For his participation in the 21st Paiz Biennial in Guatemala, poet Julio Serrano Echeverría presented a short film and a conversation that touched on themes of interpretation. As a participant in this conversation, I wrote a short text in Spanish about my experience of living outside of my words, or how I interpret a culture in which I am not a native. I am publishing this text in Spanish as I wrote it originally (with this provisional translation in English), even though the Spanish version is fragmented and includes grammatical and spelling errors, living somewhere between English and Spanish (as do I). I leave it here without editing it, to remain faithful to the original presentation. You can find Serrano's short film here. - LA
To speak about interpretation, I think it's really lovely that you have to face my Espanglish, to understand me from a language that I use, but that sits somewhere between English, Spanish, and gesture.
Then, let's start here. You all are, now, interpreting me.
The question is:
How do you interpret a place in which you are not part of the conversation? In which you don't belong? In which you don't have history, friends, not a word of your own. How might we transform the experience of not understanding into a productive conversation?
In 2014, I visit Guatemala for the first time - actually also during the Biennial Paiz. After many years of working in various countries in Latin America, I arrived in Central America for the first time, without knowing anything about the local art scene, without knowing much of the history, without knowing hardly anyone. It was a shock to be in a place with such a strong artistic presence, but without the institutions, resources, and books necessary to start the kind of formal investigation with which I was more familiar, with which I had surrounded myself throughout my career, throughout my graduate work, my time in universities, museums, galleries, studying both art history and working as an art critic.
How do we begin to speak from different worlds? How do we listen to ourselves? What are the questions when you don't have words? How do we find shared words?
A curator I respect tells me: I never look at works of art in a country without someone who is fluent in the local culture beside me.
An archeologist friend tells me: In Belize, the conferences on Maya art are held in English. Many of the scholars don't speak Spanish or Maya languages.
A Spanish-speaking friend tells me: I want to write in English.
I tell him: Yeah, me too, I want to write in Spanish, but I made a decision to write in English and work with a translator. Someone who really understands poetry and its absences, the history of Guatemala, and a little bit about brokenness.
In 2016, I move to Guatemala with my Espanglish and three suitcases full of books and nothing else. There was a flood in my apartment that same week and I lose most of my books. I remain without known words, without my constant companions of many years, without anything from my previous life.
I write a letter and at the end I put two X's, which mean two kisses, at least from my context.
A friend tells me that here two X's means death.
What do you do when every sign has a different meaning? How can you understand a world in which your kiss is translated as death?
Speaking about words, a Tzutujil friend tells me: the word Achik'aneel means deep dreams full of happiness, visions that carry the spirit, connections with our ancestors, with the animals and forests, energies of the jaguar, eagle, and owl.
I am drawn to the idea that a word could include a universe of references, understood from one single place (the place where that language is spoken, where the dreams are had).
Another friend tells me: a stone holds a universe inside it.
I write as if I am making stones, or rubble (Piedrín), words with universes inside them, with the intention of building something.
When I move to Guatemala, I stop remembering my dreams and I start to sleep for the first time in my life.
I remain here, with only a few words, and with a broken grammar. For an inexplicable reason, when I was a teenager studying Spanish in the U.S., I decided not to learn how to conjugate verbs into past or future tenses. So, I speak mostly in the present, learning now how to speak about another past, how to imagine a future.
I actually think that not speaking Spanish "correctly" is an advantage to my work here, even though I am a writer. Because I am not from here, because I abandoned my familiar words and my communities, I have to ask the most basic things. And when people explain a word to me, they describe a world, they tell me a history, they show me a community, they teach me a past, they explain a sense of humor until we are both laughing, until we share sadness, and all from here. It's an invitation that they have so graciously given me, an invitation to understand, to enter, to live alongside.
That, then, is how I understand the logic of interpretation.