Sam’s Homestay Experience

Tonight we gathered at the Quaker Meetinghouse: students, teachers, host families, friends, and field site bosses. We came together to celebrate and end a semester of living and learning and working together. As I biked down St. Claire St going east towards the Meetinghouse, the wind picked up. At first it was just the smell of creosote and then, sure enough, raindrops began to fall.

Three months ago, it rained the day our host families and us students gathered for our first dinner together. At that time, we didn’t know much about our families, only names and maybe a few personal details. I would live with a family of five—Silvia (my mom), Carmen (her mom), Jorge (15), Gabriel (10), and Esmeralda (9)—and by living with this family from Sonora, Mexico I would see a more personal and intimate side to the Border and its politics. What else might await me with this family of strangers? I could not begin to guess. The rain fell during dinner and our families were excited but I missed the desert sun. I didn’t come to the desert to be rained on!

But tonight, as a train stopped me on my bike and the rain fell and I got wetter by the minute, I couldn’t be happier. It only takes a few months in the desert to learn to love a desert rain. I counted the number of times it had rained on one wet hand, and it seemed quite fitting that one finger represented the beginning of this short semester and another, the ending.

So much has changed in these few months. Relationships started, knowledge gained, chicken tractors built. It’s amazing how those names—Silvia, Carmen, Jorge, Gabriel, y Esme—which at one point meant nothing more than letters on a page, now hold so many memories. Amazing to talk and joke and play at the Quaker House tonight and remember how different it felt three months ago.

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*********

Jeff had told ahead of time that Silvia could speak English, so if I wanted to practice Spanish I should let her know. The kids, too, would probably talk to me in English, so I should be clear if I want Spanish immersion.

I wanted to improve my Spanish. In fact, I had checked off a box on my program preference form saying that I preferred to live with a family that speaks it in the home. I would make the effort, I decided. I would make it clear that I wanted to speak Spanish even if I wasn’t that great at it.

Priorities change fast.

We spoke English that first dinner together with the rest of Border Studies—Jorge and I talking about the Patriots, him knowing more about my hometown team than me—and Silvia chatting with anyone and everyone in whatever language they wanted. Later that night, Jorge stayed up with me and we must have talked about sports and his school and news from Sonora. Silvia and I talked about my family and Massachusetts (“Mass-ACHOO-setts” she would say and pretend that she was sneezing). With her, I started with bumbling Spanish but pretty soon we fell into English like you fall into a couch at the end of the day. It was easier that way for both of us, and once we could all kick-back, we could really start to share something about ourselves.

Because I did want to learn Spanish, and I still do. But more than that, I wanted to have those lounging conversations where reactions aren’t slowed by unfamiliar language and where energy can be put into ideas and compassion. In those conversations, you reveal yourself to someone. In those conversations, I have found family here in Tucson.

******

You get used to living with a new family in starts and stops. As you find your place in a house, small, simple actions often take monumental effort.

Those first couple days, just walking out of the bedroom door and being ready to speak Spanish to my nana took courage. And then on particularly difficult mornings, a new tío or a friend was by visiting and you’d have to introduce yourself in Spanish and small talk over breakfast. What a challenge that was!

Week two I started helping myself to food in the fridge and I did a little cooking for myself. I had waited, nervous, because I didn’t want to impose myself upon the kitchen and its resources. Looking back now, I can laugh and at how much unnecessary stress I caused myself and my nana by my austerity.silv2

Week four I started singing in the shower.

Week six I invited friends over.

Esme and Gabriel will tell you that one of our best nights together was the pillow fight in the sala a few weeks ago. We all had a great time, but every once in a while I would look over my shoulder down the hallway where my nana and Silvia were sleeping. Can we do this? Am I being a bad guest? Or a bad son? What am I after all? The next day at Manzo Elementary School where I work, one of Esme’s classmates came up to me. “Sam,” she asked with a serious voice. “Is it true that you and Esme had a pillow fight last night?”

I couldn’t lie. “Yes,” I told her, nodding solemnly. In the following days, a new rumor started: I and one of the University of Arizona interns had gone on a “pillow fight date” together. And apparently I had a great time.

*********

“Mañana, voy al Border Patrol,” I told Silvia one night early in the semester while she prepared her lunch for the next day.

“You’re going to Border Patrol? To see my friends los Chiles Verdes?” she asked me and laughed. Later she would tell me that they came up with that joke—calling Border Patrol the “Green Chiles”—when she worked in the restaurant. Some agents would eat at the restaurant and the folks in the kitchen would say, estamos llenos de chile verde; we’re full of green chili! The agents made the undocumented workers in the restaurant nervous, but after a while the fear wore off. One ICE agent told her that they know, of course, that the folks in the restaurant probably don’t have papers, but they don’t mess around with families unless they see suspicious actíons.

“Well tell my friends los Chiles Verdes that I say hi,” Silvia said and we had a good laugh over that one.

I didn’t pass along the request to her “friends” down in Nogales. But the next day as we walked out of the Border Patrol office frustrated and grumpy, I couldn’t get Silvia’s smile out of my head. Los Chiles Verdes. I chuckled a bit—because what else can you do?—and imagined Silvia greeting one of our tour guides at the door of the restaurant. He’s in his green slacks, carrying his gun on the hip and his fear of terrorists in his heart. He walks through the door of the restaurant.

“The usual?” Silvia would ask.

********

I don’t remember my first time up Tumamoc Mountain. Was I on a run? Or maybe we did our first sunset walk to the top? The steep trek up the short mountain became regular enough that the moments blend together. Each time you see something new: an unusual arrangement of clouds during a desert sunset, a funky looking cactus you hadn’t seen before, or yet another language added to the many you’ve heard while walking past kids, adults, and grandmas, neighborhood folks, tourists, and commuters. Each time is different, and yet in memory I have trouble distinguishing one walk from another; they mosaic into something much bigger and more beautiful than any one summit sunset.

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There was that Friday in March when some of us Jews baked challah for Shabbat and hamentashen for the holiday Purim at my house. Then Silvia, Jorge, Esme, and some of our friends from the University of Arizona joined us for the walk up Tumamoc. At the top we sat in a rough circle amongst the lava rocks, and as the sun went down and the first couple starts came out, we lit the cider-flavored tea lights from Anne’s house, said a prayer over the grape juice, and passed around the freshly baked challah. Reflecting on our week, each of us said our peach (a good, happy thing) and our pit (a bad thing that might grow into something better). As we walked down the mountain, Jorge sped on ahead, his long legs carrying him faster than any of us were willing to go. Esme trotted behind him, and Silvia hung back to talk and laugh with my friends.

Then there was that hike with Emily’s family when they talked about their high school the whole way down.

Or when old friends of mine from New Mexico met me at the bottom and we played back memories of the old days as the sun went down.

Or when Hannah and Jorge and I climbed up for the sunrise on her 21st birthday, Jorge getting his blood moving before his last day of state testing.

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I’ve worn that short walk from my house to the bottom of Tumamoc well this semester. I show off the mountain like a trophy. I welcome friends to its slopes like it’s the guest room of my house. Walking up that mountain, recognizing the same faces again and again, I wonder how many Tucsonans consider Tumamoc their home.

******

Last Saturday, I biked back from Gabriel’s Little League game on my friend Anne’s hunky beach cruiser. Inside the kitchen my tío Jesus and my nana Cármen were talking. I almost didn’t recognize Jesus without his cowboy hat on. “Sam!” he said.

“Hola, ¿cómo están?” I asked them. The Spanish comes easier these days, but I still like to be the one asking questions because you can always pretend you understand the answers. “No ganaron,” I told them. Gabriel’s team has been doing better, but they lost this time.

My nana had made spinach and had cooked up the tamales that my tía and I made on my birthday. I fixed a plate and, because I knew Jesus was watching, I crushed a few chiltepines on top. Used my fingers instead of the wooden crusher when I noticed him looking over. He smiled: “Ya es un mexicano,” he told Cármen, and they laughed. I was one bite in and already I needed some help. I got up for some orange juice to soften the spice.

I heard Jesus murmur enchiloso and saw my nana give him a knowing look. I’m not quite Mexican yet.

******

Yesterday was a long one. The kind of day where you push back your laptop and you talk about when you’ll finally be able to nest somewhere. I start day dreaming about opening a restaurant with Silvia and Hannah’s thinking about drinking beer on San Francisco rooftops. In just about a week, we’ll walk through yet another ending and start one more beginning. Everything is wrapped up in that ending—homework, classmates, teachers, field sites where we work—so that our whole lives here seem to be pitching towards that one final jump.

Everything, that is, except my house. Biking down University Street out west towards the highway tonight, I couldn’t wait to walk through the doors and be in a place that will remain here long after I leave. In that house, the anxiety that fills our Border Studies classroom lifts away; the rash of stresses that we pass from one of us to the other fades. Sitting at the kitchen counter, I ask: why do those things matter so much anyway?

After all, WWE is on and Esme will have to make the popcorn because she lost a bet that one time over a basketball game we didn’t care about.

Jorge and Silvia have been hearing about this case of police brutality, and should the policeman be to blame after all?

Gabriel is hitting tennis balls to himself to practice and could use a partner.

My nana liked that bread I made and I really should make some more. She’s fed me well this semester.

The kind of learning that happens in a home stay doesn’t have a thesis. Isn’t deductive. Is hard to quantify. The learning happens in moments here and there, and then I am sitting in the kitchen at the end of a semester—Jorge and I both yawning but neither of us want to stop talking and go to bed—and even calling this thing learning seems to do it a disservice. It’s meeting, it’s struggling, it’s resting. It’s speaking Spanglish, laughing about the chile verdes, and suffering through the spice of chiltepines. It’s being human in a small house with beautiful people.

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-Sam Coates-Finke

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