I had plenty to learn from this tight-knit community when I first wandered here, back in September. I felt like I knew the world from short vacations with constant movement, but that’s not genuinely understanding a place. By staying in Ambuquí for several months watching the sun rise and set over the same rooted mountains, I have broken through the superficial. I have been part of the real. I have learned simply by living — gaining life wisdom that no textbook could have given me. I had no idea the troubles of a teacher, the daily deeds of an agricultural worker, or the dances of Ecuador. I was clueless on most cultural traditions, and didn’t know the typical dishes. Yet, worst of all, my Spanish was an absolute mess.
Since I never paid attention in foreign language class, I came to Ecuador with busted Spanish. It was roughly equivalent to an ancient automobile, slow and breaking down around every corner. Thankfully, my mama made sure to use basic words at a pace that even a baby could understand. For months we would sit at the table after dinner sharing stories and cracking jokes until yawns kept us from talking. Speaking and hearing Spanish every day, my vocabulary and accent improved tremendously in just a few short weeks, but I still had a ways to go.
For most situations, I could say what I needed to; that is, only after fumbling through all the sounds in a dictionary. I stuck with it, though, engaging in conversation with locals, asking them questions about the town’s history and the general culture here in my new home. Typically, people were affable with me and curious to hear my thoughts. The more discussions I had, the more words I learned, but I think more importantly, the more comfortable I became with the Spanish language.
It’s smooth, rhythmic flow was a big change from the flat and abrupt English I grew up with. Even the way people think, in terms of forming sentences, was evidently different to me in the beginning. I struggled to rewire the way I think and develop new conversational habits. Until December I would wake up with English thoughts clouding my brain, but eventually I become so familiar with this language that now I pass whole weeks without an English thought.
Yet still, even now, I mess up. After months of speaking Spanish daily I can’t say that I’m fluent, but I don’t mind it. It’s been a rather humbling process to become proficient in a second language. I have to abandon my pride and accept that I’ll constantly be making mistakes. No matter where I am, if I don’t understand something, I need to be proactive about clarifying it. Or else I end up responding “Yes” to questions like “what do you want for dinner?” or “what’s your favorite color?” Additionally, I’ve encountered teachers of all ages, from 3 years old to 100, giving me lessons that I’d be a fool to turn down. Most importantly though, learning Spanish has taught me to be patient with myself; mastery doesn’t come overnight.
Being able to speak the native tongue here has opened a vast expanse of experiences to me — experiences that would otherwise be impossible for me to imagine. I can barter at the Otavalo Market, wander around alone in Cuenca, get into international politics with my cousin; but to put it plainly, I can connect with Ecuadorians on a more authentic human level. Especially because the majority of “gringos” that come to Latin America have less than adequate Spanish skills, so breaking that stereotype lets people know that I am here to be with them. In fact, several times I have caught people off guard with my ability to speak Spanish, specifically Ecuadorian slang.
Knowing how to communicate well in Spanish has allowed me to integrate into my family’s community quite rapidly as well. Here, many people pass their whole lives in the same town that they grew up in, which helps families stays close both physically and emotionally. Nearly every weekend cousins, grandparents, aunts, and uncles come to our house to reunite with family. When I first got here, these types of reunions were a lot for me. Not just because there were a lot of unfamiliar faces, but when all these unfamiliar faces were speaking Spanish at the same time, I became overwhelmed. I tended to stay passive in these times of chaos, listening to others and observing the group dynamics. But my mom, who has had my back since day one, could tell I was holding back. She knew I was more social than silence.
A couple of weeks into my stay here she began to whisper short jokes in my ear to tell my dad, or quick pranks to pull on my brothers. I generally only talked when I was talked to, but sometimes, if there if there wasn’t a crowd I’d tell my mom about all the crazy thoughts I had. She would correct my Spanish along the way and laugh at all the silly things I would say. Then, when there were family gatherings she’d ask me to share some story I had told her (eating snail poop, almost getting torn apart by dogs, my disaster in class that day, etc.), and I usually wouldn’t want to. I felt like I’d mess up my Spanish or the story wasn’t really as funny as I thought it was and people wouldn’t laugh. I was anxious, not only because I was in a totally new setting, but for some reason, the more people that were watching, the more afraid I was to be me.
Anyways, my mamita would insist. She would say, “no tell them… tell them! Tell them how you told me,” and so I would. During family reunions I would share my stories and ask them questions. Then, with the encouragement of my mom I started cracking jokes and pulling pranks. I still felt a bit uncomfortable with all the eyes on me, but I knew I was doing important growing.
The truth is, I had largely forgotten how to tell stories. I had forgotten how to pass time with family and talk about my day. I had forgotten how to genuinely laugh and enjoy the company of others. Relearning how to do all of that, in a brand new language, was immensely liberating. It was a revival that I didn’t even know I needed. Not only did it teach me about myself, but it helped me to become a more active part of this loving family.
I began to look forward to the huge family gatherings for the great energy that flowed within them. They were a chance for me to observe unfiltered Ecuadorian interactions. For instance, on Christmas Eve our house hosted around 20 extended family members for the day during the annual slaughtering and roasting of a pig. The actual killing of the animal was a bit scarring for me; however, the complex process of transforming a live pig into food and then the teamwork required to accomplish that feat was really special to see. Each family member, myself included, had a different task to complete in order to finish before sunset. Then, when all was dark and quiet the 26 of us crammed around a long table to feast and laugh in unity.
In reality, familia actually means something different than family. Yes, technically they have the same definition, but the way each culture interacts with the word is far from the same. Coming from the United States where I had family no further than 20 minutes away, but only managed to see them twice a year, and then moving to Ecuador where I see family every morning on my walk to to teach at the local school, has made me reevaluate how I hold the word family in my heart.
I recently realized that what was blatantly clear to me during our Christmas Eve gathering, is actually true all year round in Ecuador: with family, everyone has a responsibility and as a result everyone has a place at the table. From my youngest cousin, Maria José, to my great grandpa, who just started year 97, we are first and foremost familia.