This is a phrase I have become fairly familiar with over the last year. Roughly translated it means "I do not speak Spanish but I understand it." I am so familiar because, in the last year, it has passed my lips more often than almost any other Spanish phrase.
It is the one phrase that my Spanish speaking roommate taught me in our year together. It is enough to get people to begin talking to me when I find myself a stranger in their home. To be a stranger who cannot communicate is not a good situation to be in, especially when all you want to do is help the person you're trying to communicate with.
For the longest time, I found my way around this phrase. I found other ways to communicate. Taking on interns added to my work load (doubling the need to ease neighbors whose homes we entered and coaching students simultaneously in the basics of social work) but it allowed me to have a translator when I entered a home where English wasn't spoken and certainly wasn't understood. In these cases, the phrase acted as an endearing excuse. As if to say, I'm sorry I can't speak your language, but please accept this butchered phrase as a sign that I'm trying and know that I do know what you're saying. I would use it as a means of comfort- a plea of sorts to explain to those I wished to relate to that I could understand what they were saying, even if I couldn't verbally respond. Thank goodness for nearly a decade of French and the power of a reassuring smile.
Other times, if I found myself on home visits without an intern, I would turn to neighbors or, on occasion, I would call back to the office in the hopes that our parish secretary would translate for me. Neither of these situations were/are ideal. They are humbling, to say the least, but still when push comes to shove they make sure that people who need assistance were able to be served.
Now having returned to Philadelphia after a bit of a hiatus, I find myself catching up on visits that have piled up over the last month. Yesterday I scheduled fifteen visits in one day. That's a lot and, actually, I didn't schedule them... a volunteer did. I had her mark next to each person she called if they'd be home at the time I'd scheduled and what language they spoke. When she returned from making phone calls with the list, more than half were Spanish speakers. "No problem", I thought to myself, "this volunteer needs hours and I need a translator, I'll just bring her with me." That was the plan.
Then, late in the afternoon, right before I left the office my phone rang. On the other end, my volunteer told me she had forgotten she had an appointment scheduled for today and wouldn't be able to come in. Like I said, that was the plan.
I left the office not quite knowing what the next day would hold. Today, I came back into the office still quite unsure. "Trust," I told myself. That seems to be the frequent order for life at the community center. So I hit the road with trust in mind.
As I began to visit homes, my fears eased as the first few homes marked as 'Spanish-speaking' were bilingual and manageable. Then I came to Luis's house.
I say house and not home for a reason. The building I came up to had no front stairs, instead I hoisted myself inside the shell of a house. Luis was sweeping when I arrived- sweeping the plywood floor, mind you, trying to get rid of as much dust as possible. In fact, the house's interior was only wood. No carpet. No furniture. No drywall. No running water. Only some windows and even those were boarded up. The situation was beyond words, but even if I had words Luis and I wouldn't have been able to communicate.
I tried. I really did. I mixed Spanish, French, and English to try and understand the situation. Luis got frustrated as he tried to reply back in English to my questions. I turned to my famous phrase. Yo no hablo espanol pero yo en entiendo. I understand. A stream of Spanish came back at me and I understood: This place had no heat; Luis had no other place to go; There was only so much I could do.
Without the ability to speak to Luis's concerns and situation, I couldn't do any justice. I don't know if I could have done anything even if we were speaking the same language. Yet, we weren't and in failing to communicate I felt like I was doing an injustice. As a volunteer, I had screeched past with my broken, nearly-nonexistent Spanish; now, as a paid employee, how am I supposed to do my job when, without language, I cannot fully serve those I minister to? And it wasn't just Luis, it was so many that I meet; How much more could be accomplished if I was just able to talk one-on-one with the person across from me- to not just feel their pain but to speak to it.
I left Luis knowing change needed to happen. I left him with a voucher he didn't understand and I left him in a situation that no voucher could fix. It wasn't just Luis though. (His situation was extreme.) It was the recent immigrants I meet and cannot give full attention to because I don't have words. It is the cycle of injustice perpetuated by the inability of one to meet another where they are at, to sacrifice time and self to learn a new language so comfort can be found. Comfort that stems far beyond a phrase or two. 'I understand' can only go so far. At some point it has to be followed up by "and because I truly understand, I find myself more like you. More able to help because I am enriched, challenged, and humbled as I seek justice in a world where injustice seems to pass as the norm."
Poco a poco, estoy aprendiendo.