How I Learned English by Tom Miller, Reviewed by Mark D. Walker

I purchased this book as a Christmas present for my Guatemalan wife because, she like millions of other Latinos, has struggled to master the quirks and challenges of English. Ligia took English in school in Guatemala. But I’ve always insisted we speak Spanish in order to maintain my fluency and she patiently corrected my grammar, which she continues to do.  After our first year of marriage, I took her to my hometown of Evergreen, Colorado in the dead (cold) of winter, where she tried to communicate with my mother by writing notes. But my mother insisted that we get a job so Ligia could talk to her—in English, of course. I obtained a job managing low-income housing in the Denver area and Ligia had to answer the phone and show apartments, which greatly accelerated her ability to speak English.

Since then, our children and l have corrected her English, although she’s far more demanding of my Spanish, especially when I mix the masculine and feminine articles. Thanks to the Rotary Youth Exchange program, our children learned a third language, and this ability to speak various languages has informed our worldview and enriched our lives, immensely facilitating our love of global travel.

I also chose this book because the author, Tom Miller, is one of my favorite travel writers. He lives close by and has served as adjunct research associate at the University of Arizona’s Latin American Area Center since 1990. I met him through a common appreciation of ex-pat author Moritz Thomsen, who wrote the iconic Peace Corps experience book, “Living Poor.” Tom was recruiting an author to write Thomsen’s biography after he set up an impressive treasure trove of materials about Thomsen in the Special Collection at the University of Arizona. I tapped into those resources for my next book “The Moritz Thomsen Reader: His Books, His Letters and His Legacy Told By The Writers Who Knew Him Best”.

 “The Panama Hat Trail” is the book of his I resonate with the most, as it takes place in Ecuador where he met and developed a friendship with Thomsen. But the project that impressed me the most was the “GeoTourism MapGuide” published by National Geographic, “Sonoran Heritage: The Human Story.” He produced the text, which, together with graphics, stories and maps reflects the cultural and historical mix of the Sonoran Desert that crosses so many geographic, cultural and historic boundaries.

One of the first things I asked the author was how he was able to convince over 50 accomplished Latinos to share stories about language and life, including some of the greatest baseball stars such as Orlando Cepeda and Juan Marichal, and TV personality Cristina Saraglegui. He shared his secret with, “Yes, the National Geographic identity made all the difference in the world. I got my editor there to write a to-whom-it-may-concern letter, which I used as a battering ram.”

 

The 55 stories are as diverse and compelling as the authors who wrote them. Gabriel Truillo Muñoz, a professor at a university in Mexicali on the border of Baja, California shares the cultural diversity that enriched his life, “It was the whole world in one neighborhood. I could hear polkas and mariachis, Japanese and Peking opera all at the same time. It was a triumphant Babel, defying divine punishment by proving that diversity is better than uniformity.”

 

Peruvian Alejandro Necochea’s essay, “Nothing Seemed Unreachable after Traveling through Europe in a Used Red Lada,” reflects the power of being multi-lingual, “…We communicated in English, Spanish, and my mom’s French, or a combination of the three, and somehow managed to make ourselves understood. We saw remarkable places and met fascinating people. I quickly forgot about the tough times in Heworth Grange. Instead, I saw a world of opportunities ahead. Nothing seemed unreachable.” An internal medicine resident at the University of Pennsylvania, Necochea also organized a program to increase minority participation of health professionals at Yale University School of Medicine.

 

The first story I read was by Francisco Goldman, who is Guatemalan. He was born in Boston with a Guatemalan, Catholic mother, a Jewish American father and a Jewish Russian aunt. At four, he spoke fluent Spanish since he returned to Boston with his mother and her aunt from a long stay in Guatemala. “As long as I’ve been conscious of such things, I’ve had the sense of a double or divided life. Guatemala City and Massachusetts. Catholic and Jewish. Guatemalan and American. Contrasting memories of a populous, pungent patio of my grandparents’ house in Guatemala City—chickens, parrots, my pet rabbit, the Indian girls who took care of and fussed over me—and of sitting for hours at the living room window in the Boston suburbs staring out at snow and remote-looking houses that were like mirror images of ours.

 

Eventually he lost his Spanish, which is why his essay is entitled, “Ghost Boy.”  Later in life, a Latin American author friend whose books’ translation into English was botched remarked, “A country that speaks to the world only in its own language and describes reality to itself only in its own language will be able to convince itself of anything… (a timely observation given the growth of conspiracy theories and misinformation in this country). Eventually, Goldman would return to Guatemala with some friends and would regain his fluency in his 20’s and begin covering the wars in Central America as a freelance journalist and, eventually, an author.

 

He describes bringing these two worlds together as, “…To borrow a certain literary metaphor, it was like constructing my own garden of forking paths that I can follow back into the past, to a place where that lost boy and I were never separated, and forward into a familiar landscape where two separate countries comprise one.” His book “The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop, is one of the most revealing tales of military violence in Guatemala. This book was recently made into an HBO production.

 

NewsHour PBS correspondent Ray Suarez’s commentary in the “Foreword” of the book provides insights into some of the other fifty plus stories contained within. “The need to learn English was accompanied by wrenching personal circumstances: exile, illness, economic migration, family dissolution,” but it was also “a proffered ticket to…the modern and changing world.” In a piece from 1982’s Hunger of Memory, for example, Richard Rodriguez recalls distinctions he made as a child between a private and a public language. Spanish that had always been his to use, but English, what he needed for school, felt more difficult to embrace. In a selection from her 2001 memoir, American Chica, Washington Post books editor Marie Arana tells how she feigned ignorance of English on her first day at a new elementary school so she’d be funneled into the Spanish-speaking class. Other contributors such as Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Walter Mercado, Enrique Fernández and Daisy Zamora provide nuanced perspectives on the ongoing immigration debate, putting faces to the statistics and concrete meaning to broad points of policy and ideology.

 

About the Author

Tom Miller has been bringing us extraordinary stories of ordinary people for more than thirty years. His acclaimed travel books include The Panama Hat Trail, On the Border, and Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro’s Cuba. Another of his titles, Jack Ruby’s Kitchen Sink, won the Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book of 2000. He has also edited two collections, Travelers’ Tales Cuba, and Writing on the Edge: A Borderlands Reader. His articles have appeared in the Smithsonian, The New Yorker, The New York Times, LIFE, Natural History, and many other periodicals.

Product details

4.7 out of 5 stars    11 ratings

 

Book Reviewer

 

Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, was recognized by the Arizona Literary Association for Non-Fiction. More than 25 of his articles were published in literary magazines, including one that received Honorable Mention from the Solas Literary Award for the Best Travel Writing, 2020, while another was an essay winner for the “Arizona Authors Association” 2020 Annual Literary Awards competition. He’s a contributing author to “Revue Magazine” and has a column in the “Arizona Authors’ Association Newsletter,” which includes some of his 60 book reviews. Walker is also producing a documentary on immigration in Guatemala. His next book is tentatively entitled, The Moritz Thomsen Reader: His Books, His Letters and His Legacy Told by the Writers Who Knew Him Best. He founded Million Mile Walker LLC in 2016. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. He can be found at www.MillionMileWalker.com

 

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