Remedial Spanish with Junot Díaz by Sophie Mazoschek

Thanks to three years of high school classes, I’ve developed a mild dislike of Spanish. I still think it’s a beautiful language, especially when spoken out loud, but it’s become synonymous in my mind with the perpetual and formulaic boredom of school. Every assignment we ever get seems to ask for the same thing: List five subjunctive triggers. Translate this paragraph about buying grapes. Conjugate this verb into this tense. And so on. As I result I sometimes zone out in class and miss chunks of new material.

If I flew to Spain tomorrow I might be able to ask such philosophical questions as: “Where is the hotel?” or “How much does this fish cost?”. I could talk about when to use the indicative tense vs. the subjunctive, or rattle off a list of impersonal expressions. Pero yo no puedo decir nada importante.

Yesterday I picked up a book of short stories by Dominican American writer Junot Díaz entitled “This Is How You Lose Her”. As of now I’m about halfway through and what’s struck me the most, even more than Díaz’s brazen, poetic voice, are the fragments of Spanish phrases and slang (some of them pretty dirty) that are peppered throughout the book. While some words can be figured out through context clues, Google Translate or spanishdict.com is usually necessary to wade through particularly dense sections. These occur when characters converse with one another, slipping seamlessly between two languages, and when Yunior, Díaz’s womanizing narrator, describes his various girlfriends or sucias (side chicks). The girls always have some defining adjective or carefully thought out term of endearment attached to their names: flaca, hermosa, prieta, guapisima. Indiecita o Dominicana o Blanquita. To understand these characters you have to research the definitions of these words as well as their possible subtexts, to understand why Yunior would assign each one to each particular girl. Junot Díaz is inadvertently teaching me more Spanish than I’ve learned in the past six months.

I can’t tell you exactly why This Is How You Lose Her” has changed my attitude so drastically in less than 24 hours. Maybe it’s because of the intense and palpable tenderness Díaz feels for his characters and for his own Dominican heritage, which breathes life back into words and phrases I’d previously only seen in emotionless textbook paragraphs. Maybe it’s the fact that his multilingual writing captures a depth and richness of culture that’s rarely present in plain English prose. Or maybe I just needed a break from classrooms and repetitive homework assignments.

I’d highly recommend “This Is How You Lose Her,” to anyone with an interest in languages or excellent short stories, no matter what your native tongue is. Also, please pay attention in Spanish class.

Sophie Mazoschek, class of 2016

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