On one side of the small park four teenage boys practiced synchronized moves to the sounds of The B-52’s 1979 hit “Rock Lobster.” On the other side, a set of eight young people moved through an intricate Mexican folk dance beneath the blooming jacaranda trees accompanied by the melody from a portable tape player. Across the street from the park in a courtyard guarded by towering gates, adult couples practiced another dance, twirling around each other in formal wear, never touching. All this took place at night when the intense heat of the Oaxacan day begins to ebb.

I stood on the second-story terrace of my adjacent hotel. It gave me a vantage point from which to study the activities in Conzatti Park as well as access to the evening breeze that kicked up when the air at this 5,000-foot elevation cooled.

Visiting a foreign country can leave one speechless. Sometimes that may be due to the country’s beauty or architecture, but in my case it is most often because I speak no other language. I cannot communicate in Spanish, a deficiency I certainly regretted during my time in Oaxaca. To be without the ability to speak illuminates what it means to be foreign.

The kitchen for this amiable hotel was located across a grassy patch outside my room. It lay in the building’s basement, a wise choice in such a hot climate. In the early morning the kitchen’s windows were closed but by midday they were propped open with sticks. In the sweltering afternoon I could hear invisible workers chatting with each other, laughing and occasionally arguing. Late at night I spied the solitary dishwasher at the huge sink washing the evening’s many dinner plates, bowls and glasses; the kitchen had no mechanical dishwashing machine. He sang to himself and the song was sad. I had no idea the meaning of the words.

Another evening I walked along a street with wide sidewalks and a fountain of water spilling into a basin. People sat along tables and in chairs that were set up before a portable stage. More people stood about in a large crowd wrapped around the stage. A handsome man in a white suit took the microphone and began to talk to the crowd. His voice went up and down, in the exhortations of a Chamber of Commerce director. He talked and talked and talked and I watched the audience begin to rustle with frustration. Then came the main event: another handsome man took the mike and began to sing. The audience immediately began to sing with him. In fact, the proprietors of the tiny shops lining the street came out into their respective doorways and began to sing as well. Everyone knew the song, except me. 

I may not be the most talkative person in the world but I am not mute. It is a hardship not to speak. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale in the early 1800s called “The Wild Swans.” In it an evil stepmother transforms her eleven stepsons into swans and banishes Elsa, the sole daughter, from the kingdom. Elsa is told that she must knit eleven shirts from stinging nettles for her brothers in order to break the spell. However, she must remain silent for the length of her task. A handsome king happens by and, of course, falls in love with silent Elsa. He proposes marriage and she, without speaking, agrees. However, some in the court bring her to trial as a witch; unable to speak in her own defense, she is sentenced to death. Just as she’s about to be burned at the stake, her brothers swoop down to save her. She casts her eleven shirts over the birds and the brothers return to their human form (all but the youngest, whose shirt wasn’t quite finished and so he retained one swan wing). Then Elsa could speak. 

When I read that tale as a child I wondered what was the first thing she said. Or perhaps she remained silent. To be voiceless can become a habit. Women have long been told to be quiet. Immigrants, those who come to this country from Syria, from Sudan, from Somalia, from the numerous countries of chaos around the world, enter without voices. They don’t know the words to the songs or the stories, to the nuances of everyday life. I found myself frustrated because I couldn’t use my voice to discover those things that were commonly understood by the residents of Oaxaca. That, I suspect, is part of what it means to be foreign.