Oberlin Blogs

A Guest in My Own House

January 30, 2009

Alice Ollstein ’10

I'm currently in the awkward position of doing graduate level work, but living like a high schooler. Well, not really. But instead of my Oberlin routine (roll out of bed, make some coffee and walk to class) I now wake up to the TV, clanging pots or shouting children, talk and eat breakfast with my host family, then bike or bus to the U of A for class. When I go out (which I rarely have time to do with all my difficult reading!) I make sure to tell Lupe where I'm going and when I'll be back. But what I'm losing in independence, I'm more than making up for in other ways. Every day I have deep, challenging conversations with Lupe about everything from the history of Mexico to U.S. dieting culture to racism in Tucson. Not every conversation is serious, either, and we often sit around the dining room table gossiping and laughing. She speaks rapidly and uses slang from her hometown of Hermosillo, forcing me to listen close.

As for the racism in Tucson, I'm becoming more and more aware of its presence. One late night, some of us were taking a taxi back to our houses, and one girl on my program gave the driver her address. She lives in South Tucson, a predominantly Latino neighborhood, and the driver clicked his tongue and said, "We usually never drive there. That's where the Hispanics and crackheads live." "Well, that's where I live," she responded. Lupe, who lives near downtown, said that when she first moved here, people told her to go to South Tucson "where she belonged." A popular saying here is that the "true" border is 22nd St. in Tucson.

Living with the family, there are also many linguistic issues I've had to navigate. Lupe speaks to me only in Spanish but her children, who were born in the U.S., speak to me only in English, but only in Spanish to their mother. Their children, Lupe's grandchildren, refuse to speak Spanish and respond to Lupe in English when she asks them something in Spanish. She's worried that they will never become fluent in Spanish and will lose part of their heritage, and is constantly trying to trick them into speaking Spanish by telling them the pet chihuahua Princess only understands Spanish. What I mostly hear from everyone, though, is what anthropologists call code-switching and what everyone else calls Spanglish. Lupe is always asking me what I'd like in my lonche (lunch) or shouting for her son to turn down the rocanrol (rock and roll).

The social experience is also difficult to get used to. I can't just wander around a tiny campus and find friends and fun things to do. It's great to be in a big city, but it's harder to find the fun. Everything, especially transportation, has to be planned ahead of time. It's gotten easier to get around since I bought a beautiful used bike off of Craigslist, especially since Tucson is both flat AND rated one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country. Hell, I bet I'll figure out this gosh darn city in no time.

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