Finding identity in a foreign language
(I had the pleasure of interviewing and profiling my colleague Jenny Luna, who is also an M.S. candidate at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Jenny was a fantastic person to interview; despite her relatively young age, she has had a tremendous amount of experience, all of which she was very willing to share.)
The influence of the Spanish language in Jenny Luna’s life is evident in the way Spanish words and phrases pop unconsciously into her everyday conversations. This is a woman in love with Español. Eyes lighting up, Luna breaks into a smile whenever she talks about the numerous opportunities Spanish has opened up for her. It is, she says, “the thread that sewed my tapestry.” Luna mastered the language through stints abroad in Chile, where she studied Spanish Literature, and Spain, where she taught English.
Dressed in casual shorts and a T-shirt, Luna is soft-spoken and has a calming presence. Having just completed her first month at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, the 27-year-old is still adjusting to life in New York. In a city with a growing Hispanic population, Luna hopes her mastery of Spanish will help her to reach out to them and tell their stories.
Luna hails from Reno, a city in the northwestern part of Nevada famous for its casinos. Her first contact with the language came in 1999, when Luna was in seventh grade and her mother, Michelle Kling, encouraged Luna to sign up for Spanish at school; she figured it would be useful in a country with a growing Hispanic population. “It was for the job market,” says Luna about her mother’s reasoning.
Prior to sitting for her Advanced Placement (AP) exam in Spanish in 2004, Luna convinced her mother to take her on a trip to Mexico as an excuse to practice. It was her first trip abroad. “I didn’t even have a passport back then,” Luna says. She used her birth certificate to cross the border. Recalling the first full conversation she held in Spanish there, Luna laughs. It was with a boy at the beach and all she remembers is that it included the word “tongue” – “lengua.” After coming back, she scored a 4 out of a possible 5 on her AP exam.
Luna stayed on in Reno and enrolled at the University of Nevada, majoring in Advertising and Spanish Literature. Despite being a straight-A student, Luna’s undergraduate journey hit a speed breaker very early on. “I partied a lot in college,” says Luna. The net result was multiple Cs in Math during her freshman year, which resulted in her losing a part of her scholarship. To make matters worse, she was kicked out of college housing after she was found smoking in the boys’ dormitory.
Luna credits Spanish as the grounding force that enabled her to get back on track. At 19, Luna went to Chile in a study abroad program. While most students chose Spain, Luna preferred “not doing what is trendy.”
Luna smiles widely and her voice rises with excitement as she remembers the moment the plane landed at the airport in Santiago on the bright Tuesday morning of Jan. 9, 2007. She almost cried in joy as the enormity of her decision to study abroad hit her. “The Andes were purple-tinted from the sunrise and although I hadn’t slept on the red eye, I felt so vibrant and full of life,” she says.
She attended classes at the Andres Bello University where she studied Spanish Literature, partied with friends on weekends, and learned to become fluent in Spanish by night. “I lived with a really good host family,” says Luna, recalling how well they looked after her, cooked for her, and ensured she settled in well. Speaking about her host “mother,” Fresia Basualdo, Luna says, “She would sit down with me at night and really speak Spanish with me.”
Her host family comprised Basualdo’s husband Alex, son Sebastian, 24, and daughter Javiera, 21. Luna spent Easter with them at their beach house by the picturesque ocean side in Viña del Mar. She recalls the acceptance and kindness shown to her. “We went out to a nice restaurant for dinner on Easter Sunday and I tried to pay for it to show my gratitude and they got really mad.”
Apart from mastering a new language, one of her biggest accomplishments in Chile, says Luna, came when she and a group of young women went backpacking in Patagonia, braving the heat, the wilderness, and the vastness of the Andes in search of an adventure.
When asked why she chose Chile, as opposed to Spain or other Spanish-speaking countries, Luna recalls a Chilean friend from her childhood who used to talk about the country and its culture. She smiles and shares another factor: “To be honest, I was also very intrigued by the shape of the country. It is 25 times longer than it is wide!”
Her adventures with Spanish did not stop with Chile. In September of 2010, Luna ended up in the south of Spain as an English teacher. Fresh out of college, she was bitten by a desire to become her own person. Luna recalls that her move to Spain was “unplanned” and abrupt. She settled in a small village in Baza, Granada with an Irish woman as a roommate. “We were very much like the odd couple,” says Luna about Rebecca Fitzell, who also taught English. “She was OCD and drove me crazy. But she was like my sister and she took care of me,” as Luna was, for the first time, separating from her parents both physically and emotionally.
As she wrestled with the emotion of missing her parents, Luna found teaching a form of distraction. First she taught in a small, rural school in Baza called El Fuerte before moving on to a bigger, better school, La Madraza, in the city of Granada. “It was a nice change,” says Luna with a dreamy smile, thinking back about the narrow, cobbled streets, “tea bazaars” and “hanging ham legs” of Granada where the Jews, Moors, and Christians have lived in peace and harmony for more than 300 years.
Moving to a country where few outside the big cities of Madrid and Barcelona spoke English, Luna found herself putting the Spanish skills she picked up during her time in Chile to good use. Though fluent in the language by then, Luna had a few personal struggles in her conversations with native speakers. “My biggest issue speaking with them was when they would try to help me,” says Luna, recalling her conversations with Granada natives. “They would speak in the “you” form and I wanted them to repeat in the “yo” or “I” form. I wanted to be able to parrot them.”
Now in New York, exactly 46 months after landing in Granada, Luna uses Spanish when going out to report. She reports mostly out of the Bronx where, over the years, there has been a growing Hispanic community. But Luna is hesitant to make a journalism career in Spanish. “I don’t feel my Spanish is strong enough to pursue it in writing,” she says with a humble smile. Luna has also never taken a Diplomas of Spanish as a Foreign Language exam, the official accreditation of the degree of fluency issued by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Spain. “I have no plans as of now,” she says.
For now, Luna remains content with her level of fluency. “Spanish has led me to every big thing I did,” says Luna, reflecting on how the language has helped lead her to discover her own identity. Speaking in Spanish, Luna says, makes her feels like she is a whole new person, not just another “average white girl from the suburbs.”