish, ending with a quick drive by Máximo Gómez Park, also known as Domino Park
     Now we were on our way to the bookstore.  I chose the place, primarily because the owner, whom I had become friendly with over the years, would be open to having Spanish-language learners attempt to speak with her.  When we got there, I introduced everyone, she greeted them warmly with a customary kiss, then launched into a conversation about how they were enjoying the local weather.  Being greeted with a kiss by a stranger, albeit a woman, took them slightly by surprise, but they went with the flow.  However, the Spanish went right over their heads and relied on me to communicate for them.  The small, compact store intrigued them as they started to wander around.  One shelf label caught their eye:  Literatura latinoamericana.  "Professor, why doesn't it say 'española'?"    I explained how that word would refer to something from Spain exclusively.  That's when I realized that the little things I have always taken as a given were completely new, 'foreign', if you will, from their monocultural point of view.  This was supposed to be, after all, the whole point of venturing down to Miami but I hadn't ever, up until that moment, seen what was completely normal to me, through the eyes of someone who was only familiar with American (USA) culture.  There were more cross-cultural differences and misunderstandings to come.
     It didn't take long for them to have their fill of browsing in one place.  They wanted to go exploring the other shops and eateries, all Latino, down the long strip mall that the bookstore was a part of.  Sure, I thought-why not?  There's plenty to see.  As they were about to walk out the door, I heard, "Say bye to your friend for us."  Little alarm bells went off in my head.  What?  You can't do that, I said.  You have to say good-bye personally, was all I could get out of my mouth, but they were gone.  A bit embarrassed and feeling like I had been left holding the bag, I went to the owner and apologized that they left.  I began to feel like a cultural ambassador.  First I explained their cultural viewpoint; she was of course, graciously understanding.  Then, sensing a teachable moment, I went outside to find the ladies to explain to them the importance of  returning and saying good-bye 
     If it was only that simple.  Now, a new snag presented itself.  Outside, I didn't see them.  Could they have gone into a store?  But which one?  There were more than a dozen.  I started to panic. This was the same summer that Chandra Levy had disappeared.  While we weren't in a particularly dangerous area-I wouldn't have gone- but they were tourists, didn't speak the language or know the local culture and could get into trouble. Just a minute had gone by when they emerged from a shop nearby.  I called them over.  As we were beginning to talk about returning to the bookstore, a suspicious looking man approached us.  My concerns about my guests were heightened.  He spoke to them in Spanish, quickly switched to English, trying to engage them in conversation and apparently asking for money.  My instincts were to dismiss him and get away but they made small talk for a few moments but since none of us showed interest in continuing or giving him anything, thankfully, he left on his own.  It took about 10 minutes to explain about polite greetings and leave-takings, but they understood and we all went back to the bookstore and said our good-byes and thanked the owner for her hospitality. 
      Still on schedule, we headed for the Cuban restaurant I had in mind.  It is a very popular place but I didn't count on it being so packed, not to mention there was unexpected road construction on the corner, making it difficult to get in and out of the parking lot.  Switch to plan B- another nearby local restaurant chain, less formal and less crowded at any given hour of the day.  I was still full from the morning's pastry but they were ready for a bite to eat.  My best option was just a cup of caldo gallego.  They each ordered a sándwich cubanoWhen it arrived, I couldn't figure out why they were surprised at its large size, as they considered it.  I guessed that's why they could only eat half of it.   We took our time, lingering over our meal, then a new question to think about:  "How come they haven't brought us the check?"  Mmmmmm.  This was interesting to me on a couple of levels.  Certainly this is not usual in the U.S., especially in casual places like this but we were not in a hurry so I was struck by their comment.  Were they ready to go?  Did they think the service was bad because of this?  I explained the custom and differences in viewpoint in both cultures, which they appreciated and found eye-opening.  I realized they were learning the kinds of things I had hoped they would. 
     After this, we then went on to a Latin supermarket.  It was a request my passengers had made the week before.    The place was bustling with activity.  Spanish was floating all around-easily overheard conversations, people ordering from the butcher, announcements about specials over the speakers.  They strolled down the aisles observing the tropical produce on display, the labels and signs in Spanish, imagining what it all meant.   Just about everything there was from Latin America- common foods, popular brands, but still recognizable by its name or packaging- until they came across bags of mate.  I knew about it but had never actually tasted it, but still I could give them an idea.  After a half an hour of wandering around, they were ready to move on to the last stop- a Colombian café.
     I had met the owner some time before and would usually drop by to say hi to her whenever I was in Miami.  It was a kiosk separate from the adjacent shopping center, with its own little patio, white plastic tables (with built-in umbrella for shade) and chairs for seating.   We just plopped our tired selves down to take a breather while we waited for her to come over and say hi.  I introduced everyone.  Aside from "Hola, ¿cómo estás?" that was the extent of interaction in Spanish between the two parties.  Since my friend didn't speak much English, and my former students equally limited in Spanish, I served as interpreter.  But it was almost 3pm; the day was already over.  Although they had to use some English with me during the day, the mental exhaustion from being semi-mute for eight hours left them feeling worn out and more than ready to head back home.  I couldn't help but sympathize.  I, too, was quite spent from constant driving and still facing another 3 hours on the road.
     On the way back, I mulled over the events of the day, analyzing what had happened, particularly at the restaurant.  I wondered about their reactions and found myself comparing cross-cultural differences from two points of view: that of a learner, experiencing another world for the first time and that of a (Hispanic) culture-bearer observing an outsider.  As I thought about it, I realized  I was seeing where each other's perception lies from a different standpoint.  It was a strange third space I hadn't experienced before- somewhere in between worlds and yet not fully in either.  "Wow", I thought to myself,  "supongo que, como dice la canción de Facundo Cabral, 'No soy de aquí ni soy de allá.'".


  1. Es muy interesante la actividad de los field trips. You didn't mention how many students you took with you; I guess I wouldn't take many so that I could have control of their every move.
    Dentro de la misma comunidad latina, incluso, hay mucha variedad, y aun nosotros mismos, a veces nos sorprendemos con algunas diferencias entre nosotros. I enjoy reading this post. Keep up the good work. Greetings from Venezuela.

  2. Gracias por tu comentario. En esta excursión llevé a 2 personas. Cuatro habría sido el límite por la misma razón que usted mencionó. Saludos desde la Florida.

  3. An interesting read. Having grown up in England I guess it is more difficult not to experience other cultures and languages, even if it is not necessary to speak anything other than english. I guess the sheer size of the US makes the situation different, although I think exposure to other languages (particulary spanish) must be increasing over time. It's good that you are helping your students by exposing them to other experiences in this way.

    Saludos desde Melbourne Australia