The woman sitting beside me on the plane from Atlanta to Peru was traveling home to visit, she said, after many years in Indianapolis with her son and daughter-in-law. She spoke no English. Of course I did not get her picture, but had she not been dressed in western clothes she might have resembled the beautiful women here.
My Spanish was laborious and shaky, wrestled from daily walks along the Ohio, listening first to Pimsleur lessons from the library and, when these ran out, a program called Platiquemos. I told her I had never spoken Spanish with a real person before. We started out with names and travel plans, but as we talked she would forget how poor my skills were, and speak longer and faster, till I would pull her short with “Mas temprano, por favor,” and “Puede repitar, por favor?” Then we’d get back on track for a few moments, till she took off again.
Though this first encounter was not on our itinerary, traveling mercies usually offer such serendipities: a kind soul, overly confident in my listening abilities, a call to begin tuning up my ears, the first of many Peruvians who assumed I would understand.
She told me that she was a widow, and that she attended a Spanish-speaking Catholic church in east Indianapolis, believed deeply in Jesus, cared for her grandchildren, cooked for her children, and never learned to read or write, not even in Spanish. She showed me how she could sound out letters, but said she couldn’t combine them to make words.
Shortly before we landed, she held up her customs forms and asked for help. Fortunately, they were in Spanish. Even when I could only pronounce the questions without comprehension, she would reply, and I would write. The moment that very nearly made me cry was at the end, when she took the pen from my hand, adjusted it carefully among the aged fingers of her own right hand, and slowly, painstakingly, five seconds per letter, in perfect cursive, wrote her own name.
We spent only a few hours together, and only by chance. But in that brief exchange she gave me a living reminder that humans have made our way on this planet for countless generations, loving, tending, worshiping, working, even traveling and living in foreign lands, without ever learning skills, such as reading and writing, that educated westerners consider basic. And that while illiteracy is more unimaginable to me than living abroad, and poses barriers to human development that I could not wish on anyone, it is no measure of a person’s dignity or inner life.
If English were not so ubiquitous, I too would be illiterate in most every airport on earth. I have, in fact, ventured to neighborhoods, in many countries with nonwestern alphabets and tongues, where I was functionally illiterate and deaf, rescued only by an interpreter’s presence or by American confidence that I could somehow negotiate my way back to linguistic security, which was never far away. I’m not sure what it would be like to make my home where I daily confronted such barriers. I imagine it takes courage, trust, and skill beyond any I have yet exercised.