Please see me. Aqui estoy. I wish I could wave a magic wand at language barriers.
People ask me what it was like having a baby in Mexico. I imagined telling them it was like having a baby anywhere…but I can’t. Because it wasn’t. But this isn’t about having a baby. It is about finding out I was having a baby.
There was this Spanish speaking nurse that forever changed my perspective on language barriers and the power of compassion and I’m going to call her Angelica.
Early in June of 2000 I had been living in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for 6 months teaching English. Carlos and I had been dating for 4 months. We had not expected to fall in love but we did and life was good. I was 25 and looking forward to a fun summer traveling around and then returning to an amazing boyfriend in Puerto Vallarta where I had a killer studio apartment overlooking the ocean. Yes, it was dreamy.
Then my world flipped around and the dreamy part instantly disappeared. Two weeks before I was scheduled to leave I found out I was pregnant. Knocked up. Yep, holy shit. There was nothing expected or planned about this news (obviously). In fact when I got the results I burst into tears. I didn’t have any of my close friends or family nearby to talk to. There was no facebook (that would have been a shocking status update though). Email was something I paid for by the hour in an internet café downtown. I made phone calls from a payphone on busy street corners in random places and my conversations were constantly interrupted by loud buses rushing by. I still can remember the street corner I was on when I called my Dad to tell him I was pregnant. Not one of my better memories. A facebook message would have been easier for sure.
As you can imagine the emotions were intense and there was a lot to deal with. There was a lot to deal with in both Spanish and in English. I spoke Spanish fluently and flowed between the two languages. I loved my bilingual world. But by looking at me, it wasn’t presumed that I spoke Spanish. I was clearly a white girl and the locals assumed I was an English speaking tourist on vacation.
Being a white woman in a Mexican tourist town is kind of like being a princess in my experience. I was stared at and doted on. It mostly pissed me off because I just wanted to be treated like everyone else and being stared at all the time gets old. But if being treated differently based on my skin color meant that I had more privileges than hardship I certainly wasn’t in the position to complain. (As a strong woman with very little tolerance for sexism I had a lot to complain about but that is another story.)
When the pregnancy test came back positive the next thing that needed to happen quickly was to find out how far along I was.
Carlos asked if we should find an English speaking Doctor but I felt very comfortable with my language skills and even as freaked out as I was about being pregnant, I was confident communicating. I wanted to be pregnant in Spanish. We went to a clinic recommended by his family Doctor for an ultrasound. I was in a private room with two nurses (Nurse #1 and Angelica). I asked a lot of questions…in Spanish. But Angelica didn’t share my confidence in my communication abilities. I’m not sure how that was possible but it was.
She was about to do the ultrasound so I asked if Carlos could be in the room with me. Nurse #1 left to get him. Angelica asked me to lie down. I asked her if she wanted me to take off my shoes, my dress, what? I don’t get ultrasounds every day you know. She wouldn’t look at me when she talked to me. Finally I figured out she just wanted me to lie down and lift my dress up over my belly. Great, thanks for the clear instructions. Please remember that this back and forth conversation was in fluent Spanish (and it felt like pulling teeth). Carlos finally came in and Angelica warmly welcomed him and asked him, “What’s the patient’s name?”
I immediately felt the confidence flood out of me. It was like she had punctured a hole in me and created a fast and furious leak. I wanted to sit up and scream, “You’ve got to be kidding me, I’m right here, I speak your f*king language! I’m a person not your patient!” But I was stunned and lay there silent. I was lying on a bed vulnerable in my underwear and all I wanted to do was cry. Why couldn’t she have asked ME what my name was? We had been speaking in Spanish the whole time. And how could she call me a patient like I wasn’t there…lying right next to her with my dress pulled up over my naked belly?
She did the gel and the ultrasound thing and we saw the heartbeat and the little brown blob on the screen that was our baby. It was awesome. I was horrified and in awe at the same time. That’s just how it was.
The way she treated me stays with me. I don’t want to let it go. It is important to me, to my story and to who I am in this world.
I can’t imagine how different that would have been if I hadn’t been able to speak Spanish. I try but it’s hard. I try to imagine because it happens all the time. Women, men and children are in situations where they don’t speak the language. It is incredibly difficult to live in a place where you don’t comfortably speak the language. There is so much I take for granted because I flow easily between Spanish and English. And when I travel to places where people don’t speak English or Spanish I’m usually on a fun adventure (insert the word ‘privileged’ – it’s not a bad word).
To some extent I understand the challenges of languages barriers and I understand the stereotypes and biases that go with them. Everyone yearns to be understood. As humans we want to feel connected. Words connect us. Experiences connect us. Smiles, laughter and tears connect us. Love connects us. I desperately wanted that nurse to connect with me; to show me a bit of warmth, a smile, eye contact, a “hello, what’s your name?” connection. I would have felt safer. I would have held onto the confidence I did have in me. I wouldn’t have felt scared and alone.
But I was scared and I remember that fear and that burning anger so clearly. And I promise to never forget. I meet people that don’t speak English fluently and I understand the power of eye contact and a smile. I can say ‘I love you’ in my mind and send it to them without words. I can feel them receive it. It feels amazing.
I try and see everyone as a Mother or Father, a Son or Daughter, a Sister or Brother, a Wife or Husband. It breaks down the wall and creates a connection.
Today let us acknowledge the connections we have in the world around us. They are magical. They keep us alive!
Amor y paz.