ArtCorps Artist Amy Glasser discovers the art of being able to connect with people across language barriers and cultural differences.
When I first arrived in San Cristóbal, I did not realize how language could be such a barrier to human connection. I believed in a universal language of smiles and laughter, music, pictures and symbols. And the power of art to help people from different cultures and places understand each other without speaking the same tongue. However, I learned that it is truly difficult to touch a person’s inner soul and gain trust without speaking the same verbal language.
Understanding a foreign language is the key to understanding the culture. The placement of verbs in a sentence, the use of foreign words, and the tones and accents all reflect the way the people think and act. For instance, in Pokomchi, there isn’t a word for bread. The translation for bread is “foreign tortilla”. Understanding this, helped me understand the historical importance of tortilla in the Pokomchi culture. Tortillas are their central food, and bread came afterwords.
My first months here were like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. Communication was difficult and frustrating. I heard sounds with no meaning, and the Spanish words sprinkled in the conversation did not provide enough clues. It was difficult to get projects done, since no one felt comfortable responding to me in Spanish. I thought that the people were generally shy. When I approached they would hide or not respond.
The change has been dramatic now that they know me, and they know I can understand and speak a little bit of their language. When I arrive at people’s houses, I feel welcomed with excitement and smiles on their faces. They ask me questions, and show me different plants, share eggs from their chickens, or offer me bananas from their yard. They even share a little bit of their Spanish−a secret that I thought they did not know. I now feel comfortable asking questions, knowing that people will answer instead of hiding their faces. I now know how to make them laugh.
Just communicating with each other is a comedy show. I am still learning the language. The sentence may not have been perfect, but eventually they grasp the essence, the intention put into the sounds. They then look at each other smiling, with a large pause. The second they hear me giggle, they join in and our laughter erupts in unison. Their laughter means, “At least you are trying and we accept that.” We trust one another and are confident enough in ourselves to connect, in whatever language it may be: smiles, laughter or Pokomchi.
My awe for the beautiful sounds of Pokomchi, the foreign music that I first heard as nonsense, now has meaning. I now understand the pauses, the highs and lows of the voice, the salutations, the different ticks and clicks of the tongue; I can proudly say that I cracked the code. And now I can confidently sing their songs with them as we create art together.