I didn’t move to Mexico to fall in love. It happened, as love does, unexpectedly.
Prior to meeting my partner, I knew that I would have to pick up my long-lost Spanish where I had left it more than 15 years ago: on bits of scrap paper, my homework written hastily in between classes and hangovers while I was studying at the University of Sydney.
Learning Spanish all those years ago was a lesson in what not to do, I mumbled to myself when I took the mandatory entry exam to restart my learning. If I was going to live here, and live here properly, then I really needed to get past the basics of yo quiero una cerveza por favor.
But it turns out that learning a language takes on a new meaning when you fall in love with someone who has a different native tongue to you, even when they’re fluent in your own language.
It becomes something urgent and pressing, something that immediately has to be rectified as if it were a personality flaw. My angst, perhaps, stemmed from the widespread belief that Spanish is ‘easy’ to learn. Is there any other language in the world that leaves you lamenting, just after a few weeks of classes, ‘Why am I not fluent yet?’
As my daily Spanish lessons continue, I go in search of literature to help me navigate this new world. I’m immediately drawn to Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published in 1987.
Rooted in her experience as a Chicana, lesbian, activist and writer, Anzaldúa’s incredible body of work blends Spanish with English and prose with poetry to examine the invisible ‘borders’ that exist in our world to challenge how we think about identity.
She writes of the struggle of learning a second language as a young girl in the US, where teachers attempt to suppress her culture. She reflects on the clashes she had with her mother who tells her, ‘Pa’hallar buen trabajo tienes saber hablar el inglés bien’ (In order to find good work, you have to speak English well.) Other Latinos told her she was a ‘cultural traitor’ by speaking English; that she was ruining the Spanish language because Chicano Spanish is ‘a mutilation’.
She asks, ‘How do you tame a wild tongue, train it to be quiet, how do you bridle and saddle it? How do you make it lie down?’
‘But Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally. Change, evolución, enriquecimento de palabras nuevas por invención o adopción have created variants of Chicano Spanish, un nuevo lenguaje. Un lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir,’ she writes.
[‘Change, evolution, the enrichment of new words by invention or adoption have created variants of Chicano Spanish, a new language. A language that corresponds to a mode of living.’]
‘For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves—a language with terms that are neither español ni inglés, but both. We speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages.’
I inhale her words because they are a source of comfort. I realise the language my partner and I are forging together—a variation of English, Spanish, Aussie slang and Mexican idioms—the language of so many before us, represents the coming together of our cultures, beliefs and ultimately, our selves. Her words free me from the belief that anytime I speak Spanish it must be 100% grammatically correct. Instead, I realise, I can start a sentence in Spanish, inject a few words in English, and finish it off in Spanish. I can make mistakes, I can blend our languages, and I can continue to learn and adapt every single day. Over time my partner and I develop un nuevo lenguaje, something by us, just for us. It’s a gift.
When non-essential stores reopen, I Google ‘best English language bookstores in Mexico City’, and the next day I find myself knocking on an ocean-blue door. A middle-aged American man welcomes me into his two-storey bookstore on a leafy, quiet street which has become his home and writing studio throughout the pandemic. The actual bookstore itself is a tiny maze filled head to toe with second-hand books, and I’m given 30 minutes to spend in there, alone.
Next to the window is the owner’s tiny writing space: a small desk covered in stacks of frayed books, candles and empty wine bottles. While I scour the titles as quickly as possible, I hear him studying French on Duolingo. I pick up a few titles: an English-Spanish dictionary, Anna Karenina and The Lonely City.
I’m drawn to The Lonely City by Olivia Lang not because I’m lonely in this new place, but because I’m drawn to the way she navigates urban loneliness after moving to a new city in her mid-thirties: by way of art. An observant hybrid of memoir and cultural criticism, she invents new ways to consider the way isolation plays into art. I carry the book around with me in my bag, stealing a few pages here and there as I wander through both city and country, urban and rural spaces. One day I sit in a courtyard surrounded by stunning Mexican architecture and read page 48, ‘If you are not being touched at all, then speech is the closest contact it is possible to have with another human being.’
It’s a simple yet profound sentence and my mind drifts to the times I have been alone in countries where I didn’t speak the language and the profound loneliness that sometimes came from that. It can be liberating to be a nobody in a foreign place where you have permission to exist just in your head; but more times than not it is frustrating—that deep desire to communicate, to connect, to understand others is the foundation of human existence. By exploring Andy Warhol’s art, Lang discovers he too struggled with the demands of speech. Turns out we’re in good company.
Back home, as the one-year anniversary of Australia’s border closure edges nearer, and news is full of the US expelling migrants back to Mexico and a devastating massacre of young Guatemalan migrants en route to a better life, I pick up Borderlands/La Frontera again, lingering over every heartbreaking sentence. It seems nothing has changed since 1987.
‘The US-Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound) where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it haemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture,’ she writes.
‘Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge.’
But borders are not just physical. They are invisible and just as dangerous and immoral. Invisible borders pit men against women, heterosexuals against homosexuals, white against black, Latinos against non-Latinos. The list goes on.
What role does a border play in today’s society? The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that our identities are chained more than ever to borders. There are still 40,000 Australians stuck overseas who want to return home. Our globalised world has reverted to its smallest constituent parts. And the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has shown us more than ever that the purpose of physical borders is to divide the rich from the poor; to separate lives that are ostensibly more valuable than others.
But no human on this planet is illegal. And no life is worth more than someone else’s.
One evening, I begin to read Megan Nolan’s Act of Desperation, a searingly honest book about romantic obsession, abusive relationships, and the purposelessness that comes with a broken sense of self. The book is set in Dublin and Athens. Parts of it are uncomfortably familiar and confronting; I want to stop reading, but I cannot.
‘I didn’t ask love of him,’ the narrator tells us. ‘I didn’t want him to look in my direction and see me; for there was no thing I could say, with confidence, was me.’
After a long day on the computer, I turn on my Kindle to read a few pages before dinner. I barely get through a page, my eyes stinging from the screen (another reason why there will never be a substitute for holding a real book in your hands), and I turn to my partner and say:
‘Mis ojos duelen.’ [My eyes hurt.]
He starts laughing hysterically. My pronunciation is off, and what I’ve actually said is:
‘Mis hoyos duelen.’ [My holes hurt.]
I have a long way to go with this new language.
Sophie Cousins is a writer based in Mexico. She is the author of Renewal, published by Text Publishing this year.