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Breaking the Ice Across Language Barriers

Last Sunday our group caught a bus in Esteli City and rode through the lush Nicaraguan countryside for several hours to El Lagartillo, the town where we were to have our first homestay. We arrived at the town library and waited to be collected by our homestay families. I was a nervous wreck. I was incredibly eager to make a good impression and to be a good ambassador for a country that had caused this community so much pain. With my rusty Spanish skills, I had no idea how I was going to do that.
I was paired with Dona Marina Osorio, an older woman with a warm smile and a calm, even temperament. Marina lives in a house with her daughter Carolina, Carolina’s twin sons Dylan and Elian, and two of her other grandchildren, Naoun and Maryann. They all greeted me very graciously and ensured that I had everything I needed.

The first few days were a little awkward and unnatural, which is more or less what I expected. Holding conversations in Spanish was difficult for me, and I often fumbled with my words due to my own nerves. Everyone in the house was very patient with me, but I felt frustrated with my inability to express myself how I wanted to. I would offer to help with dinner, or play cards with Naoun and Maryann. At first everything would be going really well, but then my Spanish would fail me and I would close myself off, my shyness getting the better of me.

As the week progressed, I began to develop a routine. I would wake up at around 7:15, eat breakfast, go to Spanish class, spend some time with the group, go home to eat lunch, go to another 2 hour Spanish session, spend some more time doing group activities, and go home for dinner. I found that the more occupied I was, the less time I had to feel self conscious. Talking with my Spanish teacher during class helped my find my footing, and I became less afraid of making mistakes. This in turn let me converse with my family with greater ease. It didn’t matter if I made some errors, what mattered was that we got to know each other in the limited time we had. I would show Dona Marina pictures of my family and tell her about my home. She in turn would tell me about her childhood, her 8 children, working in the city, and losing her friends and family to the December 31st Contra attacks on El Lagartillo. “Tell those you love that you love them whenever you can my dear,” she said, clutching my hand across the kitchen table. “You never know when it will be the last time.

Marina has been receiving foreign students for years. She is the matriarch of her family and takes care of everyone in her house. She feeds her granddaughters from nearby towns lunch every weekday. She keeps up the repairs on her house. She is an active community member and quite popular. There are always visitors at her house. She rocks each off the twins to sleep every night. And yet, she still finds time to sit with me each evening after dinner and ask me about myself, my hopes, my fears, my dreams. She says that she loves hosting students, because she loves to help young people learn Spanish.
“I hope you will bring your children back here one day,” she says.
“I will try Dona Marina, I will try.”

I am in utter awe that in less than a week, a family that I had never met before began to truly incorporate me as if I was their own. Now, when I get home from my day, Naoun will greet me with a slap on the back and a “Que tal hermana?”

Instead of sitting in my room reading all afternoon, I will help Carolina make tortillas, or paint my nails with Maryann. Going into my dragons semester, the thing I was most nervous for was living with a homestay family. I now realize how silly this was. The process of getting to know someone can be uncomfortable at first, in any given situation. Pushing through that discomfort with my homestay family is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. The community of El Lagartillo is incredibly open hearted, and I am extremely grateful to have spent time here.