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Called to Be Bilingual

By Janet E. Kurtz | Published: September 13, 2021

Jan with Beda, who worked as a maid for Jan's host family in 1969.
Jan and Beda, a friend working as a maid
for Jan's host family in Saltillo, Mexico.

Two for the price of one. Or three, depending on how many languages you speak. I’m talking about extra layers of life. I left my monolingual life at age 15, traveled to Saltillo, Mexico, stayed with a family, and attended La Universidad Interamericana – complete immersion from refried beans to machismo. At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d pass my Spanish II class. Instead, my memorized conversations sprang to life in la plaza, at the Mercado Central, and at La Discoteca Roma. Those three weeks catapulted me out of the Midwest and into non-stop bilingual life adventures. Spanish became my global connection.

At first it was a breakthrough to merely line up my sentences and get them inserted into conversations. Spanish began to open doors into homes, family celebrations and then life-long friendships. Instead of quitting Spanish, I went on to a career of sharing my enthusiasm through teaching Spanish and Latin American studies courses. I took my students out of the classroom to the Festival of Nations in St. Paul, weekends at Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, and finally, family-stay/study in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Spanish surpassed verbs and idioms to include dimensions of history, intercultural communication and current events.

A Dia de Muertos altar Jan saw during a family
stay in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Ah, current events. I was unprepared for the day Lorena walked into my classroom and shared her hometown newspaper from Guatemala. Death squads. Kidnappings. Foreign interventions. Spanish revealed another side to political rhetoric. It exposed social justice issues. I spiraled into activism. My previous forays took me from Mayan shaman rituals in the Guatemalan highlands, to Día de Muertos altars in Tepotzlán, Mexico and now added El Corralón, a Texas detention center where I witnessed judges deciding the fate of asylum seekers. Would refugees be sent home to possible death or be released to the 1980s Central American Overground Railroad, headed on to Canada?

With the Central American Overground, I translated refugees’ petitions to the Canadian judge as part of my volunteer work at Jubilee Partners in Comer, Georgia.  My Spanish grew to include torture vocabulary, nuances of vernacular between Central American countries, accents, and always, personal histories in individuals’ own words. Words matter, yet are only one dimension of multisensory communications.

Words require cultural context. When asked to draw a house, my U.S. students pencil in a box, with a triangle roof, chimney, door and two windows. What of a Spaniard in Madrid? A Guatemalan Maya? An Argentinian gaucho? Language is given meaning through culture. Culture is a tapestry woven of social status, economics, history and current events.  Now include gender and geographical location. Translating requires accuracy of vocabulary, cultural context and tone of voice. Language is a mosaic – multiple pieces of one venue.

Complicated? No, fascinating! Being bilingual takes me down unexpected roads. It accesses deeper, communicative levels. It touches human existence. One acquires an awareness of the many facets involved when interacting with others. It is a mirror that reflects and reveals oneself. Extra layers – added value.

Jan serving as a translator for Helps International in
Barillas, Guatemala. She translated a doctor's English to 
Spanish, which another translator then converted into
Q'anjob'al for the doctor's patient, a Mayan elder.

To me, language was a literal calling. I was called to describe a C-section to a woman on the gurney about to birth her baby. I was called to court to explain “restraining order” to a woman fleeing her abusive husband. I was called to the emergency room where a Zapotec farmworker was examined after being kicked in the head by a cow she was milking. I was called for advice by the sponsors of an incoming Honduran asylum family. Should they provide a microwave or a comal – the traditional metal cooking griddle? I said both. I was called because I was bilingual.

Would I have made sugar skulls, or tasted grasshoppers if Spanish had not taken me to these experiences?  Would I have made the effort to visit refugee camps? Maybe. But being bilingual opened the path to questions I would not previously have had the knowledge to even ask.  Curiosity led to lifelong learning. 

Be curious. Seek diversity. Embrace new ideas. Combine the better of ideas and produce the best. Reflect on your own beliefs. Make adjustments. 

Two lives for the price of one. Or three, or four, with each new language. Discover new dimensions. Empathy. Multiple insights. Myriad relationships. Deeper understanding.

Enrich your journey.

¡Buen Viaje!

About the Author

Janet Kurtz is a retired instructor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, Central Lakes College, Brainerd, MN. At CLC, Janet founded the Cultural Thursday series, a Latin American scholarship fund, organized Festivales Latinos, travel/study groups and in-state field trips. Her book, Northern Shores/ Southern Borders: Revelations of a Bilingual Life, highlights her journey from a small, monolingual Midwestern town, to becoming a life-long language and intercultural advocate and activist. It is available online at CLC or by contacting Janet for local bookstore listings.  For more information, visit www.janetkurtz.com 

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