Spanish, mental black holes, planting milpas, heat & other local adventures

This column was first published June 21, 1997.

Spending time in Mexico means learning Spanish — if you want that time to have much significance.

Columns on Spanish in these pages – written by a former senior writer and assistant editor of the Reporter, Gerald Mugford – are useful in accomplishing that necessary goal. (See the virtual editions of the mid-to-late 1990s at This is true for many retired folks who tend to shy away from dense, lesson-crammed language texts. It is a column that weaves a theme of usage into a demonstration of that marvelously regular language (in comparison to English) and it makes learning easier.

But it’s true there are times when one’s best attempts at being articulate in Spanish can simply shut down. An older acquaintance who is working hard on his Spanish reminded me of this recently as he threw down his Spanish texts and swore eloquently – alas, in English – at his taped lessons. In talking with a plumber that morning he had abruptly hit a blank spot and was reduced to inadequate sign language. Knowing that Spanish is not beyond the reach of this accomplished, intelligent man, I agreed such an event was certainly cause for a lot of vivid cussing.

I added that for some bilingual journalists such stuff sometimes seems an occupational hazard. Example: As publisher of this paper (1975-1994), I once attended a party at which I was seated by my host next to the non-English-speaking mayor of Guadalajara for the express purpose of entertaining him.

Unfortunately, it had been a week ravaged by chaos. The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) performed one of its frequent failures, employees were out sick — even extranjeros become subject to San Lunes – some showed up late, others seemed distracted by lovers’ quarrels, balky transportation, storms on Venus, the appearance of a full moon, etcetera.

By 9:30 p.m., when I slumped down into my seat for dinner, I was inarticulate in both languages. As I recall, beyond asking the mayor how he and his family were, and how things were going at city hall, I didn’t say a word for the next hour. The man must have thought I’d been struck dumb.

Such occasions are not the onset of Alzheimer’s. It happens to us all, for a number of reasons, though failure is often the culprit. Stress, of course, is another.

The thing to be is patient with yourself, and keep trying. What often happens to English-speakers in such circumstances is that we tune out without noticing it. We stop trying to distinguish separate words in that endless, seemingly unsequenced, unpunctuated Niagara of Spanish spilling toward us.

The solution: Be patient, don’t panic, don’t give up – and smile a lot. You may have the impression your partners in conversation are taking you for an idiot, but at least you’ll be a friendly idiot – which in turn, will make them more forgiving if you do toss some mis-conjugated verbs and wrongly-gendered nouns their way.

Even with considerable Spanish under your belt, black holes in your head happen. No, that doesn’t refer to margaritaville. After more than 30 years in Mexico, last week I found myself prattling gibberish – in place of Spanish — at folks trying to make friendly conversation. This occurred at the end of an edifying afternoon of desmontado – clearing fields of thorny huisache for planting – coupled with wresting a defiant writing assignment.

The days just before the rainy season sets in feature fire-in-the-sky temperatures. Campesinos who started that day at 4 a.m – in a hurry to get to their mountain fields while it was still a little cool – were already sweating as they rounded up livestock for morning feeding and milking. And that heat got worse, until, in our case, we were (at least I was) taking frequent breaks in the shade of a lone mesquite tree at the edge of the upland milpa where we were re-fencing and planting corn, beans and squash. Sweat was like a river and the air made lungs feel like they were frying.

We were all dirty, sopping and fragrant as we stopped in the nearby pueblo’s sole cantina late that afternoon. After we’d ordered, the cantinero, a forward youngster who I’d heard was a journalist, seemed concerned about my behavior: “What are you doing in those smelly clothes, with those torn up gloves in your pocket, Señor?”

Thirstily slurping the first millimeter off my canita of tequila, I blinked. We’d been speaking Spanish all day long, but suddenly I couldn’t think of a series of words that made sense. I mumbled something about huisache and planting, but it wasn’t coherent even to me, certainly it wasn’t to anybody else.

Though weariness made me sure I couldn’t talk in any language, I smiled and reminded myself to just use the simplest words possible to describe what we’d been doing and why. It wasn’t good, but fractured as it was, everybody took it as a joke.

My older acquaintance, when he swore at his Spanish lessons, ran out the ancient cliche that people over a certain age can’t learn certain things. Nonsense, of course.

What happens is that mature folks often harbor some very contradictory feelings: 1) they feel they should be able to learn any language swiftly (after all, they’ve been articulate all their adult lives), and 2) that what they’re tangling with is something impenetrably “foreign.”

Well, a good many of us don’t really know English well – ask any editor who has tried to hire competent writers – and that hampers us as we try to decipher the standards of a new language. But more dangerously we think we have to instantly possess an eloquent, sophisticated command of Spanish or we’ll demonstrate that we’re complete dummies.

Best bet: Just learn the basic stuff first. For newcomers, nouns used in shopping, in cleaning house, working in the garden, laundering clothes, etcetera – you don’t even need verbs at this stage. But do learn three useful phrases: No entiendo (I don’t understand), Como se dice? (How do you say?), Como se llama esto? (What do you call this?).

You should have an elementary text that helps you with these basics: greetings, farewells, in the home, at the store, your car at the garage/gas station, foods and drinks, clothes, health and body, times, dates, weather and traveling.

And you need a notebook so you can create your own personal Spanish textbook. There you can write down those words new to you that those around you often use, words you mispronounce frequently, words you keep forgetting, but need to use, words whose meanings you keep getting mixed up with other terms (i.e. embarazada doesn’t mean embarrassed, but pregnant; estoy caliente doesn’t mean you’re hot, it means you’re in heat).

Also, you need two English/Spanish dictionaries. A small paperback to carry with you and a more embracing one to keep at your desk, dining room table or night stand. (Or find a good online translator and make it a favorite in your telephone and laptop.)

Years ago, I had a friend who was learning German. The first thing you noticed in his modest apartment was that everything – floor to ceiling – was decorated with a taped label listing its name in German and all verbs having to do with using that object. Good way to begin.

When those black holes begin to overwhelm you, smile and slow it all down.