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Finding new purpose

Anna Gallant Carter

February 6, 2011

It is safe to say that I was not alone in that that had nothing to show for four years of foreign language in high school and college. Nor was I unique, many years late, in claiming a true desire of being bilingual. So it was, 18 years after graduating from college, that I was complaining to my bilingual friend that my children had no interest in their Spanish classes despite my lectures on how I regretted my opportunity to become bilingual, and how they could do better.  While repeating my foreign language sermonette to my friend, I felt proud of my insistence that they apply themselves.  Until she interrupted me, bursting my bubble with, "I hear you TALKING about how important it is. But what are you DOING about it? What would have them believe it is important to you?"  This was followed by an immediate and complete deflation of my bubble.  Out came the community college continuing education catalogue.

At that point I was not sure if I was embarking on this adventure to be an example to my children (my motives surely were not so pure), or because I had an itch to explore Spanish.  It happened to be that at that time I was also feeling the urge to expand my world beyond what I had come to know so well.  My first step had been to start language classes; my second was to get in touch with Habitat for Humanity International, where I had been a volunteer locally and internationally for many years. After an exciting and successful trip to Mexico with my two brothers, where my 50 Spanish words gave me the frightening title of interpreter, I decided to join Habitat Charlotte on one of their "brigades" to our sister affiliate, Habitat El Salvador. I was hooked!

On one of those brigades, a quiet and humble Salvadoran woman asked me, in Spanish, "Why are you here? You know I don't have any money." I found myself able to answer though it was a challenge not only for my limited Spanish, but of finding the right words in my native language. I answered well enough, but I had so much more to say than my vocabulary would allow. And she had more questions than I had comprehension.  It was then that I knew it was time to take my commitment to a new level.  I came home and applied to Queens University of Charlotte, hoping that I could handle the pressures and time commitment of being a college student once again. What I found at Queens was that the payoff of every new word I could speak, every new friend I could understand, gave me the energy and desire needed to get through the hard work. It was challenging, but Queens provided me with the support, knowledge, and encouragement that I needed in order to reach my goal of being able to communicate in a foreign language, of being able to make new friends both here in Charlotte and in other parts of the world, and of being able to redefine my personal definition of community.

In my last semester at Queens I was challenged to produce a book using the photographs I had taken on my numerous trips to El Salvador. The final product,"Under the Same Roof of Stars/Bajo el mismo techo de estrellas" was later selected by Levine Museum of the New South as one of their exhibitions because it portrayed how time spent in El Salvador changes people's lives and perspectives, and how cultural diversity is transforming our community.  Working side by side with the extraordinary people of El Salvador has been a life changing experience not just for me, but for many of our citizens. In this book, which includes photographs, interviews and their translations, I explore the complex issues of culture, identity, stereotype, diversity and language. Each time that I read the quotes or look over the photographs, I am reminded of the important things that North Americans and Salvadorans have in common, such as an appreciation of friendship, of family, hope, emotion, and the desire to work and to contribute to our communities. It was Queens that inspired me to complete this project, one that had been on my mind quite some time.

I am now a graduate student in Spanish and Translation Studies at UNC-Charlotte. I've not just expanded my experiences to Latin America, but also here in Charlotte. I have many made new friends, I continue to volunteer regularly and am now able to interpret at a free medical clinic where the patients, staff and medical volunteers have become so important to me, but perhaps most importantly, I no longer need to tell my children how important and rewarding it is to stretch, to take risks, to be bilingual, to contribute and to explore.

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