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Four words

When I first stepped onto the tarmac of Caracas' Maiquetía airport in July, 1963, shortly after my 22d birthday, I knew just four words of Spanish: caballo, pistola, sombrero and mujer. Which may have given me a 2- or 3-word advantage over most of my companions, all of us volunteers recruited in the U.S. by ACCION en Venezuela to save the world, or a small part of it.

ACCION's idea was that, after a quick language course and a bit of training, we would take our  American "can-do" spirit into the barrios — the Venezuelan term for poor urban communities — to organize self-help community development projects. This was supposed to improve people's lives, make them feel better about Americans, and take their minds off revolution — an imminent possibility in that time and place.

Thus, in a language that up to then I'd heard only in snippets in cowboy movies, I was going to have to persuade people I didn't know to do things they were not much inclined to do. The first task was to acquire enough vocabulary and grammar to communicate my intentions. I had studied French and Latin in high school, and caught on to the basic patterns pretty quickly. But that was only the beginning. The real problem would be to penetrate a wall. It was a wall constructed of suspicions of outsiders, of small rituals designed to distinguish between "us" and "them," and of a dense web of commitments and social obligations I knew nothing of. "Open Sesame"  was not going to be sufficient — like Ali Baba, I would have to learn not just the magic words, but also the right way to say them.

So I did something I'd learned from my actress mother and had practiced in preparing for stage roles in high school and college. I would pick out some man from the barrio and imitate his tone, phrases and gestures as closely as I could. It was not always the same man, and it didn't matter whether I liked him or not, I was just acting.

And it worked. Within a very short time, people who didn't already know me as that American kid would take me for a Venezuelan. They would even identify me as coming from a particular barrio, mostly by my speech pattern. At first, I would miss the meaning of about half of what people were saying, but I knew the little mutterings and phrases — "Sí, cómo no", "Ajá", "Bue-e-eno" — that would keep the chattering going, and I'd laugh at jokes I didn't understand, and generally get away with it.

Eventually I came to feel so comfortable playing this persona that it no longer felt like acting. I had walked through the wall and discovered a Venezuelan me. And I was able to help motivate people for some important community development projects, though I was not at all interested in forestalling revolution — which, the better I got to know conditions in Venezuela at the time, seemed to me like a pretty good idea, although I was not in a position to foment it.

That was a long time ago, and I have since learned bits of several other languages, using that same technique of imitation of voice and gesture. But I've stayed mostly with Spanish, developing that other persona in many lands and situations. When my Spanish me began to write and publish fiction in Spanish, I decided he needed a name, and so Baltasar Lotroyo ("el otro yo" is Spanish for "alter ego") is now a published author and even has his own web page and blog, Lecturas y lectores

And those first four words now have taken on a fuller meaning for us, for Baltasar and me, beyond the cowboy movies where we first heard them: caballo means for us mobility and autonomy, like that of a rider, so that we are at ease in one culture or another; pistola, the capacity and sometimes necessity for decisive action; sombrero, a sign of the identity that one can put on or take off, the gesture that accompanies another language or another accent in another place; and finally mujer, the most important of all those words, which for me has always represented the most essential of human relationships, the one that makes all the others worthwhile. Whether in a Venezuelan barrio or here in Spain, where I (y mi mujer) now live.