Department of English

Spring 2010 Edition

Learning to Speak and Become Chapín

Mitchel Solomon
Expressive 1010 1st Place
Professor Joy Sterrantino

"Qué dijo?" is probably the phrase I've stated the most in my whole life. It's Spanish for, "What did you say?" It was the most useful phrase in helping me learn to speak Chapín. Chapín is what the Guatemalans call themselves. I lived among them in Guatemala for two years as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. One of my primary responsibilities as a missionary was to serve the people of Guatemala in any way possible including: teaching them, helping them, living with them, and basically becoming one of them. As I first stepped off the plane into the capital city and breathed in the dirty capital air, I realized that to "become Chapín" was going to be a lot harder than I thought. My blonde hair, blue eyes, tall thin figure, gringo accent, and American way of thinking dug a canyon of cultural differences between myself and the Chapíns.

Guatemalans are a very nice and friendly people once the ice is broken, and they accept you as friend, or better put, a fellow Chapín. They're a God believing, beer drinking, and fighting to survive people. They're accustom to (and tired of) being cheated by their employer, government, church, family, and friends. The whole history of Guatemala has truly been the story of someone else coming in as a friend then running off with all the goods and leaving the Guatemalans poorer than before. So with that background, it was hard to gain their trust. The mere sight of me (a gringo) quickly flipped open the book of bad memories and hurtful grudges they stored deep in their souls which was often exhibited by loudly shouted words of hate and anger, thrown bottles of glass, or a drenching as they drove by you on a rainy day. Therefore, the Guatemalans kept the cultural canyon wide and deep for strangers. They only filled it in when a stranger would speak Chapín with them. They wanted someone who wasn't afraid to admit that they also were Chapín. To be Chapín meant you spoke their language, not just Spanish but knew their unique sayings and jokes and liked their soccer teams. You were someone that wasn't shocked or disgusted at the sight of their dirty towns, garbage filled streets, or smog, stained buildings and parks. Someone that didn't look disgusted when asked to sit on old rotted furniture or look appalled at their plain cement housing, rusted doors, or dirt floors. The Guatemalans befriended the people that wouldn't pause in a conversation and stare blankly at the chickens that lived in the house. They welcomed someone that loved their food and didn't waste it. Over all they accepted people that were humble not arrogant. They distrusted someone that thought themselves better because of money, clothes, parents, nationality, history or race. They wanted someone that spoke Chapín with them. I was determined to learn Chapín, but I first had to learn to communicate. They spoke Spanish. I didn't. That created a crevice of differences. So I set about to learn the language.

The first lesson I learned in order to speak Spanish was that "Spanish isn't English." You can't speak Spanish if you're thinking in English. The words, their meanings and their feelings, are all different. The way they speak seems backwards in English, for example, "el carro rojo" translates to "the car red." It sounds horrible in English, but in Spanish it sounds perfect. For two years, I had to change my traditional way of thinking from red car to car red. Every day was spent thinking, reading, and pronouncing in Spanish. I would read out of the scriptures and grammar books. I would ask what signs meant and inquire about the meaning of the sayings the people used. Every day I would write down five words in my little agenda that I keep in my shirt pocket. Throughout the day, I would review them repeating them in Spanish and then checking in English to see if I had it right. I would use those words in my simply built sentences during the day with people. Sometimes I just wouldn't get the meaning of a word or a grammar principle. It would be like trying to loosen a rusted bolt. You twist and tug and pull at the wrench. You hit it with a hammer as you get madder and madder, but still the bolt doesn't budge. I would find a word that no one could explain. They would just say, "That's how it is." or "You just say it that way" which doesn't help the one learning the principle. I would figuratively tug and pull and hit at the word as I asked people and studied, but my brain was just rusted shut. Sometimes I would think I had it and say it to a crowd of people. I would be so excited, but that excitement would turn into frustration as I saw their reaction of blank faces painted with zero understanding. I can't really explain the horrid feeling of having no one understand you. I would slump down and just have to live with the frustration and continue to twist and tug at the word until it became loose. This usually happened when I was not expecting it. We would be teaching. Then I would hear the word and the use of it and (though I had heard it many times before) the understanding of the word would just click. The rusty bolt would come loose. My brain would open as though I would feel something settling in it, and I would finally understand the word. It felt like I had discovered a new continent. Spanish came to me in this way, one rusty word at a time and a lot of hammering and whacking until it came loose and made sense.

Once the Guatemalan people saw that I had a desire to learn "their" language, they were eager and very helpful in assisting me on my journey to speak Spanish. For more than a year, I struggled with the basics of Spanish. I was very surprised with the patience and love that most of the Guatemalans showed me. They would try very hard to explain and show me how I should use the words or why they said it a particular way. Although I messed up a lot or said the wrong words, they never made me feel dumb or embarrassed. They laughed a lot, but I had to learn to laugh with them. I would have to laugh with them when I would say I loved a boy when I meant to say I liked him as a friend, or I would say "monkey" in place of "hand." "You make a million mistakes when learning a new language," a teacher told me. "You might as well get it over with quickly." I lived by that, and I'm sure I made two million mistakes before I tamed the Spanish language.

It's really quite a miracle when your dreams, thoughts, sayings, and counting convert themselves into Spanish. Once I filled in that language crevice, the Guatemalans began to accept me and the journey of learning to speak Chapín began. They let me in on their jokes and stories about work. I was able to take part in the important soccer discussions. I was allowed an opinion on which team was better Barsalona or Real Madrid. My excitement grew as my soccer team won. I cracked the ice a little more as I let the chickens scurry past my feet without being surprised. I learned to overlook the dirty streets and cities; soon they became common place to me. I stopped commenting on the dirt floors or taking pictures of the crude houses to send home to my family. Guatemalan slang, dress, hair style, table manners, customs, doors, water, food, work, habits, and everything was beginning to be natural and normal to me. The loud busses and smoggy streets were a way of life. As I accepted these things into my life, the people began to accept me into theirs. I went from being a snob nosed gringo to a proud Chapín in their eyes. Once that happened to me, they finished cracking the ice and let me swim in their culture with them. I was Chapín to them, and that was the best thing I did to help me serve them as a missionary. I learned to speak Chapín.