A couple of weekends ago, I was invited by my host father, Diego, to play some soccer with him and his friends at the local field. For me, a soccer boy in withdrawl who had been dropping subtle hints of his futbol-remission for like three weeks now, this was a nirvana of some sort.
As the minutes before we were scheduled to play wound down, I noticed that my perennial pre-game anxiety was something I had not yet surpasssed (spiritual awakening aspect of gap years…very overrated). Frankly, I was nervous. Extremely. To be fair, I was up against the probably valid “oh look a gringo trying to play soccer” stereotype, but in that moment I just wanted to not make a fool of myself.
During our walk to the field, Diego asked if I wanted to take the “camino loco”, somewhat of a shortcut, to get there. Obviously, with the Robert Frost inside of me present as ever, we took that crazy path, and as advertised, it was very interesting. Basically I had never walked (walked?) through a coffee farm, under two patches of barbed fence, and through a backyard to get to a soccer pitch, but believe me was it ever worth it. The field, seemingly constructed from the trees and overgrowth that enveloped it, was beautiful. As an admitted soccer-field snob, the 5-a-side “cancha” is easy Top-5 fields I have played on. Think Field of Dreams, but Guatemalan.
As Diego’s friends began to roll up in their Tuk-Tuks, I stumpled upon two facts. One, that my host dad was the cool dad constantly reliving the glory days by hanging out with kids half his age, and two, there was some serious soccer about to be played. We all threw in our obligatory 30 Quetzales (hope gambling isn’t a Red Rule, self incrimination is never fun), divided into teams, and began our two hour dance. Under the watchful glow of small stadium lights, it began to rain.
Right here was where I caught myself. I was about to write a Yak about the “universal language of sport” and how though I couldn’t understand my teammates, we all were speaking a common language, futbol. Gosh. On the list of overused, meaningless cliches, that’s definitely competing for number one. The truth is, beyond the incessant Spanish swearing (maybe the most important vocab lesson of the trip), I had no clue at all what anyone was talking about. During the game, I wasn’t thankful for this (ever tried to ask for the ball in Tz’utujil?) but after, it was what I was more grateful for.
I should back up a bit. Here in San Juan, most everyone speaks Tz’utujil, one of the 22 different Mayan languages. Spoken in San Juan and a few surrounding towns, by less than 80,000 people, the languange is being pushed dangerously close to the relics of history. In resistance to Spanish, a language forcibly placed upon the people here by colonial forces centuries ago, Tz’utujil is understandably a source of pride. There are many San Juan residents who simply refuse to learn/speak Spanish. However, it took me a conversation with my family over dinner, a week after the fact, to realize the significance of the “roadblock” in communication I felt that day.
In a dinner conversation about what subjects they were learning in school, I found out that my 11-yr old host brother was learning English, while my 8-yr old host sister was learning Tz’utujil on her own. In explaining his choice, my brother (in classic older-brother fashion, may I add) said “con Tz’utujil se puede quedarse aqui en San Juan, pero con Ingles puedo ir alrededor del mundo.” With Tz’utujil, you can stay here in San Juan, but with English I can go around the world. I definitely was not ready for such philosophical stuff from a 5th grader, and it set me back a bit. I have been thinking, in one way or another, about what he said, ever since.
It seems to me clear that an internal struggle exists. The process of self-identification, already hard for people everywhere, is here somewhat paradoxical at heart. The past and history with which people identify with – their heritage – has, in many ways, been placed at direct odds with what has been constructed as “opportunistic and desirable”. What is the economic value of learning a language spoken by a handful of towns? The economic necessity to speak Spanish, and to an increasing extent, English, has in many ways threatened the literal survival of a tongue that has lasted through years of legal, social, and spiritual attacks. Watching firsthand these external effects of a globalizing planet has been insightfully sad, but even more devastating I believe, are the more subtle, internal consequences. What is one to think of themselves, when the culture that molds their identity, is essentially being erased by a lack of practicality. How can one stay “authentically” themselves while being forced to walk the trapeze, forever in a balancing act holding their past and their future on seperate halves. It’s an impossible game, and though it need not always lead to cultural ambivalence, more times than not, it does.
And so, for this, San Juan has given me some hope. Every soccer game I play in a world of confusion, brings me some optimism. Every time my host-parents talk in their first language, the one they probably fell in love with, it brings me some happiness. In these little acts, are seeds of resistance.
And though I’m going broke playing soccer in a language I don’t understand, it’s some of the most rewarding soccer I’ll ever play.
ps: hi mom hi dad hi cammi email coming soon! xo