Ron Garcia, Upper School Spanish Teacher
Learning a foreign language is a gateway that enables us to meet and interact with people from communities very different from our own, thus enriching our understanding of them and of ourselves. This power of language to bring people together has been abundantly clear as I’ve accompanied groups of students on service trips to the small, impoverished town of Tobati in Paraguay each March for the past two decades.
The idea for this annual two-week excursion began during my boyhood. Each year at Christmas time, my family and I visited Tobati, where my mother had grown up. As a boy in Indiana, I had heard Spanish spoken only in my home, so it was exhilarating to visit Tobati, where the little linguistic world of my family was expanded to a wider atmosphere.
When I became a Spanish teacher, I knew I wanted to recreate my childhood experience for my students by bringing them to Tobati. During these excursions, students work side-by-side with Paraguayans to build schools and playgrounds, upgrade medical facilities and water supplies, and harvest crops.
On these trips, I’ve observed that almost all of our students were able to communicate in Spanish, not because they spoke flawlessly, but because they were confident enough to take risks, to make mistakes in grammar, agreement and pronunciation, but nevertheless be understood. This reinforced the important lesson that the goal of learning a second language isn’t perfection; it’s being able to communicate effectively in real-world situations.
In Tobati our students learn other lessons as well. They encounter abject poverty and witness the realities of inadequate food, water, housing, education and medical resources. This, of course, instills a deeper appreciation for all the economic advantages they enjoy in the United States.
But they also come to understand and appreciate a way of life that is, in some respects, superior to our own. The American dream of meritocracy, which promises that hard work and talent will bring great success, is almost completely absent in Paraguay, a place where most people are born poor and are likely to remain so for their entire lives.
But oddly enough, most Paraguayans are happy. They don’t view poverty as the result of failure or a lack of work ethic or talent. In fact, their challenging conditions contribute to collective community efforts and to tight connections among families, friends and neighbors.
Life is lived at a much slower pace than in the U.S. People always greet one another with a kiss, a handshake or a hug. Meals, however simple, are leisurely and joyful.
In Tobati, American students, who often struggle with stress and pressure in their lives, meet joyful, outgoing and friendly people who face all types of significant challenges every day but are completely at peace with themselves.
One of my fondest moments during every trip to Tobati comes on our last evening there when our students collaborate with Paraguayan children in small groups to choreograph, rehearse and perform inventive and elaborate dance routines for the entire community. Americans and Paraguayans put away their inhibitions and give themselves fully to the music and spirit of the moment.
After this joyful, refreshing and inspiring event, our students bid their final farewells to the children. It’s no wonder that everyone is crying.