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  • Her name was Alva. She taught me Spanish. She was my first Spanish teacher, in Guatemala, in the western highlands, at Quetzaltenango. I learned Spanish during a guerrilla war.

    The war was a mere 26 years old, then. The war had kids, the war had grandkids. The third generation of guerrillas was coming up, in the mountains.

    I knew nothing, when I arrived to language school at Quetzaltenango----Xela, as the locals call it (Shay-la). I was a journalist, with a few words of Espanol. I wanted rhythm, I wanted vocabulary. I got vocabulary, but good. 'Unknowns.' 'Disappearances.' 'To disappear,' as a transitive verb. 'Assassins.' 'Bullets.' 'Submachine guns.'

    There was not much vocabulary about where is the greengrocer, or where is the dry cleaner's, or the proverbial Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones, who in the language textbooks always seem to be catching trains, saying to strangers that Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Jones are fine, and taking endless trips to that damn greengrocer and perpetually getting their suits cleaned. (And on a never-ending loop to the pharmacist.) Hey, we all have to get greens and get clean, sometime, but this was another guerilla city planet.

    Xela is the second largest city in Guatemala, and a more beautiful countryside I have never seen. The green hills of Guatemala. Just to say it in my body, just to type it with my hands makes me crumble in a part of me I have locked away inside.


    The classes were held outside. They were one-on-one. Intense. Every day I walked down the hills from the family with whom I was staying, to be at school at 8 a.m. We were all adults--journalists, meds students, teachers, aid workers,--who wanted a tongue of use. Eight in the morning and home for lunch and back at one p.m., and in school until four in the afternoon. After a week, my mouth was saying full sentences, including vocabulary I had never been taught. None of our teachers knew English, there was no escape. I could feel the inside of my home head dissolving.

    Alva was magnificent. A real doll. I was her student, and she wrote me poems of gratitude.

    The school was run as a co-operative. There were other language schools nearby, and we used to meet up with other students after school and compare notes. Everyone had a story of having to run inside during class, when the American or British helicopters which were officially not there, came low, very low, near students at desks on roofs. Helicopters, jets, they were watching the city. Xela is a real fount of learning, a real student place, the university there had a lot of smart resistant students.

    The CIA had engineered a coup d'etat of Guatemala in the summer of 1954, removing the democratically elected 40-year old land reformer Jacobo Arbenz. That coup set off the guerilla resistance, and the U.S. was still keeping an eye on things. It occurs to me only now that that there might have been second and third generation U.S. armed forces men, as well, in the same Guatemala as their army ancestors. Ordered to keep an eye on things.

    The genocide against the indigenous had been underway for a while, in the hands of the Guatemalan military. It was bad, it had been bad, it was going to get horrendously worse, I was sick in love with the Spanish language, irretrievably so, hooked on its poetry, a maven to its vowel endings. Alva. Susana. Guerra. Montana. Te amo.
    I grew up as a kid over my parents' store in Toronto, in the middle of a big city, and yet here I was, as if I had found a second home, a soul home, a place, and the place began with the tongue.

    Is language culture? I think it is. When the culture is death, you have what I think is called life, on your hands.

    So many stories. They will come.

    For now, there is the face of Alva. I retrieved this photo from my archives. (Read: the piles and messes of pictures, the, yes, mountains of prints, piled, unfiled....) But I had this view of her, etched in my mind.

    How is she?

    I was afraid to ever be in touch. You may know that feeling. In danger places, you're afraid you might put your friend or teacher in more danger, just by communicating from afar. I don't know how she is. I have no idea. Just to write that down kind of breaks me up, inside. She was from Totonicapan. 'Toto,' as we called it. Alva from Toto.

    She was my first teacher of the Spanish language which took me places, which commanded me back into its dirt and divine duende. Alva, no tengo la menor idea como eres, como estas, como estabas, como fue la vida, con vos. Pero tengo solamente una cosita a decirte: Gracias, Alva. Me cambio totalmente la vida, la vida de tu estudiante Susana. Habia una vez....Once upon a Guatemala.

    You told me that I would take with me happy songs of the pajaros at dawn.

    I did.

    The pajaros and los balazos, the bullets, and el hecho, the deed, and a group of unknowns, un grupo de desconocidos, and una emboscada, an ambush, and el duelo, mourning.

    You were so funny, and so much fun, and so lyrical, and such a lover of poetry, and in my first week at school, I knew how to say bullets and ambushes and mourning.

    Alva, mi maestra, I salute you on this International Women's Day.
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