A childhood bus ride triggers a lifelong love of Spanish
By Brian Mooney, Ed.D. (B.A. 1972)
My journey to the University's Department of Spanish and Portuguese began on a bus to St. Paul's West Side in 1955. As an inquisitive fifth grader with an interest in Latin America that had been piqued by a social studies lesson on Peru the previous year, I was taking a ride that would not only eventually carry me to Folwell Hall but would set me on my life's course. I had read in the Pioneer Press that there was going to be a "fiesta" at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and I wanted to see what it was all about. My large family lived on the far east side of the city, a long way from the river flats where the Mexican community resided. To get there, I had to take a lengthy ride to downtown and then transfer to another bus that took me across the river to the church. I traveled alone and with great anticipation.
A magnificent adventure awaited me there: smiling faces, swirling dancers, the melodious sounds of spoken Spanish, tantalizing aromas of tamales and fresh tortillas, and kindhearted grandmothers, who noted that I had no money and insisted on serving me plates of delicious treats. I spent that afternoon thrilled by the experience and knew that I had discovered a treasure. I could hardly wait to get home to tell about it. Then, when it came time to leave, one of the grandmothers said to me "Please come and visit us again."
And I did. On many occasions thereafter, usually with several of my younger siblings in tow, I returned to celebrate with my friends in the Mexican-American community. Moreover, I came to realize that no group could have been more thoughtful or welcoming to me nor could there have been a better introduction to a culture.
My college years, during the late 1960s and early '70s, were a turbulent time. I had been a soldier in the Vietnam War and, upon coming to the University, had thrown myself into the peace movement, trying to expiate the guilt that I felt about having participated in that great tragedy. The department served as a quiet place amid the whirlwind and I found a kind of solace there. The teachers were uniformly kind, engaging, and well-prepared and it is with much fondness and gratitude that I remember them. In Folwell Hall, my Spanish language skills improved markedly and I developed a deep and abiding interest in Latin American poetry.
During the years since I graduated with a degree in Spanish, the marvelous language has played a central role in my life. I have studied in Spain and Panama and traveled widely in Latin America. For nearly 20 years I taught Spanish at the high school level, sometimes conducting literacy classes for native speakers. The language has helped me cross political and cultural boundaries as it did during a tour of Cuba. It has enabled me to speak to my neighbors, to joke with a lover, and to form lasting friendships. In my current work in which I help military veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make the transition from military to civilian life, Spanish is an invaluable tool. I use it to open doors and open hearts.
During the enjoyable departmental reunion event that took place in April, several students made superb presentations about projects in which they had been involved in Latin America. They reminded me that, as we grapple with the difficult challenges in our contemporary world where anti-immigrant sentiment and international mistrust are so widespread, there are many boys and girls who are curious enough about the world to take that first step toward understanding others, to climb aboard the bus of curiosity and exploration. When they do, it can be the beginning of the journey of a life time.