The woman sitting beside me on the plane from
Atlanta to Peru was traveling home to visit, she said, after many years in
Indianapolis with her son and daughter-in-law. She spoke no English. Of course
I did not get her picture, but had she not been dressed in western clothes she
might have resembled the beautiful women here.
My Spanish was laborious and shaky, wrestled from
daily walks along the Ohio, listening first to Pimsleur lessons from the library
and, when these ran out, a program called Platiquemos. I told her I had never
spoken Spanish with a real person before. We started out with names and travel
plans, but as we talked she would forget how poor my skills were, and speak
longer and faster, till I would pull her short with “Mas temprano, por favor,” and
“Puede repitar, por favor?” Then we’d get back on track for a few moments, till
she took off again.
Though this first encounter was not on our
itinerary, traveling mercies usually offer such serendipities: a kind soul, overly
confident in my listening abilities, a call to begin tuning up my ears, the
first of many Peruvians who assumed I would understand.
She told me that she was a widow, and that she attended
a Spanish-speaking Catholic church in east Indianapolis, believed deeply in Jesus,
cared for her grandchildren, cooked for her children, and never learned to read
or write, not even in Spanish. She showed me how she could sound out letters,
but said she couldn’t combine them to make words.
Shortly before we landed, she held up her customs
forms and asked for help. Fortunately, they were in Spanish. Even when I could
only pronounce the questions without comprehension, she would reply, and I
would write. The moment that very nearly made me cry was at the end, when she
took the pen from my hand, adjusted it carefully among the aged fingers of her
own right hand, and slowly, painstakingly, five seconds per letter, in perfect
cursive, wrote her own name.
We spent only a few hours together, and only by
chance. But in that brief exchange she gave me a living reminder that humans
have made our way on this planet for countless generations, loving, tending,
worshiping, working, even traveling and living in foreign lands, without ever
learning skills, such as reading and writing, that educated westerners consider
basic. And that while illiteracy is more unimaginable to me than living abroad,
and poses barriers to human development that I could not wish on anyone, it is no
measure of a person’s dignity or inner life.
If English were not so ubiquitous, I too would be illiterate
in most every airport on earth. I have, in fact, ventured to neighborhoods, in
many countries with nonwestern alphabets and tongues, where I was functionally
illiterate and deaf, rescued only by an interpreter’s presence or by American confidence
that I could somehow negotiate my way back to linguistic security, which was
never far away. I’m not sure what it would be like to make my home where I daily
confronted such barriers. I imagine it takes courage, trust, and skill beyond
any I have yet exercised.