After 4 years of working and playing (let’s be honest) with neighborhood kids we’ve had a drastic contraction in numbers. For a couple of years we had a steady eight to ten kids, mostly girls, show up for art and English and extracurricular activities. Sometimes the number would well to nearly twenty. More kids showed around parties and field tips or after rumors of gifts. Last year tension developed between two factions in the group. The tweeners (10-12 year olds) started picking on each other and lines formed between a group of kids in our immediate vicinity and a group of kids from further away. It was annoying to mediate between the two groups. This year I wondered what would happen. I really didn’t want to deal with a pack of boy crazy girls learning how to get their nasty on with each other. In Spanish.
It all started out pretty easily. The group of further away kids naturally stopped coming. They were older and had newer interests. They drifted off. No big deal. Now all I had was my immediate neighbors and a few ‘cometas’. Cometas are people that come occasionally to standing gigs. Like that woman you see in your yoga class three times a year. They streak by and get a little attention because they are so rarely seen. The group was reduced to essentially four kids, a pair of sister pairs. It seemed a little sad at first but it was so much more manageable. For an instant.
The eldest girl has been disruptive for three years. She has stolen. She has lied. She has inappropriately touched other kids. Even though she was now one of only four and they were next door neighbors she still couldn’t stay out of trouble. Now that she was 11 and we’d been working with her for more than 3 years I was starting to lose hope that we could get through to her in a positive way. Mid-winter she intentionally but secretly damaged a piece of art in our home. We had a meeting. A written agreement was drawn up. A contract on behavior. A chance to formalize the many second chances we’d already given this young girl. This girl is so smart, lovely, and troubled. She breaks our heart. We all (not just Burt and I) want to see her succeed but she can’t escape her negative behaviors.
Last week she orchestrated a scam where she convinced the other kids to tell me there was no school on a certain day and then get me to agree to do something fun with them. It was a brilliant and spontaneous lie. She said, “We don’t have school tomorrow.” The other kids merely backed her up. Two are so young I’m not sure they even knew they were lying. The next morning as I drove to yoga I noticed a bunch of kids going to school as usual. Uh oh. Well surely they parental units didn’t let the scam go through. I texted the neighbor that takes the gang to school and I asked her what was going down. She said, “Nobody showed up for their ride today. I was wondering why.” I knew why.
I got to the driver’s home and I told her the kids were ducking. So I went to one house and asked if the kid went to school. The mother told me her daughter had begged and cried to skip school so she could do something with me. Mom relented. Note, this kid didn’t lie to mom. I explained to the mother I would never knowingly schedule anything on a school day. The next home was the home of the criminal mastermind. I asked the grandma where the kids were. Grandma said, “There’s no school today.” I had to tell her that there was school and that her granddaughter had lied to her. From inside the house I hear the mother’s reaction as she realizes we’ve all been taken by the kid’s lie. Meanwhile the mastermind comes outside to great me, laughing at her success, and I in a fit of anger say, “You will never come to my house again. You’ve had all your chances. We had an agreement and you lied to me, your grandmother and your mother.” I gave a very dramatic but grammatically flawed speech on lying and the importance of school. I could here mom yelling inside. I feared a beating was coming. I left feeling sad for so many things. I was struck that her caretakers didn’t know the school schedule.
Rumors reached me that the girls were grounded. They weren’t seen for two days. I softened a bit and have agreed to meet with the troubled kid and talk with her about the road ahead. I’m pretty certain she won’t be welcome in my classes but I want her to know we can still be friends and can still talk. I worry about her but there’s nothing I can do by myself. She may learn to live another way or she may not. So far the lying and cheating and stealing are working for her.
It’s been over a week. The girl is still banned from classes and another has chosen not to come in solidarity. The two youngest are leaving their older sisters behind and coming to class on their own. I am so proud of them. Today we went to the beach. I think it’s important to remember I have been working with these two kids since they were four years old. In so many ways it was already too late for the older kids to trust me.
Well, neither can I. Okay, I can say origami but I can’t teach origami in Spanish. I can hardly do origami. So there I was with cell phone in hand as my cheat sheet leading a class in folding paper. It was an emergency situation. Jolyn was sick and couldn’t teach art and I am a big proponent of consistency and showing up so I refused to cancel class. That is how I wound up folding fortune teller games and star boxes in our yard with our group of girls. Luckily one girl, Evely, had a knack for the art and managed to get what I was so not explaining properly. This lead to some forward momentum in the group. She could help the younger kids fold, too. I also smartly decided we would fold the same two things over and over again until I learned how to do it. I used to fold paper early in our years as Gypsies because it relived stress and I had a frozen shoulder and could not play music or do sports. I thought I would remember. No. Eventually most of us got it down. I sent them all home with paper to practice and word came back via Facebook that they spent the evening folding paper. And apparently learned more English because of my total language fail. Moral of this story: Show up and bring pretty paper with you.
Ale, the kid’s real English teacher, asked me last week to teach the kids the alphabet song. It might not be obvious that learning how to spell in a foreign language is important but I can tell you from my own personal experience it is critical. A few years ago I tried to tell an guy I was hiring off of Craig’s List how to find our job site. This guy spoke only Spanish. I could speak Spanish to him but getting a street address and a town name across two languages can be hard. I tried to say the name slowly. Then I had the bright idea that I would spell the name. Oh, snap! I couldn’t spell easily. I kept saying e instead of a and i instead of e and after a few laughter filled minutes I realized I couldn’t even figure out how to say k….I texted the guy and he found us just fine.
I have since learned to spell pretty well but I still get hung up on k, g, and x. Most recently I’ve learned to ask the kids how to spell their names since I can’t understand what they try to tell me. They are world champion mumblers and most of the names are quite unusual to my ears. Try: Marely, Mireya, Onahomi, Yeraska, Frixia, Janexi, Zania, Evely…in Spanish. I enter their spelled names into my phone and practice after class. I still confuse the names Marely and Mireya but at least I see them in different places.
So today we sang the ABCs. Remember how it goes? It’s set to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. We did that too. There is a Spanish language version of the same song. The kids’ faces lit up when they realized their ABCs and their Brillante Estrella were the same tune, too. Nobody had pointed it out to them before. Add that to my list of things to learn.
I had my last Spanish class today with Ivonne. We read a funny piece she had written about one of her first experiences in Baja. Just like English, Spanish is full of idoimatic expressions and these words and phrases vary depending on where you are. Ivonne grew up on the mainland of Mexico in Guanajuato. Choyeros (residents of southern Baja, so named because of the ever present cholla cactus) have a different way of speaking. And one might say they are a little more ‘red neck’ than citizens of the mainland. After this story you too might agree things are a little rough and tumble around here.
Over in Mexico (in Baja we call the mainland Mexico) you can buy a large bottle of beer. This large bottle of beer is about 2 1/2 regular beers. In Mexico they call it a caguama. A caguama is a sea turtle. In Baja they call the large bottle of beer a ballena or ‘whale.’ One fine day about six years ago Ivonne and her friends were picnicking on a remote beach in Baja when they realized they had forgotten the beer. Ivonne and a friend offered to drive off and find some beer. I think it might have been Ivonne who had forgotten to load the beer in the car. Six years ago roads around here were very rough and a five mile drive to the store could take an hour to get there and back but off they went.
After a short bit Ivonne saw two guys and a truck parked by the side of the road. They decided to stop and ask where they could by beer. After making the usual polite greetings Ivonne asked, “Where can I buy a caguama?” The guy looked funny and said, “A caguama?” “Sí, queremos dos o tres caguamas.” We want two or three turtles. The guy told her he’d call a friend and let her know. Ivonne thought it kind of weird that the guy didn’t know where to by beer, but okay. She watched the guy talk on his cell to a friend. The guy hung up and said I can get you two caguamas in about three hours. Now, Ivonne was wondering why would she wait three hours when she could drive to town and back in one. The guy was wondering why she thought she could get two turtles so quickly from some random guy on the side of the road. More words and no understanding. These turtles would come with their shells. Shells? What shells? Why do they have shells? Is that some Baja thing? They continued on in a “Who’s on first?” manner for a while. Eventually Ivonne asked how much the caguamas were going to cost. The answer shocked her. A caguama was $800 pesos or about $75 US. Now Ivonne realized something was really wrong and she asked him why she had to pay $800 pesos for a bottle of beer. The guy told her she asked for turtles and he was getting her turtles. “But we want beer!” Another phone call was made cancelling the turtle order and the men offered to sell Ivonne and her friend some beer they happened to have in a cooler. And Ivonne learned that a big bottle of beer was a whale and not a turtle.
Selling turtles is illegal in Mexico but apparently to little effect. According to our sources if you have the money you can dine on turtle soup any time you wish. I did not like learning this but the story was funny. It also is reassuring to remember that communication is difficult even when we think we are speaking the same language.
I naively assumed the more Spanish I learned the easier it would get to speak. I assumed I would find unmitigated delight in understanding people. After 4 seasons of assiduous study I am well equipped to handle day to day transactions and yet I still feel like I know nothing. I’ve discovered the plateau where Spanish speakers presume I speak Spanish after I have successfully asked for a loaf of bread with correct grammar and pronunciation and they proceed to converse and I haven’t a clue what they say. Spanish is notorious for regional sayings and slang. A person from Mexico City might not be able to make crude jokes in Baja because they would use a different vocabulary. I have a lot more work ahead of me.
The other day we spent an hour in Spanish class going over double entendres. The pile of slang was impenetrable. Here’s a literal translation of one saying: If I fall into a sea of milk, will you pull me out? Prizes to the winner who tells me the answer. Here’s a hint: go deep into the gutter. My Spanish teacher skipped this one and we tried to pin her down. Suddenly beautiful and fluent and fearless Ivonne didn’t know the right English words. She was blushing. Her reaction whet my curiosity so I took it to my bilingual and street smart neighbors. Now that I know the meaning I’m not sure I wanted to know. My neighbors took the opening and proceeded to elaborate on words and sexual suggestions commonly used on the streets around here. I must not be traveling in the right circles. I didn’t know most of the common cuss words. In fact some might say one improvement in my character is that I cannot curse effectively in Spanish. Yet.
So while my Spanish is improving I find myself worn out by speaking it so much. I also find myself acting like a weird version of my self. They say language shapes the culture and I find it shaping me. Since I am unable to fully express myself and am constantly immersed into conversation where I think I know what’s happening but am frequently wrong I am more malleable and timid. Unwilling to take a stand for fear I might have misunderstood I hem and haw and uh huh. I stutter. My Mexican friends marvel at my ability to speak and I marvel at my inability to say what I mean. I think my friends must find me a pleasant girl without strong opinion that doesn’t use bad words. How ironic.
They say you know it’s really sinking in when you dream in your new language. I have had two dreams recently with Spanish words. I can’t recall the details of the second dream but the first one was very vivid. I dreamed about the new gentleman’s club called Marabunta that opened on the highway. (This is true. A new strip club has opened on the highway and it is called Marabunta.) In my dream I kept saying marabunta, marabunta…Meanwhile everyone around me was having an orgy. My helpful neighbor was especially enjoying herself. I was merely observing. Then I woke up. Marabunta. Nobody can tell me what a marabunta is. I am very sad it is the only Spanish word I can recall from my dreams. I would like to relay this dream in good street Spanish to my friends and give them a fuller picture of my personality.
Sometimes I feel like the lame old elk facing a pack of wolves when I teach kids. They can sniff your weakness. They have the killer instinct. Yesterday was our last class of music with the Bridge to English program at the Palapa Society. News that next week would be a joint show for family and friends was met with a range of enthusiastic jumping and disgusted eye rolling. The younger kids were predictably excited and ready to sing loud and show off their new skills picking out body parts for the Hokey Pokey, lamenting lost meatballs and playing the claves and tambourine. Teenagers wanted us to go away and sealed their mouths up tight as if they had never sung a line of Three Little Birds in their lives. Stupid Little Birds was the theme. I cajoled, I threatened the Hokey Pokey, I ignored them. Then I remembered I was bigger, older, smarter and a trained martial artist. So I laughed back and plowed on ahead with the program. Damn the eye rolls! Even if 2/3 of the group weren’t singing, 1/3 was and that’s who we were there for.
After 6 weeks Burt and I have learned this: each class is unpredictable from week to week and song to song. The kids you thought adored Bad Moon Arising’ won’t open their mouths if that other kid shows up and makes a face at them. One week nobody will make eye contact and the next week they are asking for hugs and the next week they scowl. I think the kids might be in the ‘change of life’, too. The only constant is the younger kids all want to shake their booty (or watch me shake mine) in the Hokey Pokey and the older kids do not want to do the Hokey Pokey, ever.
If you are in the neighborhood, come on down to the Palapa Society Thursday, 4/3/14, 4:30 for the show. Participation encouraged.
I (we) survived another 3 hours of the Hokey Pokey, I’m A Little Teapot, This Old Man, yada yada yada. The Palapa Society Bridge to English Concert is drawing near. Every week with the kids we never know what to expect. Some classes are divine and others must be a circle in Dante’s Hell. The mix of mood and personalities and weather makes for unpredictable results. I ponder every week if it is worth the effort and this week was no different but among the baleful looks and sealed lips I scored two unasked for hugs from little boys, a pair of girls vying to stand by my side and one little gem of a kid that told me he wanted to be a music teacher when he grew up. How crazy is that? I have no idea what I am doing and I can barely get by with my misshapen Spanish and this kid thinks he’d like to grow up and be just like me. Something must be going right. So I guess I’ll enjoy the post teaching exhaustion and hope the kid isn’t ruined by a career in music. I’d suggest electrician, carpenter or plumber.
There’s a restaurant hidden in the dust and cacti on the road to Cerritos Beach. This year’s sign is bigger, brighter and more easily seen than last year’s advertisement. Last year there was a tiny arrow with the word ‘desayuno’ pointing into the thorns. We never went. The better sign got people curious and word finally reached us that the food was cheap, tasty and plentiful so we went in for a meal about a week ago. It was a work day and Burt and I were hungry. We plowed through our huge plates so rapidly the waitress made a comment about our appetites. I told her we were working people. When she recovered from the shock that not all gringos are carefree layabouts she asked what we did. She nearly keeled over when I told her we were carpenters. Normally Burt and I don’t tell strangers we work. We do not have work permits and so it is illegal to work. We rarely work but on this day we did and so there you have it, I blurted it out on the one day this winter we worked. After my intemperate confession an excited conversation ensued between the two women running the restaurant. They showed us a table they hated. It was the ubiquitous in Mexico plastic bar table. White, ugly, flimsy. They wobble and spill drinks according to the women. How much for a wooden table? A stout, custom made wooden table? Burt hemmed and did a little carpet dancing. Wood alone can cost $100 around here. All wood comes from the mainland or the US or Canada. It’s very expensive. What to do, what to do? Burt told her he’d price some wood and get back to her with a figure. We fled. Visions of La Migra deporting us ensued.
Trusting to kindness and wanting to help people Burt got some wood and made a sturdy log-legged table in no time. We delivered it today. Burt charged ten meals. The clients were besides themselves with how fast he did the job and how little it cost. Don’t tell anyone. Music teacher and giver away of custom made furniture: these are not ways to make a living but a life.
Burt sometimes says: You gotta get a picture of this. Come here, look at this, take a picture. You’re Dad want to see a picture of this. Two days ago it was this beetle. I got out of bed and took a picture of this bug. I’ll admit it is cool. I also admit I took liberties photo editing to make it stand out more from the concrete. It is very well adapted to concrete colored walls. The body of this common to Baja beetle is about 1″ long. Its fuzzy ended legs and antenna add another inch or so. I tried to learn more about this bug so I could share it with you so I emailed my buddy Howard Topoff, entomologist, for an ID. He gave me the family and told me they were common but hard to identify with exactness. My research revealed that the long horned beetle has an enormous family of similar and dissimilar beetles and getting anyone to agree on a beetle’s classification can be difficult and perhaps controversial. Without an exact ID I can’t tell you what this thing is known to do in the natural world. My observations lead me to conclude it is not easily disturbed and it prefers habitats where it is well concealed. But I could be jumping to conclusions, maybe it was unconscious from a night of partying on out view deck and it had passed out in a place where it blended in.
Along the lines of things Burt asks me to photograph was a winner today. This morning I woke up and he wanted me to photo document the 8’6″ (yes, he measured) sand plow track of Olive butt skidding through the yard. It was funny because she either dragged around a large rock under her butt or she crashed on a large rock at the end of her route. We’ll have to interview the witness again to see if he tells a consistent story of how the rock came to be at the end of the track. Maybe it was evidence tampering? Olive popping a wheelie and motoring around the yard on her butt is hilarious but I think it’s better live. It’s a kind of you had to be there story. You’ll notice I have, so far, refrained from taking a picture.
The Festival de Cine is one day away from the last show. Yesterday was a retrospective of 11 years worth of Jóvenes en Video movies for the local secondary school kids. The theater was staffed by kids from the program with a few of us adults to keep an eye on things. Every film shown was made locally by area youth. The movies vary from funny claymation bits about sad bananas on their way to a fruit salad and tuxedo wearing dinosaurs waving as Noah’s Ark passes by to investigative reports on local educational opportunities and art films rich in the area’s history. The enthusiasm and energy of over 300 kids rocked the 70 year old theater. Out on the street at the ticket table I could here massive ovations after every piece. This was the first time kids had been brought over on an official field trip and it was a massive success. Huge lines formed after the show to sign up for next summer’s programs at the Leonardo Perel Film School (Escuela de Cine – Leonardo Perel). All of the classes and workshops are free to the kids. Funding comes from the proceeds of the film festival and, of course, some very generous individual donors.
Another notable event was seeing my first 1000 peso bill yesterday. I’ve been handling a lot of money this week. I heard there was a 1000 peso note but didn’t quite believe it. All of my thousands of dollars of transactions over the last four years and the largest bill I had seen was the equivalent of $40 US. Five hundred peso notes can make for some pretty fat billfolds when you have to pay your builders. Yesterday there it was: pretty in pink and I had to break it early in the day. Keeping change on hand has been consistently difficult all week. Our Gypsy Carpenter tip jars fill up with twenty peso notes week after week and here I was working a gig and I couldn’t find enough twenty peso notes. For all this time and hard work I have improved my ability to add in Spanish, count Mexican money (I know with certainty what color every note is) and I’ve made some great new friends.
Last year’s Jóvenes en Video film was a short treatment of local lore called La Ahorcadita. Many years ago a fifteen year old girl was found hanged in a Palo San Juan tree. The locals believe she was murdered by her mother-in-law and the hanging was a cover-up for the crime. At the time of her death the girl was pregnant. This big, stately tree still lives and has become a shrine for women hoping to conceive or asking for protection during their pregnancy. The movie is a nuanced and gorgeous depiction of the unknowable truths behind the current day beliefs. Local teenagers wrote the script and devised how to film the movie through the Jóvenes en Video program. You can see the trailer HERE.
These pictures show some Jóvenes en Video students maintaining an art installation representing La Ahorcadita next to the film festival theater. The photo of a girl hanging from the noose is not the actual girl. It is a photo of the character from the film representing the girl. The exhibit was created by Colectivo Cinéteca as a sign of respect for the community of Todos Santos.
Is it any wonder we want to volunteer to help support the mind boggling work these kids are creating? Despite some tired feet and a few rude people it has been totally worth it to help local kids create and learn and see the world through different eyes.