Yesterday I taught a workshop at the San Miguel Writers Conference then went strolling around town in the hot sun.
After hours of walking the cobblestone streets, my feet throbbed and my throat stung with the dry, dusty air. I stopped to buy a paleta de coco and sat in a little park to read.
As I was finishing my popsicle, a small Mexican girl wandered over to me. She was about five years old and wearing a long-sleeved Snow White sweatshirt, despite the heat. She smiled, and I saw the nubs of two over-sized front teeth just beginning to emerge from her gums.
“Paleta?” She handed me a stick she’d picked up from the ground.
“Gracias,” I said, accepting the stick. I handed her my popsicle stick in exchange. Then I looked around nervously. Would her mama be offended? Technically I was handing her daughter my trash.
The little girl went back to a patch of dirt where she’d been playing and dug around in the mud with my popsicle stick. She held it up and began to speak to me in Spanish.
“No hablo espanol,” I said. It wasn’t the complete truth, obviously, since I’d just said that, but it’s true that my already weak Spanish seems to get worse every time I go to a Spanish-speaking country.
She repeated herself, and I caught the word paleta. I hoped she wasn’t thinking I was going to buy her a popsicle. She held the mud-encrusted stick up to her mouth and pretended to lick it.
“Ew.” I made a funny face at her.
She laughed and spoke a string of Spanish words to me, still holding the dirty popsicle stick close to her mouth.
“Ewwwww,” I said again, making even more exaggerated faces.
“Ew,” she repeated, giggling.
I was having a good time, but then I got worried. Women in the U.S. are suspicious of adult strangers interacting with their children. Was I about to get the smack down from a Mexican Mama?
“Donde esta tu madre?” I asked the little girl.
“Alla.” She pointed at a group of people sitting on a blanket in the sun, eating from a central plate of chicken.
She began talking to me a mile a minute. I could tell by the inflection of her voice that she was asking me questions, but I didn’t know what they were.
“Si?” she asked. “Si?”
“No se,” I told her. “No hablo espanol.”
Still, she persisted, talking animatedly and sometimes gesturing towards her family. I caught the phrase mi casa and wondered if she was inviting me to her house to play. After all, we’d had a good laugh with the mud popsicle joke.
She continued to babble in Spanish, looking at me expectantly, and a part of me hoped that if I listened closely enough, I would be able to understand her, and suddenly Spanish would flow out of me from some secret treasure trove inside my brain.
The girl became more insistent in her questioning, and now she stood in front of me, tapping my shoe impatiently with her dirty sandal. “Si? Si?”
Finally, I couldn’t handle my lack of understanding any more, so I stood up and waved. “Hasta luego,” I told her.
On my walk home I was still sort of pleased. I’d managed to make friends with a little Mexican girl. We’d shared a joke about a mud popsicle, and she’d invited me over to her house.
Or maybe I had misinterpreted the whole interaction.
One of the things I’ve heard repeated several times at this writers conference is the idea that events happen, and then we each create our own unique stories about them. When I have an experience, everything is filtered through me so that it is no longer the actual event that I hold inside me but only my interpretation of the event and what it means to me.
There is no reality, only the stories we tell ourselves. In my story, I made friends with a Mexican five-year-old. Who knows what her story might be.
What is your story?