Shopping Saturday: Adventures in Spanish

Joan Joyce (Schiavon) Huesca  (1928 – 1987)


Joan Joyce (Schiavon) Huesca, at the country  home of my
Uncle Enrique and Aunt Mercedes “Meche” Huesca,
Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, August 1987.
My mother went to the corner store one day while in Mexico City to buy some hair gel.  After hunting unsuccessfully for it, she asked the clerk behind the counter for help.
“Discúlpame, Señorita,” – Excuse me, Miss, she began in broken Spanish.  “Pero no encontrar goma para mi caballo.”
The clerk gave my mother a strange look.  “No, Señora,” she replied in Spanish.  “I think you’ve come to the wrong place.  We don’t sell that here.  Try a feed store.”
My mother, pointing to her hair, insisted.
“Oh, cabello,” smiled the clerk, and found the hair gel.  It turned out that my mother had asked for gel for her horse.
My mother believed it was important to be humble and learn from one’s mistakes.  She made her fair share of these in her efforts to communicate in Spanish, but it never seemed to phase her.  She often said she wished she’d paid more attention during her high school Spanish classes.  But back then she hadn’t known that one day she would travel to and eventually live in the homeland of the love of her life, my father.
By the time our family moved from Chicago to Mexico City in the 1960s, my mother had learned enough Spanish to carry on a conversation.  She would not practice it with us for fear of our repeating her errors.  Because she and my father felt strongly that we should learn to speak the language well, they sent us to public school and chose to live near family rather than in one of the expat neighborhoods of Mexico City, where we would have spoken mostly English.  As a result, the only place we spoke English was at home.
While my sisters and I had the advantage of learning Spanish at school, my mother had to learn the language through her everyday errands and visits.  Her teachers were our relatives, neighbors, and merchants.  She learned much of her vocabulary by trial and error, improvised sign language, and a sense of humor.
One year she wanted to buy my father some handkerchieves for his birthday.  It took her several tries before the store clerk realized what she really wanted, my mother having asked for diapers – pañales – instead of pañuelos – for her husband.
One of her daily stops was at the butcher shop, which opened out to the street.  My grandmother had recommended the place for its fresh meats, and the constant line of housewives streaming out the door seemed to echo this opinion.
My mother would go there in the late morning.  Sometimes she could point to the cut of meat she wanted if it was on display, and other times she knew the word for the cut of meat she wanted. For the cuts she wanted but could not see or translate, she had to work her way around the word, using sign language and imitating animal sounds until she could communicate what she wanted.
If she wanted ground beef to make hamburgers, she would make a mooing sound (until she learned the word for cow, vaca) and roll her fists together in a grinding motion. She made the same gesture if she wanted pork sausage but would grunt like a pig.   If she wanted chicken legs, she would say “pollo,” or chicken, and point to her leg. The butcher would wait patiently for her little dance and fill her order with a smile.
Of course, this routine provided great entertainment for the other shoppers awaiting their turn, as well as for the passers-by who would stop to watch. My mother usually laughed as hard as they did.  On her way out of the shop, the others often patted her on the shoulder good-naturedly, bidding her Adios until the next day.  
This went on for about a month, until the day before Easter Sunday, when she needed to buy a ham for our traditional family dinner.  As she approached the counter with a cheery Buenos Días to the butcher, he said to her in perfect, unaccented English, “Good morning, ma’am.  What’ll it be today?”
My dear mother could not believe her ears and gaped at the man.  “You speak English!” She exclaimed incredulously.
“I lived in Detroit for 30 years,” he said.
“You mean all this time, you knew what I wanted, and you just let me…” she started, flabbergasted.  She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“I know. I’m sorry. I felt really guilty about letting you go on like that.  But you were good for business!”  the butcher said, “And my customers love you!”
Indeed, his customers – and many who met my mother throughout the years – were charmed by her determined and unabashed efforts to communicate in Spanish.  She had long ago fallen in love with Mexican history and culture.  She found that people were forgiving of her when she made mistakes, because they knew she was sincere and was making an effort to talk to them. Through her example, I learned that to understand people of different cultures, you have to relax and be yourself, try your best to speak their language, be willing to take risks, accept that you will make mistakes, and not take yourself too seriously.

And one more thing:  relish the adventure.

Copyright ©  2013  Linda Huesca Tully


6 Thoughts to “Shopping Saturday: Adventures in Spanish

  1. Linda, after following all these stories about your family, and your mom in particular, I particularly enjoyed today's post. Kudos to your mom for being so brave to do what it takes to learn the language. From what I've heard, that's the best way to accomplish that. I should know. Five years of Spanish class in public school in an English-speaking country, for me, couldn't accomplish what your mother was surely able to do before she left Mexico City!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jacqi. As she progressed, her vocabulary expanded greatly and was quite impressive. I think her encouragement and example were the reasons I enjoyed learning Spanish and went on to study other languages afterward.

    And yes, she definitely left her mark on Mexico City!

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