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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

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The Language in My Blood

1.

The notion that language could be transmitted through blood first surfaced for me in Cuba, 1970 or thereabouts. I was sitting on a long bench in a teeming hospital waiting room, a couple of my children playing at my feet. We must have been waiting to see a doctor; for which of us and why I no longer remember. As my children and I conversed in the language we’ve always shared, a Cuban woman sitting nearby exclaimed in surprise: “But you’re speaking Spanish! I always thought language came down through blood!”

From her dress and manner I knew this woman was from the countryside, a guajira as peasants are called in that island nation. One gold tooth flashed through her easy smile. The ravages of a life of struggle could be seen on her sun-cured skin, tightly-permed hair, and in the clouded exhaustion of her eyes. Eyeglasses and cleanly pressed clothes spoke of the changes brought at least in some measure by the revolutionary process, by this time a decade old. The woman too had children playing at her feet. They too were speaking Spanish in the fragmented, open, unmistakable accent I was just beginning to adopt.

My waiting room companion could tell I was a gringa of course: my blue eyes and pale skin, my clumsy intonation, unshaven legs and underarms, the indelible health which was a product of another social class and unimaginable foreign possibilities. The otherness of my cultural bearing was typical of those from somewhere else. I was a U.S. American. And yet my children and I spoke Spanish—when, in her understanding of how things were, English should have run in our veins.

I remember explaining—in tones I realize in retrospect probably carried an overload of authority—that language is learned socially through hearing and mimicry, its transmission taking place from mouth to ear rather than through the pre-birth genetics that determine what color eyes or hair you will have, what predisposition to disease may burden you, variables such as intelligence and disposition.

Too much unasked for information. Always dangerous.

“But that little blond-haired boy speaks Spanish like a native!” the woman insisted, unfazed. She turned to her companion. They laughed.

Irrefutable evidence trumping my confident explanation.

2.

Barking dogs, they call us,
our words cacophony
to their ears
our banter clawing the blue green steep
the Chihuahua canyons
they call home.

Surviving silver mines
and Jesuits, near-slavery
and generations of cold,
turning shamanic face
to Christian cross,
adding and subtracting
while pretending to pretend.

Tarahumara or Ramúrari
entered these canyons
as Kayenta Anasazi
entered Kee Tseel farther north:
partners in time
though likely unknown
one to another.

Ramúrari: corn beer tesgüinadas
punctuate Spartan lives
with gambling,
wife-exchange
and the periodic rush
of the flip-ball race.

In our cloying observation
always too poor
to weave bright threads,
fashion silver or stone
into objects
we admire.

Scant cave on a far ridge,
one small stone house half-hidden
against the brown gray mountainside,
another, adobe,
hugging vertical
behind its fence of cacti green.

Two women squat
by the side of this dusty road
that hovers and careens
as it descends the canyon depth
to a village once lit by silver ore.

One man pulls forward
his yellow triangle of cloth
and sits, claiming his place
in the village square.
A child stares.
Thousands, yet few
and visibly far between.

The rudeness of our chatter
intrudes into valleys
hung at eight thousand feet
crowds between the rivers Verde,
Urique and Batopilas.

They answer with a word, a phrase,
drum, flute, rattle,
rasping stick and musical bow
or the crude violin
whose mournful strains
remember Irish travelers
on this accidental land.

Now the note of a single flute
lifts silence, surprises
the intricate swirl
of fig tree roots,
mesquite, mahogany,
sudden bromeliads
holding fast to the swollen green
of organ cactus flesh.

Clinging to impoverished rock
the note waits—patience
more than merely virtue
in these distances—then,
eternity reduced to seconds,
an answering flute responds.

Tarahumara or Ramúrari:
cosmic runners
who cover 80, 90, 120 miles a day,
who run for need, connection,
sometimes kicking a small hard ball
or pushing a metal hoop
before them as they fly.

Running the language of life
for a people whose words,
chosen with care,
trace philosophical circles
impossible to retrieve
by our poor measure.

Ours are superfluous clutter
in their ears, bewildering
earth that requires stillness
to keep on breathing.

3.

Today I am not so sure blood doesn’t bring language with it as it courses through the veins of mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren and those bound by other ties. My new sense of what language is transcends the combination of verbal sounds we use to communicate with one another. My understanding of cultural inheritance is also broader and deeper than it was back then.

At Kee Tseel, for hundreds of years in this valley rent by silver creek, people spoke. Their words did not yet hold promise of permanence or continuity; any sort of alphabet still shrouded in future. Ideas: passed from person to person, fixed themselves, pecked into rock or painted with pigments mixed from powdered roots, the juices of plants and trees, gums and animal fats. Human sensibility, here as in other parts of the world, shaped sounds that would become words, words that would fashion themselves into directives and questions and answers, sentences woven together to make stories.

The stories describe our lives. Those who inhabit the map of our living speak out or silence as they explore relationship, custom, need. It is not Babel we fear, but the stopped verb, expression cast to the sewers of modernization. Globalization of the human voice, criminally manipulated to erase or bury the language of our blood.

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Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall

Margaret Randall is a poet, essayist, oral historian and photographer who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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