Surviving An Earthquake Can Help Your Spanish Vocabulary
It took some time before I understood what was happening. Halfway between sleep and consciousness, I was disoriented as the bed scurried across the floor and the apartment walls around me swayed like laundry in a strong breeze. My wife Kathryn and I locked eyes as our bodies were literally bounced into the air.
“Earthquake,” I said quietly, fascinated to be using the word for the first time in its actual context.
“Earthquake!” she repeated, louder, as if she needed to say the word with more force to make it real.
Then my senses caught up with my surroundings and the panic set in. I jumped out of bed thinking instinctually that we needed to be outside, away from all concrete and brick, preferably with a long rope in case the ground beneath us caved in and sucked Oaxaca into the dark. I ran outside to look at the city, expecting to see buildings in heaps, lampposts on fire, and cars belly-up.
But as soon as I reached the door, the tremors vanished. In an instant, the city was back to its normal self, yawning in the early morning haze. The breakfast smoke of street vendors drifted past the rooftops, and the honking and revving of morning traffic resumed, as if on cue.
Until that day, my experience with earthquakes had been limited to disaster films––the kind where tremors rattle piano top ornaments just before the earth opens up and devours all forms of life. Then there was the Los Angeles quake of 1994, which I remember distinctly because it interrupted my favorite television show. Now, just two weeks into my semester in Oaxaca, I had survived an actual quake.
I left for my morning trek to Spanish class and noticed that no one seemed too shaken by the morning’s disturbance. The same women stood at their fruit stalls, hacking at pineapples with machetes. The old beggars found their normal shady spots, pressed their backs against the cold colonial walls, and extended their hands for change. The locals walked determinedly to their jobs, and the tourists snapped the city into their cameras. Oaxaca was perfectly intact.
I fell into the rhythm and used my walk to practice the phrase I would ask my teacher and fellow students: “¿Sintieron el temblor?” “Did you feel the earthquake?”
They had. Everyone had. It was strong enough to have gotten them out of bed that morning. One student, an American from an earthquake-free state, said he was sure he was going to die. A student from China shrugged his shoulders and chided us for making such a big deal out of it. He talked about the temblor as if it had been a light rain.
Our teacher, meanwhile, decided to use the earthquake as an opportunity for a vocabulary lesson. She walked to the front of the room and wrote the word temblor on the chalkboard. Then, she puffed up her cheeks and rocked back and forth.
“Un temblor,” she said, miming the quake.
Then she wrote the word terremoto on the board. She squeezed her palms together into fists, closed her eyes, and hunched up her shoulders as if she were about to scream or explode, or perhaps rocket out of the room through the window. She began shaking violently and rolling her r’s like a lawnmower springing fantastically to life.
I was impressed. I doubt I will ever forget those two Spanish words.
As we moved on to our homework––paragraphs on the colors of fruit––I was itching for a more meaningful conversation. I wanted to explain how precarious our lives are, how our sense of stability on this restless planet is so incredibly false. The whole shifting orb beneath our feet is catapulting through space at 12.25 miles per second, headed straight for the constellation Lyra, and yet we somehow feel at rest. We had just been hit with an earthquake registering 6.4 on the Richter scale, and we barely took notice.
I wanted to say all of these things, but I didn’t know the words. Instead, I followed the day’s lesson plan and confirmed that apples are red and bananas are, indeed, yellow. I was stuck with a Spanish vocabulary better suited for playing in a sandbox than pontificating in a café.
Oaxaca sits directly on top of a seismological nightmare. Several fault lines run through this part of Mexico, and earthquakes in the region have caused some of the worst damage in the history of the Americas. The Mexico City quake of 1985 killed thousands of people and permanently altered the city’s skyline. Oaxaca is regularly hit by quakes and has crumbled to the ground twice in the last 100 years.
As volatile as the city is geologically, it is equally volatile politically. In the summer of 2006, the postcard-perfect zócalo––where tourists sip cervezas (beers) and locals launch giant balloons—was overrun with thousands of protesting teachers. The government sent troops to break up the standoff, and they were not gentle. Some people were killed, some were injured, and others went missing. Since I arrived in January, there have been seven strikes by teachers demanding an end to the local governor’s corrupt rule, an increase in pay, and the return of arrested activists. Just days before the earthquake, a group of protesting teachers marched through the streets and their chants and loudspeakers were so strong that, like the earthquake, they literally shook the walls of our apartment.
These teachers also sprayed the words LIBERTAD, JUSTICIA, and REVOLUCIÓN in sloppy blue and black spray paint on a wall near my house. But as soon as they had passed, local shopkeepers and homeowners came out and slapped a quick, efficient layer of paint over their words. Only the corners of those revolutionary phrases remained visible. The city had absorbed the human disturbance as quickly as it had the tectonic.
When I ask my friends in Oaxaca about all the protests and earthquakes, they say they consider them part of their identity. They’re simply part of what it is to be a Oaxacan—as natural as mosquito bites in Minnesota.
The streets were alive and buzzing as I walked home from school later that day. The Catholic schools erupted with students, hurling a small army of children in checkered skirts, ties, and vests onto the cobblestones. Torta (sandwich) vendors slapped cheese onto pieces of bread and snatched pesos in return. Volkswagens without mufflers thundered by, and somewhere a vendor announced through a loudspeaker that he had the purest water in Oaxaca.
As I walked home, I mentally collected every Spanish word I knew that had to do with earthquakes or protests or motion. What are the Spanish words for “fault line?” I wondered, climbing the stairs to our tiny, rooftop apartment.
I stepped inside and found Kathryn reading emails from our friends and family, wondering if we were OK.
“How were your classes?” she asked over her shoulder. “And tell me in Spanish.”
As I prepared to speak, I realized my head was swimming in sermons: thoughts on volatility, diatribes on graffiti, and lectures on aftermarket exhaust systems. I thought about everything I had experienced in Oaxaca in the last few weeks, and combined all of my thoughts into one coherent idea. Then, I opened my mouth:
“Apples are red, dear. Bananas are yellow.”
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