Turnaround: La Mesa, Weeks 6 and 7

The week of preparation leading up to our sixth meeting of La Mesa de Conversacion was a time of worry and crippling self-doubt: I had lost hope after three weeks of increasingly frustrating meetings.

The Sunday before each Tuesday meeting usually had found me relatively prepared, with food ordered and activities planned. Yet this week I hadn’t even ordered food, instead opting for plan b: curling into a woeful ball and hoping Tuesday would never arrive. Tuesday arrived. I ordered pizza. Last minute, my expectations were further lowered by a text from Marisol, who couldn’t make it to translate.

SO, I found myself at the Rec Center at 5:45, both worried that people wouldn’t show up and worried that they would.

Things got off to a slow start, certainly. Jane arrived, and I warned her that we might be the only participants tonight. At 6:15, we were surprised by the arrival of Cynthia, a delightfully quirky woman from the community who had attended the second meeting. We chatted for a while, and were just serving up pizza for our tiny group when we were greeted with another surprise: Marisol’s family had arrived, including her dad, a dairy worker who had the night off. We ate, and then paired up and began discussing questions I had prepared (“if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?” or “how do you get rid of stress?”)

I stumbled through translating during the meeting, oddly liberated without Marisol’s help. Folks were patient with my mistakes; we were all working on our language skills together, we laughed at ourselves together and it was good. We finished up the evening Cumbia dancing under the tutelage of Rosa, a Latina woman who works at the Rec Center and had offered to come do a movement activity during the last twenty minutes. The music and positive energy left me feeling completely reenergized; my low expectations and dread leading up to the evening made its positive outcome all the more affirming. Once again, I was excited to think up ideas for the next week!

Week Seven followed in this same upward trajectory, something I couldn’t have been more grateful for. Tonight I decided to order Chinese food after a request from participants to mix things up. Today, Marisol was again unable to make it due to an issue with her car, but I was overjoyed to see other familiar faces: high school senior Jaqueline and her two younger siblings were there, representing their family after the tragedy they had experienced several weeks ago. Again, we went through a series of questions in small groups. I chatted with the kids (we all appreciated the opportunity to practice our Spanish) while the adults translated their way through the questions, a painstaking process they all were taking very seriously. We ended the evening dancing with Rosa again, and I was boundlessly grateful for her energy and enthusiasm.

Condensed Disillusionment: La Mesa, Weeks 4 and 5

There are a several problems with getting behind on tasks (like, say, weekly blogging). For me, the guilt of not completing things on time can exacerbate the problem, paralyzing me from getting back on schedule. In the case of blogging, behindness can also serve to airbrush any negative memories. Time really does heal wounds, and I find myself having a hard time recalling in detail the frustration and disillusionment I felt during the fourth and fifth week of my project.

Week four continued in a trajectory of increasingly sparse turnouts: only English-speakers showed up, and so I decided to forgo my plan for the evening and instead discuss our common paths as Spanish learners. The evening was enjoyable and the conversation flowed easily, precisely because we had few cultural or language barriers to navigate. In other words, we weren’t accomplishing any of my goals for cross-cultural dialogue. We talked in depth about immersion, traveling, and the Day of The Dead, but lacked balance in the perspectives represented. I left feeling slightly deflated, hoping this week was just an exception and not an emerging trend.

Week five, however, left me with the feeling that my project really was spiraling downwards. This week, our group was small but diverse, and should have offered opportunities for good dialogue. Yet the topic of the night, learning, didn’t spark conversation the way I’d hoped. Even in this smaller group, people didn’t seem willing to speak up, and the evening went by slowly, as I tried to bring up new topics without much success. After, I felt that it would have better served this group to spend more time working in pairs, rather than sharing in a larger group. Yet the nature of this project is that each week the group is a different mix of our rotating cast of characters, and so I can never fully predict how successful different modes of conversation will be within a given group dynamic. Here’s to a heightened ability to read a room and cater to changing dynamics as they arise.

And now, some pictures:

My materials have slowly been consolidated into one box, containing dishware, silverware, books, handouts, and books!

My materials have slowly consolidated themselves into one box, containing dishware, silverware, books, handouts, and books!

Learning materials set out

Learning materials optimistically set out

A gift from Lark, one of our participants.

A gift from Lark, one of our participants.

Sitting down to la mesa

Sitting down to La Mesa

Week Three of La Mesa: Speedbumps

Week Three of La Mesa de Conversacion had arrived, and I was excited after two great weeks prior as I waited for people to show up. With each previous meeting, “regulars” had arrived later and later while newbies arrived on-time or early. This rendered the time slot from 6-6:20 an awkward introductory period, during which I generally made conversation with newcomers and assured them that others would (probably!) be there soon.

By 6:15 this week, only a handful of people were present: myself, my ever-supportive parents, the rec center liaison Jane, and Marisol, our translator. I was abundantly grateful when two new ladies from the community arrived: Lane, a woman I had known since elementary school, and another community member I recognized by face, Judith.

Soon after, Marisol’s mom arrived with her daughter and terrible news: another regular family couldn’t make it because of the tragic and violent death of a family member back in Mexico. With this news came the realization that as undocumented migrants, the Perez family couldn’t safely return home to Mexico to attend a funeral or support their family. Denied a pilgrimage of grief I tend to take for granted, they were isolated in their loss.

In their home, the Perezes dealt with day one of a tragedy all too common in the modern Mexican narrative. At the Rec Center, we served up fajitas and I introduced the week’s topic, family. I had thought this topic would elicit some good dialogue; instead, reality proved to be fickle.

In this case, I’d underestimated one of the newcomers’ understanding of the group. Most newbies are drawn to Mesa by friends who have attended or informational flyers that explain the group in detail, but apparently Judith had followed Lane to the event with only the vaguest idea of what it entailed. When I began handing out the conversation-starter worksheets that had been so successful the week before, I explained that they were for facilitating learning and teaching both Spanish and English. “Well, I already speak Spanish,” she replied, seemingly irritated. “I don’t want to teach it, though. It’s easy.”

We worked in pairs for ten minutes or so before reconvening, using the same technique as before of introducing one’s partner to the group. After, we began the large discussion. I had just posed the first question (“what did people do for father’s day?”) when Judith interjected, “I’m just curious what you’re doing here.”

Taken aback (and finally clued into the fact that she really was critically confused about the group), I tried to concisely give her my elevator speech. My dad added a comment about how important it is to bring together the anglo and “hispanic communities.”

AAAAAAND the floodgates had been opened. Judith launched into a tirade about his non-PC use of the word “hispanic,” and our conversation was derailed, headed in a sharply different direction and led by Judith. Suddenly, we were discussing the racism she had experienced growing up in a latino community in California and issues of discrimination worldwide. This conversational tangent was not wholly unwelcome; in fact, Marisol’s mom spoke up about race dynamics she had witnessed in our community and it seemed we might find common ground again. But when someone began speaking of solutions, Judith quickly shut them down: “Good luck changing anything.”

Two hours later, our conversation was over and everyone helped clean up and rearrange tables. Folks filed out, and I was filled with disappointment and the sense that I could have done things better. Throughout the project, I’ve tended towards “behind-the-scenes” leadership, partly because age dynamics make taking complete control of the room awkward. Yet in some cases, I’m realizing, it’s necessary to step forward and rebalance a conversation that’s being dominated by one person and their ideas.

La Mesa De Conversacion: Week Two

Folks file out of the rec center Tuesday nights and I rearrange tables and wash dishes. The frenzy of organizing abates, leaves relief in its wake. At times it’s a satisfied relief, paired with enthusiasm for the next week, yet other times it soon gives way to apprehension: how will I manage to make next week fresh? How could I have better facilitated that conversation?

Week One of La Mesa found me enthused and ready to take on challenges in the next week. The following Tuesday, we catered delicious fajitas from the same restaurant as before, a local Mexican-owned diner that offers few Mexican food options but will cater just about anything. Again, I was ecstatic about the turnout- nineteen people, but a slightly different nineteen than the time before.

I’d had some trouble facilitating one-on-one partnered learning the first week, and so this week had printed off a worksheet-esque set of questions in both languages. The questions ranged from simple (“what is your favorite color?”) to slightly more complex (“what’s your favorite summer activity?”)

Beautifully, the group self-organized so that Spanish learners were sitting next to English learners. The task was simple: use the questions on the sheet to introduce your partner to the group. I paired with Marisol and we quickly went through the questions, soon falling into a conversation about school and work. At some point, I noticed the timbre of the group had changed, and realized that every pair had a) finished with their questions, and b) not stopped talking. Somehow, the activity had successfully led to the more informal dialogue I’d been hoping to create.

The happy buzz of conversation continued for about twenty minutes before I brought the group together for a larger, translated conversation, around the topic of summer celebrations. Very quickly, this morphed into a more specific discussion of weddings, marriage, and divorce, which proved to be a hilarious topic, easily lasting for the rest of the meeting. My mom, who has been attending La Mesa and bravely practicing her Spanish, left the meeting completely energized. “How great it was to laugh with each other!”

La Mesa de Conversacion: Jumping Off

On June 9th I anxiously awaited the arrival of participants to the inaugural conversation table. The Oregon coast rarely gets hot, but today was exceptional; even with all the fans in the community recreational center on at full blast it was sweltering as I anxiously waited for folks to show up. We had ordered a pot of pozole and tostadas for the afternoon, and the hot soup was simultaneously delicious-looking, unappetizing in the heat, and seemed overly optimistic- I had ordered food for twenty people, and wasn’t sure if anybody but myself and Marisol would show up!

All set up for dinner and conversation!

All set up for dinner and conversation!

Luckily, as 6:00 neared, people started filing in. By 6:15, we had a group of nineteen clustered around the tables I had set up, more than I dreamed would show up for the first week.

I encouraged people to serve themselves and then, after several minutes of eating and casual conversation, I finally jumped in to bring the conversation together. In general, that first meeting was both chaotic and fulfilling: we discussed the theme of welcoming, which led to some good conversation and connection across language barriers. At one point, I left briefly to let the kids present into another room, where they had toys and games to occupy themselves while the adults talked. I returned to a lull in the conversation, and tried–and failed!– to transition the conversation to more informal partner learning with the variety of bilingual books and dictionaries I had spent money on. As a result, the last thirty minutes became a time of very informal connection, which wasn’t on the whole bad, but wasn’t what I had in mind.

I left the Rec Center that Tuesday with feelings of profound relief and gratitude that the first meeting hadn’t completely flopped. Especially heartening were the words of Jesus, a kid my age who had recently moved here from the LA area.

“If you had a program like this where I’m from, people would be lined up out the door to participate,” he said. “Not because of the free food. People want to have this cultural connection. They just don’t know how to make it happen.”

La Mesa de Conversacion: The Preparation Whirlwind

It’s been a hectic reentry into my hometown of Nehalem, Oregon, where La Mesa de Conversacion is taking place. The weeks leading up to our first meeting have been filled with changed plans and anxiety about my own role in orchestrating everything.

While originally planning this project early this spring, I had prioritized bilingual youth, assuming that I could easily attract friends to take on leadership roles and help me out in translating the group’s cross-cultural conversations.

However, although everyone I contacted was excited about the project, very few kids were interested in committing to attending on a regular basis. People were busy with finals, working, and already spend a lot of time translating in their day-to-day lives. In planning this project, I had always dismissed a deep-seeded fear that nobody would show up; yet as the project start date neared, I realized that this fear could be a reality. I had overestimated my ability to draw in the latino community, and was worried our first meeting, if attended mostly by anglos, would alienate any latino folks who showed up.

So I made several changes, reevaluating my budget to offer compensation to one of my friends for regular translation services and delaying our start date until well after school had gotten out for students. I met with stakeholders, reached out to ESL leaders in the community, and designed posters in both English and Spanish. I also ordered bilingual books and dictionaries from Amazon (a deliciously fun task!) and contacted a local Mexican family-owned restaraunt about catering our first meeting. The night before that first Tuesday, I wrote in my journal, “nobody’s going to hate you for trying.”

I’ll designate my next post to debriefing our first few meetings. Perhaps I’ll even manage to finally take some pictures!