A Lesson From Hugo Chávez
I was with my Spanish teacher on a crowded bus in Quito. I strained to both hear and understand him as we conversed en español.
Every bus ride in Ecuador had a sound track. On the coast, we rumbled along to the beats of Columbian cumbia, to the boleros and valses of Julio Jaramillo or to the sounds of current Latin artists, depending on the driver’s tastes. In the big city, it was the rhythms of voices in a language just becoming familiar to me.
Alberto had broad knowledge of Ecuadorean history and culture as well as a talent for speaking Spanish in ways a beginner could understand. He was offering options for the next day’s lesson when, in mid-sentence, he stopped talking. His eyes went far away and his attention elsewhere.
“Did you hear that?” he asked. He looked at me with wide eyes. “Hugo Chávez is dead. They just said it on the radio.”
The news was on, but I had missed it. To me, it was just another voice in the background that I did not understand.
I watched Alberto’s face closely. Success at language learning depended at least as much on the attention paid to nonverbal cues and context as to vocabulary or grammar. Alberto’s face showed pain and incredulity.
He said again, “Hugo Chávez is dead. I cannot believe it.” He motioned for silence while he listened. Then he repeated what he heard on the radio. There would be an election in thirty days.
As we rode to our stop, Alberto talked about Chávez’ vision for a more united Latin America, and about two organizations Chávez founded to encourage action toward this end; he talked about the free public health clinics Chávez established with oil revenues, and about the oil pricing strategies Chávez put in place to benefit developing nations. Every few minutes, Alberto would interrupt himself and say, “No puedo creer que Hugo Chávez está muerto.”
To certain U.S. interests, Chávez was a long-time persona non grata. U.S. media of all stripes portrayed him in death as they had in life: either as a bombastic buffoon or as ineffectual. In fact, Chávez often played to this role. But over fourteen years, he had formed – then led – a more inclusive government; he had built new international alliances and improved the lives of his citizens. To many informed and engaged people in Latin America, Chávez was a trusted leader with a vision of a different future. Chávez’ death for them was like the death of a Teddy Kennedy or Ronald Reagan in the U.S. Not unexpected, but profound.
I might have missed this but for a choice to learn from someone who was different than me, someone for whom my background music was a main performance.
Thirty days have now passed. Venezuela held its election and Chávez’ successor won by a surprisingly small margin. Tensions are rising; chaos and violence appear to be gaining the upper hand. The outcome is uncertain.
Meanwhile, many people in the U.S. strain to hear and understand what’s even being said in our own country, community, organization or family. We assume that everything else is just another voice on the bus that we do not, and do not need to, understand. Sometimes, though, that stuff in the background can lead to new understanding and new ways of thinking. And we can all use more of that.
Jody Alyn works with organizations that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems effectively and improve results. This is the fourth post in a series. Contact
4 Responses to “Thinking Differently”
Leave a Reply