I served with one native-speaking companion, a fiery, fascinating woman from Nicaragua. Not only was she a native speaker, but she was also an exceptionally educated person. Often when we were out talking with people in the streets they would stop her and ask her to rephrase things, telling her that her Spanish was too high-brow for them. And she spoke nary a lick of English, so living with her was a sink-or-swim course in Spanish fluency for me. (I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for her to basically serve as a Spanish finishing school for so many Americans coming to the country with shaky MTC-Spanish. The Mission President very judiciously gave her a new companion nearly every transfer period so that as many English-speaking sisters as possible could benefit from her expertise.)
Serving with her brought a lot of things to the fore that I had never before troubled myself to think about. We were living in very modest circumstances, in a cockroach-infested apartment with no air conditioning in the heat of the tropical summer (it got up into the 110s, plus humidity) – decidedly the most humble, physically uncomfortable environment I had ever experienced. We had a single old broken down electric hotplate to cook with (no oven), a small dorm-size refrigerator (no freezer), and a handful of dishes – two plates, two cups, a pot and a pan, and two sets of utensils. Our landlady had a washing machine, and we had a clothesline. There was no hot water in our apartment (which actually didn’t bother me because it was so hot that a tepid shower was refreshing). There were times when we would have no water or electricity at all for big chunks of the day. None of these things was earthshattering, of course; we always had shelter, the ability to get clean, and enough food to eat.
But, throughout our companionship, she often spoke about how wealthy our surroundings were, repeatedly exclaiming that she had never seen such incredible wealth before. At home she had always washed her clothing by hand (she ended up teaching me how), and cooked over an open flame (she hated that hotplate). She rarely received letters because the cost of postage was a week of her mother’s salary.
These things shook me. That she would experience the mission as a time of wealth startled me into a realization of the extent of my privilege as a child of the global north. But even more troubling for me was hearing her express interest in visiting the U.S., and knowing that, as a darker-skinned non-English speaker, she would likely experience prejudice if she were to travel here. I worried that at best people would overlook her, not bothering to get to know her keen wit and intellect. The politics of skin, and the reality of class, became jarring as I thought of the ways that many people in the U.S. ignore or belittle people who look and talk like she did.
- 24 April 2013