SPANISH IN SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA:
THE KEYS TO OLD-NEW WORLDS
You may have studied some Spanish in elementary or high school and just stored it away somewhere in the crevices of the rarely accessed regions of the cortex. Or you may have started taking lessons in conversational Spanish, all fired up to mobilize that by now rickety competence and engage in casual chat with your Mexican neighbors or coworkers. And yet, did you know that even with that rudimentary Spanish you are holding in your possession the keys to an immense treasure house of adventures, a whole world of experiences? That realm awaiting your discovery, not as a colonizer but a guest, is the enormous, diverse but unified, geocultural space of South America.
Even as a shy, stuttering beginner testing out your Spanish, you will feel welcome and at home, appreciated and acknowledged, wherever you go in South America. With the obvious exception of Brazil, that means you can directly engage with the worlds of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mexico etc. While the people in each of these countries speak Spanish with their own flavor and accent, you will still understand them with more ease than some of your own fellow compatriots speaking in another dialect. This is precisely the unique attribute of Spanish as one of the most widespread world languages that has combined mutual intelligibility with cultural and political cohesion.
Land. Built environment. Culture embodied in lifestyle. Trekking in the wake of your unfolding Spanish skills, you will have the tools to explore and savor South America, unique in the world, radically different and yet enchantingly home-like. In its geological, geographic, biological and climatic diversity, South America holds the world on the scale of a continent. In the West, the grand imposing mountain chains stretch out from the Andes, through the volcanic formations in Central America, to the Mexican Sierra Madre. To the east of the Brazilian mountain range, a collage-like series of plateau and plains succeed one another: the plateau of Central Mexico, the “llanos” in Venezuela, the plains of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, the Chaco and Paraná-Paraguay basin, and the Pampa plains. The vast range of geological and landscape formations is accompanied by a diverse array of climates and ecosystems. The domain of equatorial and tropical rainforests extends over the Amazonia and the Guianas, the Atlantic stretches of Brazil, the Colombian-Venezuelan littoral, the Antilles and the islands of Central America, southern and eastern Mexico. The tropical zone gradually transitions into the dryer areas forming the landscapes of savannas and campos, in the llanos of Venezuela and the inner Brazil. Dry arid climate reigns over deserts in the caatinga in northeastern Brazil, the Chaco in Uruguay, the Argentinian Northwest, the littorals of Chile and Peru, and the Northwest of Mexico. This world-mirroring geographic diversity of Central and South America is accompanied by a demographic richness grown out of a complex and layered history punctuated by traumas and triumphs. The exhilarating clashing mosaic of peoples resonates in a dizzying repertoire of cuisines, dances, religious traditions, and political movements. The histories of conquest, slavery, wars, and trade whisper and shout in the contemporary medley of autochthonous native communities, descendants of European colonists, settlers and immigrants (Spaniards, Italians, Germans, and Slavs), South and Central American Black population whose ancestors were brought over from Africa, and the trade settled communities of Lebanese and Syrians, Indians, Japanese and Chinese.
Latin America is not all about salsa and ceviche. Just by reading and listening in Spanish, as you make your way around the Central-South American continent, you will piece together a composite vision of its cultural universe. South and Central American art could best be described as fusion – not just the mestizaje of indigenous American and imported European elements, but, more fascinatingly, the blending of painting, sculpture, architecture, and applied arts in singular new art forms and objects for ritual and daily use. In Mexico, artists and craftsmen still produce painted manuscripts, mosaics made of feathers, and specially designed ornaments for bishops’ mitres and church vessels, using the techniques erstwhile applied for the fashioning of Aztec aristocratic dress. Likewise, in Peru, the ancient Inca tradition of kerus persists in the crafting of decorative wooden goblets and bowls. In the Andes, the interiors of churches are adorned with the same designs found on local textiles. In Mexico and Peru, the dazzling pre-Columbian metropolises of Tenochtitlán and Cuzco became the models for development of other urban centers built on the foundations of the native Inca and Aztec civilizations: Bogotá and Quito, Puebla and Oaxaca. To pursue the metaphor of the world in miniature, as recreated in Latin American architecture as well, the irony of the Spanish conquest was that the Central and South American civilizational heritage blended with the Christian rulers’ Gothic and Renaissance building styles, which already contained elements and motifs of Islamic and Arab art.
Where South and Central America truly stands out as the filigree crisscrossing of places and histories is cuisine and music. While these two might appear as arts and crafts, or even everyday pastimes, associated chiefly with smell, taste, touch, and movement, the worlds of South American cuisine and music will pose the ultimate challenge to any outsider’s Spanish proficiency. In order to become intimate with and feel the culture, Spanish learners should breathe and live among South American native inhabitants, immersed in families and communities. You needn’t sample and taste all the mouth-watering delicacies between la Sierra Madre and La Tierra del Fuego: fajitas, churros, empanadas, enchiladas, quesadillas, dulce de leche; chaufa, arroz con pollo, tacu tacu, tallerines verdes, papas rellenas, causa rellena, tacacho; chipa, pira caldo, lampreado, parrillada, kosereva; chicha, chorizo, fritanga, humintas, silpancho, pique macho. The best use for practising Spanish and getting to understand, not just consume or worship culture, is learning how food is produced, what ingredients are cultivated or manufactured, how dishes are crafted and served. A Grand Tour of South America is inconceivable without exposure to a panoply of carnival, ritual, rustic, street, traditional and stylized dances that in movement, instrumental accompaniment and vocal sounds fuse the conflicting wandering traces of origins and trajectories. These roots and routes become revealed as embodied in South American Spanish and its inflections, intonations and idiomatic melodies. Zandunga, xtoles and jarabe, rumba, tango and salsa, porro, sanjuanito and pasillo, cumbia and bambuco, zamacueca and saya. Beyond the classroom and the ballroom, beyond flamenco and fandango, the Spanish universe of the past and the future pulsates in daily rhythms and resonant laughter of the children, old people, workers, farmers, artists and entrepreneurs of Latinoamérica.
The journey through the Spanish language and the South American continent unfolds in both directions. The learner-visitor becomes a fluent speaker as she develops a familiarity with the land, the built environment, and the people embedded in geography and history. As Alexander von Humboldt summed up in the Introduction to his Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America During the Years 1799-1804: “America offers an ample field for the labours of the naturalist. On no other part of the globe is he called upon more powerfully by nature to raise himself to general ideas on the cause of phenomena and their mutual connection. To say nothing of that luxuriance of vegetation, that eternal spring of organic life, those climates varying by stages as we climb the flanks of the Cordilleras, and those majestic rivers which a celebrated writer (M. Chateaubriand.) has described with such graceful accuracy, the resources which the New World affords for the study of geology and natural philosophy in general have been long since acknowledged. Happy the traveller who may cherish the hope that he has availed himself of the advantages of his position, and that he has added some new facts to the mass of those previously acquired!” But South and Central America also gets reconfigured in new visions of its fit in the global network of politics and culture. In the words of Simon Bolivar, “The real discoverer of South America was Humboldt, since his work was more useful for our people than the work of all conquerors.”
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