Teaching Fernando To Read
And seeing Jesus’ bilingual smile
Since I was a kid in public school in Miami, I’ve been fascinated with foreign languages. I had several Cuban friends and I begged them to teach me Spanish. They taught me some bad words as well as nice ones. If I wasn’t sure what they meant, I’d say, “Igualmente!” (“Same to you!”). We’d all laugh.
One friend, Julia, lived across the street and I hung out a lot at her house. Her abuela (grandmother) didn’t speak English, but she always smiled at me and opened her arms. I thought Jesus was in that smile. My vocabulary was still small, but I’d developed a good accent. I knew that, with very few exceptions, each letter in the Spanish alphabet had only one sound. So I could properly pronounce words, even though I might not know what they meant. I’d read aloud to Abuela. I’m pretty sure she thought I knew a lot more than I really did.
I married, followed where Jerry’s career led, and grew a family. My Spanish got rusty. But in 1987 we joined a Washington, D.C. faith community with a strong commitment to walking alongside rejected, suffering people.
Many of my new friends didn’t speak English. I struggled to explain to a blind homeless AIDS patient at The Gift of Peace, who wanted orange juice, that we only had Kool-Aid. I tried awkwardly to direct a domestic violence victim to Ayuda, where she could get a free lawyer. I volunteered at The Family Place, where women with swollen bellies (many still teenagers) dropped in for food, medical help, and friendship. We gave them and their preschool children free lunch, clothes, and diapers. We accompanied them to a local Catholic hospital whose doctors delivered their babies and vaccinated their older kids without charge.
My heart was open but my Spanish was pitiful. So in 1994, I took six weeks off from my job and joined a group of American women in Guadalajara, Mexico for a total immersion program. I was thrilled when I woke up one morning and realized I’d been dreaming in Spanish. Like Julia’s abuela, the people embraced my attempts to communicate. In them I felt the joy of God’s unconditional generosity and love.
Now, 20 years later, the need for bilingual ministry is a tsunami. Through a new ministry in Annapolis, Maryland where I live, I accompany immigrants to doctors and ICE hearings and lawyers’ offices. I’m simply a caring presence who speaks their language and tries to manifest the love I know Jesus has for them.
I recently accompanied “Fernando,” a husband and father of three waiting for papers here with his family. He has a work permit but he can’t read or write Spanish — which makes it very hard to learn English. We communicate by telephone or through his wife. No texts. No emails. He doesn’t know what his papers say. He signs his name when he’s told to, trusting blindly.
He and I had to wait an hour and a half for a recent ICE check-in. To pass the time, I asked if he knew the letters of the alphabet. “Some,” he said. He can write his own name. I suddenly knew in my bones he could learn to read Spanish and I could teach him.
“Each letter has a sound,” I told him. “The name of the letter is a clue to its sound.” This was new information to him, and I could feel his excitement grow. We went through the alphabet, making a capital letter and a lower case letter, saying and repeating the name of the letter and its sound. Seeing how quickly he caught on, I became as excited as he was.
We looked at his name, a syllable at a time, and he saw the link between letters and sound. Then I asked, “What word would you most like to learn to read and write?”
I caught my breath and swallowed hard. I wrote “Mamá.” He traced it with his finger and wrote it after me. He couldn’t take his eyes off the paper. He whispered, almost like a prayer, “Mamá.” “Mamá.”
And then Fernando looked up with a huge smile. I know Jesus was in that smile.
Carolyn Miller Parr’s most recent book is Love’s Way: Living Peacefully With Your Family as Your Parents Age, co-authored with Sig Cohen. Hendrickson, 2019. She and Sig blog at www.toughconversations.net.