Evan and I were lucky to find good friends in Chile. When we moved to Santiago in the fall of 2001, we both took language classes. Evan braved immersion, and I tested whether I really knew the difference between “I spoke” (preterite) and “I was speaking”(imperfect) in Spanish. Could I talk about what might happen (subjunctive) using my second language? Like saying, “I might become more fluid in making sentences if I were to practice español on the streets of Santiago.” My profesor Antonio helped me decide which grammar buildings to renovate and which to tear down and reconstruct. Several needed extensive repairs. Past tense irregular verbs needed a whole new wing. ¡Ay!
The first day of class Antonio went around the room asking polite introductory questions in Spanish, “What is your name? What country are you from? What is your profession?” When my turn came, I said, “Soy Rebecca. Soy de los Estados Unidos. Soy escritora.” I noticed the corners of his mouth lifted when I said I was from the United States, rather than saying I was an American. I had learned that lesson earlier from an Argentine student in the Toledo, Spain program. The Argentine taught us that the Americas is the continent, and all of us who live there are Americans. After a lifetime of using American as the preferred term for my nationality, the change happened slowly for me. Albeit, I saw how South and Central Americans could feel left out when we make the term exclusive.
The word writer, “escritora”, was what made our profesor smile in earnest. “Really, what do you like to write?” Antonio asked. I told him I wrote poetry and short stories. For his class, we penned short shorts (one page stories) in Spanish to practice the past tenses and subjunctive. Antonio was encouraging and pointed out the revisions I needed to make. I felt I was moving forward again in my language learning. The class went for two weeks. At the end of the time, he invited me to join a tertulia (writing group) a couple he knew held in their home.
For six months or more I attended the tertulia every two weeks. I’d write and revise a story in Spanish, then print it out. After folding it and sliding it into my purse, I’d take the bus downtown holding onto a metal bar for dear life. “Los conductores asesinos,” Antonio named them. “The murderous bus drivers” would step on the gas and we’d get there in terrifying record time; ratcheting up to high gear in two blocks, then slamming on the brakes for a stoplight, or cruising right through. These smelly vehicles were decades old (two at least) and were a huge contributor to Santiago air pollution. Thank goodness they’ve been replaced and the air is a bit cleaner now. The buses are new and the subway lines have extended miles (kilometers) farther than when we lived there.
Downtown, I’d look for the Recoleta bus at the appropriate corner. The number of the bus varied. I would ask the bus driver if he went to Conchalí to confirm the route. Evan would attend the group with me once a month. We were introduced to the quiet gem that is the part of the city where our friend grew up. People are not wealthy there, but they support one another. A group banded together to fund a community center, Centro Cultural Caleidoscopio de Conchalí, for events, a local radio station and social programs. Evan and I taught English lessons at the Centro.
Blanca, Renán, Antonio, Robinson and I worked editing each others’ texts. They were my grammar supports and I contributed comments about what I liked about their story flow or their theme. We gathered together the stories our colleagues voted as the best of the lot. Then we published them. The process was very hands-on. Robinson printed the pages using a beautiful steampunk contraption and we coallated them to prepare them for binding. At the Centro half a year later, we held a book launch for people from the neighborhood and read from our book, Los Juglares de Conchalí! The Wandering Mistral/Storytellers from Conchalí.
Holding a book in my hand that contains stories I wrote inspires me to continue my craft. From my self-definition as a writer when Antonio asked, sprang the opportunity to become a better one, make close friendships, and improve my Spanish. I created my writing reality and my new writing recreated me. May everyone know such joy in their profession.
Gracias for reading. Olé! -Rebecca
Para leer este ensayo en español, haz un clic aquí.