We have new next-door neighbors. They are Salvadoreans.* Victor is a floor installer who works for a larger floor company but also has his own on the side.
We have a lot in common besides living on the same street: our kids are in their teens and early ‘20s, some of them still live with us, we are both family men but keep busy with our professions, we like having a lot of people over at our home as we’re able. But the barriers are significant as well. He’s a tradesman. I went to seminary. He’s a first-generation American. My ancestors crossed over in the 1850s. My idea of a backyard project is raking up mowed grass. His is using a backhoe to build a new back door to his house. His native tongue is Spanish (I think. Who knows? Maybe an indigenous language?). Mine is English.
I thought I could overcome the language issue because, in fact, I also speak Spanish. So when they first moved in, I invited myself over to their front lawn and introduced myself, whipping out my language skills and inundating them with questions. Victor was willing to chat a little. His girls less so. Much more awkward stares from them than verbal responses. It bothered me that they didn’t want to engage more: if you move into a new neighborhood, wouldn’t you want to get to know your new neighbors? Wouldn’t it just make universal sense? What if you need a neighbor in a pinch?
So Elsie baked a loaf of sourdough bread one week and the girls made some cupcakes another and we took them next-door – an attempt to win them over through their stomachs. Sure enough, the next week we received a box of chocolate-covered strawberries compliments of one of the girls. It was very sweet and I thought we were on our way to a deep friendship.
Yesterday, while he and his buddies were working with the backhoe, I seized the opportunity, grabbed my rake, and headed out in order to ‘casually’ strike up conversation. Victor was busy but one of his buddies smiled at me and I asked how the project was going. It was then I realized why so little connection. When he spoke, I understood nothing. He was speaking Spanish. I was listening for Spanish. But the comprehension was zero. It was then that I realized that I was standing before a truly indigenous speaker one whose dialect was formed in a no-doubt rural remote area of El Salvador with little contact with the outside. After a full five minutes of banter, I was finally able to discern that he and the buddies were actually family members: brothers, cousins, etc. So then I asked a follow-up question to which I thought the answer would be easy to discern: “where do you live?” How difficult would it be to understand terms for neighboring towns like “Germantown,” “Clarksburg,” “Montgomery Village”? I have to admit, I just barely understood his version of “Gaithersburg.” Suddenly, the awkward stares, the reticence, the lack of conversation made sense: they could tell by my body language I wasn’t getting a lot of what they were saying. What do you do when you talk and you don’t feel like you’re being understood? Move on, of course.
As it turns out, even though I speak Spanish, language is still a significant barrier. If their Spanish is difficult to understand, how about mine?
What does it take to get to know your neighbor? What barriers do you encounter in the process? I’m not quite sure how to proceed. Inviting them over for a meal, even after the COVID era is over, could be extremely difficult with two families that can hardly communicate with each other. Possibly one on one, Victor and I could make progress; after all, just because it’s hard to understand them now doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn. Do I invite a native speaker friend over to help bridge the gap? Do we find a common task we can do together?
Wish I knew how to build floors.
There are always barriers that come up as we get to know neighbors. Some big, some small. The question is not: are they surmountable? The question is: to what extent will we go to surmount them?
* The Washington DC area is currently the only metropolitan area in the country where Salvadorans are the majority among Hispanics, and they are most concentrated in the suburbs in Northern Virginia and Maryland.