My ears picked up on it the moment I walked through the entryway. As I walked up the staircase to the lecture hall, I could clearly make out sentences of the conversation being had behind me. It felt out of place to me, belonging to a different time and place. For a moment, the accented tones of Spanish conversation took me back to Argentina. By the next moment, I realized I was not in Buenos Aires in July —but I was still smiling.
The effect that hearing my mother tongue in McCosh 50 had on me took me by surprise. I realized that, besides the daily phone conversations with my parents, I’d had few encounters with any form of Hispanic culture on campus. Besides a Spanish friend met here or a Columbian acquaintance made there, I haven’t met many people to talk to in Spanish. I’ve turned my head a few times, excited for someone new to talk to, only to find a couple of members of the custodial staff chatting in a familiar accent.
I suppose, like the still-green leaves in the autumn weather, I wasn’t really aware of how green I was until I found myself surrounded in a sea of fiery reds and oranges. After all, South Florida is not a far cry from Latin America, and since birth, I’ve only ever lived surrounded by Spanish people. I only discovered the Hispanic population at Princeton when I walked into the lecture hall. It made sense, since it was to hear Mario Vargas Llosa and Enrique Krauze talk about Latin American Politics.
I grabbed a seat and took it all in: the fast-paced chatter in various accents, the unmistakable facial structures, and recognizable clothing styles made me feel at home in the very large crowd. I wondered if the lecture would begin on time, or if the event would run on delayed “Spanish Time.” I was slightly disappointed when it began punctually, but the long-lasting trickle of latecomers redeemed this a bit.
Vargas Llosa and Krauze sat reclined on armchairs, their socks prominently in our line of vision between where their dress pants ended and their shoes were planted on the stage. They reminded me of two uncles, talking politics in my living room. Except that they were talking in English, using a foreign tongue to talk about matters of home.
They spoke of democratic improvements, the failures of socialism, and deterrents of free governments. All of these are relevant to a discussion of Latin American Politics, of course, but as a friend mentioned to me a few days later, it seemed redundant to him. For him, there were no novel concepts, no amazing breakthroughs, and he’d felt disappointed.
I hadn’t felt the same way, I guess, because I’d never expected breakthroughs from sobremesas and meriendas. Growing up, I’d sat around dining room tables and coffee tables at grandparents’ apartments, aunts and uncles’ houses, and family friend’s patios hearing renditions of the same conversation. “The immense stagnated population of poor people,” the “old greed,” and the “lack of credibility of the law” were just a few of the familiar themes brought up. The only differences were the characters speaking, the large audience present, and the obvious lack of Spanish.
While relating a conversation he’d had with current Peruvian president Ollanta Humala, Vargas Llosa struggled for a word, finally giving up and letting a single word of Spanish slip out: resfrío. In the audience, we all laughed, commiserating with that awful feeling of failing to find a word and probably all wondering why we were all translating a discussion on our first homes.
The audience, while not completely homogenous, was comprised of a majority of Spanish and Hispanic members. Maybe it was just my excitement at this large concentration of compatriots, but it immediately felt like a communal space. We laughed at jokes made about being “very very optimistic” about our governments, the common perception of laws as “suggestions,” and the “American sense” of liberalism, taking comfort in each other’s common understanding of these things. As Krauze said, we are always living in an “interesting time” in our countries.
Vargas Llosa and Krauze did not speak of these changes and progress without traces of pride. “With the right perspective, that of those who have lived in the 60s and 70s and even 80s, there is real political promise,” Krauze said. I, who had sat crossed-legged wearing dresses and Mary Janes on carpet floors listening to adult conversations in the late 90s and early 2000s, do not fall into this crowd. But the adults I had heard talking in those rooms do, as do a lot of the adults who were in that audience. There were many with very personal connections to the subject matter. I’ve seen every form of exasperation, outrage, and embarrassment at these governments. In a sense, we are all bonded by our shared ownership of these “imperfect, fragile, young baby democracies.”
I could distinctly feel myself clinging to these things throughout the hour and a half chat. I wrapped them around myself like a familiar blanket, taking refuge after a long day of lectures, writing seminar, and precept behind me and a long night of Aristotle ahead of me, letting the English in distinct Spanish accents soothe my frazzled nerves. I can tell you that despite the refrains of “you belong here” and “you deserve to be here” from faculty members and upperclassmen, it is a hard conviction to master. The day will come when I no longer need the security blanket of my past to feel completely comfortable here. And someday after that, I’ll be someplace new and different, and a trace of Princeton—a photograph or a run-in with an old classmate- will bring solace. So I tell myself that I belong at Princeton, but I allow myself to remember that I also belong in those living rooms and to these histories.