As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten, I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.
I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.
In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.
In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary, and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.
When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.
So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide. I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.
The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!
But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.
I have had the same license plate number for most of my driving years. Since sometime in the 1970s. The DR actually represents the initials of David Rodriguez. And as luck would have it, it’s also the abbreviation for “doctor.” One of the main reasons I felt pressured to get my Ph.D. was the fact that every time I looked at my license plates, I saw “Doctor” at the beginning of my plate number. So how did I get this license plate number? Well, my mother was so proud of her license plate, CR 2509, that she wanted me to follow suit. So, she told me how the Illinois Secretary of State allowed vehicle owners to request license plate numbers–two letters, followed by four numbers–and would be assigned to their vehicle if they were available. My mother was Carmen Rodriguez and she lived at 2509 W. Marquette Road, so she requested CR 2509 and she got it because it was available. My mother thought it would be great if I could get DR 2509. She was really excited about the prospect of us having similar license plates. She wasn’t this excited about license plates since we both bought our plates, at her suggestion once again, from Talman Federal Bank. Both of our plates began the letters TF. Unfortunately, I didn’t get DR 2509, much to my mother’s disappointment. But I did get DR 2047. My initials and the year of my death. Okay, the year of my death is just wishful thinking on my part. If I live that long, I’ll be 91. Now that I think of it, perhaps I’ll want a little more time.
In general, not many people have ever noticed that DR represented my initials. Not that I ever pointed it out to anyone either. I did like the fact that my initials made 33% easier to remember my license plate number whenever someone asked for it. However, one day, I had to stop at a red light. I was about three cars back from the light in the left lane on north Ashland Avenue when I hear a car honking its horn. I look in front and to the right and then I finally look in my rearview mirror. But I didn’t see which car was honking. Finally, I look to my left, from whence the honking originates, and see a German import car in the left-turn. Only there are no other cars in front of this car and it’s not pulling up to the stoplight. A man is driving and the female passenger is motioning for me to lower my window. I reluctantly obey. “Your plates are so cool!” She yells even though she’s less than two feet away from me. Her male companion rolls his eyes behind her and she’s oblivious to his disinterest in our conversation. She gives me to thumbs up and as I begin to explain how I got my plate number, they pull away because they have a left arrow. Suddenly, I’m wondering why she thought my plates were cool. Why couldn’t she stay long enough to explain? For weeks I’m mulling over the significance of my plate number to her–and more than likely, no remote interest in my plate by her male companion, which is why he pulled away before she could explain her logic to me. I told a few of my friends about the incident and they all thought it was weird. All I could come up with was that she perhaps thought DR was for “doctor” and 2047 was pronounced, “twenty-four seven” or 24/7. That was the only thing that came to mind and my friends agreed. But to this day, I’m still in suspense!
One of the most memorable Spanish classes I ever took was a Medieval seminar on Spanish literature at UIC. There were only four students in the seminar. The professor, Reinaldo Ayerbe-Chaux, taught the course with great enthusiasm. So much so that I wanted to write my doctoral dissertation on some Medieval text. One of our writing assignments involved transcribing a Medieval text written on parchment into Spanish. I don’t know why, but I was truly fascinated by this project. The language of the parchment was archaic but comprehensible. The alphabet was moderately different from the modern Spanish alphabet. Some parts of the text taxed my brain in order for me to decipher the writing and then comprehend what was actually stated. Little did I realize that this was good training for me as a Spanish professor when I would have to decipher student compositions with illegible handwriting before I could intrepet the student’s intended message. But, hey, I love puzzles!
Well, the highlight of our seminar came at the end when we went on our field trip to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Their Spanish department had the largest collection of Medieval Spanish texts in the world. However, most of them were on microfilm. Professor Ayerbe-Chaux said we just had to go to the university and see the collection for ourselves. I offered to drive our class to Madison, Wisconsin, in my minivan, which he thought was a good idea. Of course, UIC paid for my gas.
Professor James Compton, who is now retired, also wanted to go with us since he had graduated from there. Maybe I’m just too easily amused, but I had a lot of fun on this trip. I enjoyed looking at all the Medieval texts even if they were only on microfilm. Professor John Nitti gave us copies of two of their publications, which I shall someday read. But the highlight of the trip for me was meeting the faculty. Professor Compton was happy to see his dissertation adviser Lloyd Kaston once again. He was now professor emeritus, but he still had an office in the Spanish department and he still was actively transcribing Medieval texts. When we went to his office, he just happened to be napping. He was ninety-something years old, so he was entitled to nap whenever he wanted! Well, I got to see four generations of faculty in the same room!
I will always remember this seminar because Professor Ayerbe-Chaux gave the entire class, all of us, copies of a book by Don Juan Manuel that he had published. He had read the original texts by Don Juan Manuel and then transcribed them. He was even gracious enough to autograph the book for me!
Mexicanas are very unique women in this world. However, I don’t want to lump them all into one group as there are different kinds of Mexicanas. Sure they all have the common denominator of Mexico somewhere in their background and that’s enough to differentiate them from women of other ethnicities. So in an effort to educate you, gentle reader, I will over-analyze Mexicanas for you. Yes, there are different kinds of Mexicanas that I like to divide into three groups: 1. Mexicanas, 2. Mexicanas, and 3. Mexicanas. As you can see, UIC didn’t give me my Ph.D. for nuthin’! I learned to categorize just about everything while studying for my graduate degrees. Anyway, if you examine my groups of Mexicanas, you will clearly see that there are three different kinds of Mexicanas: 1, 2, and 3. Is that clear?
First of all, there are Mexicanas like my abuelita, born and raised in Mexico, destined never to live anywhere else. And they don’t want to leave Mexico either. Their names are usually María or Guadalupe. Or, even Guadalupe María or María Guadalupe. No exceptions. My abuelita María Guadalupe Valdivía came to Chicago only because my mother insisted. Abuelita didn’t like Chicago at all because it wasn’t Mexico. She hated the winters here and she hated the fact that she would have to learn English. She stayed just long enough to have her eye surgery and then she returned to Mexico. And she never came back. And she never missed Chicago at all. My mother would visit abuelita at least once a year in Mexico. And even though she was blind, abuelita lived by herself in Mexico. She was a very strong Mexicana.
Second, there are Mexicanas like my strong-willed mother who were also born and raised in Mexico, but not firmly rooted there. They come to America for a while, then go back to Mexico. But return to America even though they always complained about America in Mexico. They just keep going back and forth never entirely happy in either place. In general, nothing seems to please them. My mother always complained about everything, to everyone in America and Mexico. When her Mexicana friends would visit, they would all sit around complaining about America. And then, to change the subject just a little, they would complain about Mexico. Nothing ever seemed to please these Mexicanas as they sat around complaining and breast-feeding their babies.
Third, there are Mexicanas like my sister or ex-wives, born in America, but unmistakably Mexicana by their accent. I once had a Mexicana girlfriend who had the Mexicana accent, but couldn’t speak a word of Spanish! She used to get so mad when people automatically spoke Spanish to her and she would have to admit that she only knew English, albeit the Mexicana kind of English. These Mexicanas love everything about Mexico, the music, the food, the culture, but they wouldn’t want to live there. It’s okay to visit once in while to catch up with family events, but that’s about it. America is their home, even if they are Mexicanas, and they never hesitate to let the gringos know it.
I’ve known Mexicanas all my life, beginning with my mother, then my abuelita, and finally, my significant others. The more I get to know them, the less I seem to understand them. I do know they are sexual beings from observing them and from my very own personal hands-on experience. I don’t know much about my abuelita’s sex life, but let me say this. She never married my abuelito and they rarely lived together. Yet they managed to have six children together. My parents were always fighting and I never ever heard them having a normal, civilized conversation. My father was always affectionate with my mother, but she would repel all his amorous overtures, at least that I could see. Occasionally, when my father didn’t work the midnight shift, I could hear him trying to seduce my mother in their bedroom, right next to mine. My father always saying something affectionate and my mother always telling him to leave her alone. Apparently he didn’t give up and she didn’t resist enough because they had six children together. My youngest brother was born soon after my parents separated.
The Mexicanas that came into my life were certainly very affectionate, if you know what I mean. That’s the thing about Mexicanas: They immediately know if they like you or not, if they will love you or not. I met my first wife Linda when my friend invited me to go with him to a wedding in Merrill, Michigan. We barely spoke and I didn’t see her again for another month–and we spoke even less then. Next thing I knew she moved to Chicago just to be with me–not that I minded, of course.
My second wife Anna chased after me, too. She kept hinting for me to ask her out. I really wasn’t interested in her, but she was persistent. She gave me her phone number and I threw it away. Her friend gave me Anna’s phone number and I threw it away again. She was so persistent that I finally gave in. If a Mexicana is that interested in me, I know we will be happy together. If Mexicanas don’t love you, or at least like you, you better back off because you don’t have a chance and you’re just wasting your time.
From what I’ve seen, the odds are against you if you think you can win a Mexicana over. However, once she yours, you better show her that you need her and she’ll be yours for as long as she wants you. But that may or may not be till death do you part. One of the fringe benefits of having a Mexicana is having an active sex life. I mean there’s no begging at all. In fact, I was dragged into the bedroom many times, although I must admit that I didn’t put up much of a fight. And the fun doesn’t stop just because it’s that time of month, either. In fact, a Mexicana wants you even more right then. This happened to me many times. And just because you have all these heated arguments during the day, doesn’t mean that you’ll be ignored at night. In fact, that’s usually some of the best lovemaking. And the next morning? She continues being mad at you from the day before. That is, until night falls again.
Well, that’s about all I’m willing to say for my over-analysis of Mexicanas for now. But someday, I’ll truly delve into Mexicanas to try to understand them! Maybe, I’ll discover that there are many more than just three groups of Mexicanas.
Olivia Maciel is a poet who was born in Mexico City, but has lived in Chicago a long time. She has written several collections of poetry over the years. She writes poetry in Spanish, but her books include an English translation on the facing page. I recently read two of her collections: Sombra en plata [Shadow in Silver], Chicago, Swan Isle Press, 2005, and Luna de cal [Limestone Moon], Chicago, Black Swan Press, 2000. All her books are available for purchase on Amazon.com.
I first met Olivia in one of my graduate classes at UIC. We took several classes together while earning our masters degrees. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. When Octavio Paz died, she wrote an article about her reactions to his death that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. We occasionally bump into each other at UIC because we are both Spanish lecturers there. I really enjoy talking to her because she’s so creative. Sometimes, she begins writing poems as we speak. She says that I inspire her when we talk. I asked her if she would hire me as her muse.
I was curious as to who is actually reading my Blog. So I did some snooping around, I mean some investigating. For some unknown reason, I keep getting hits from Russia. I can’t quite figure it out. My most viewed Blog entry is the one about Enrico Mordini, my Spanish teacher at Divine Heart Seminary. I guess I should go back and actually finish writing it and edit it since so many people are reading it. Now I feel embarrassed that I didn’t fix it up sooner. Another thing that really surprised me was the fact that people in Spanish-speaking countries are also finding my blog. I was wondering how they would read it since I mostly write in English. I went to the referring page and found that an automated translator could actually translate my blog into Spanish with a link on the search engine page. Wow! I mean, ¡Ay, ay, ay! The webpage is automatically translated into Spanish, but very poorly-written Spanish at that. Upon reading the translation, I realized that people in Spanish-speaking countries will think that I don’t know Spanish!
Let me give you a sample of some of these translations. Well, it actually starts out quite well. The title at the top of my blog is David Diego Rodriguez, Ph.D. without an accent mark on the “i” of Rodriguez because otherwise all these strange characters appear and distort my last name thanks to the mysteries of computers and the Internet. However, the translator actually put the accent mark where it belongs! The rest of the translations are rather sad. For example, under my name I write, “¡Hola! ¡Yo hablo español e inglés!” For some strange reason that phrase is translated as, “¡Yo hablo español electrónico español!”, which somehow fails to convey my original message. I suppose if someone really wants to read my blog, they will gladly plod their way through this computer-generated translation.
When my Spanish students write compositions, I ask them to do the best they can. I ask them to write the composition in Spanish right from the start. I know that the student will make plenty of mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. Sometimes the original text is upstaged by all my corrections in red ink. That’s fine by me as long as they make a valiant effort to write in Spanish. However, I do not want a student to write the composition in English and then translate it into Spanish. That’s double the work! And of course, I can always tell when they write it in English and then use an internet or computer translator. Well, the output hardly resembles Spanish. In fact, in many cases, I cannot even decode what the student wanted to say in the first place. All the words are in Spanish, but the composition is incomprehensible! I always ask the student to rewrite such a composition, “but in Spanish this time.” About the only word that doesn’t lose anything in translation is the English word “no” that also happens to translate to “no” in Spanish. Even an automated translator gets this translation right!
I’ve learned that with my Ph.D. and five bucks I can buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I’ve also learned research skills that allow me to circumnavigate the Google-verse. I can find anything and everything on the Internet—everything except a job.
I’ve been searching unsuccessfully for a tenure-track position in Spanish for twelve years now. However, I’m not bitter at all. Actually, I’m sure I’m on the verge of finding a job very soon. In 1995, I was actually awarded a tenure-track position at a community college near my home. This was the ideal job for me. As a community college student myself, I would have been the perfect role model for most community college students. I was supposed to teach some combination of English and Spanish courses because I had one M.A. in English and one in Spanish. I immediately applied to a doctoral program in Hispanic Studies so I could move up another step on the salary scale. Sadly, when the college board of trustees met, they decided that my position wasn’t necessary and the college couldn’t afford to pay another salary. I had lost my tenure-track position before I even taught my first class! And I have continued my fruitless job search ever since.
Now why did I want a Ph.D. again? Well, since I was in grade school, I wanted to be the most educated person in the world. I remember I once asked my seventh grade teacher, Sister LaVerne, “What’s the highest degree you can get?” And she immediately responded, “Ph.D.” with a sense of awe and reverence. “I’m going to get one of those someday,” I told her. In my heart, it was more like a solemn vow, an eternal quest for knowledge. I would someday be Dr. Rodríguez! However, I never wanted to be a medical doctor. I get squeamish if someone describes medical procedures in too much detail.
There were a few bumps, detours, and stalls on the road to becoming Dr. Rodríguez. My parents groomed me for the life of a manual laborer. As a high school student, I was already a full-time factory worker and couldn’t graduate. Well, it’s hard to get into college if you drop out of high school. Go figure! But I got my GED. I’d hate to think that I wasted six years in high school! Then, I worked in a peanut butter factory for twelve years with a brief three-year stint in the Marines Corps in the middle. I’d say that was a significant detour to becoming Dr. Rodríguez. I must admit that while I was in the Marines, I enrolled in an English composition class at Fallbrook Community College, but ended up dropping out because the composition professor critiqued my writing. Didn’t she know that I would someday be Dr. Rodríguez?
Dr. Rodríguez was ever-present in my thoughts as I continued reading and writing. I always fondly recalled my conversation with Sister Laverne. I didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was back then. (And now, I’m not sure what to do with it!) There was no escaping those constant reminders of my becoming a doctor. My initials are DR! Every time I bought a house, I kept initialing DR. My license plate, the same one that I’ve had since the 70s, begins with my initials: DR.
When the peanut butter factory closed, I tried my luck as a standup comedian. I was pretty good, but I couldn’t handle the Bohemian lifestyle of the starving artist. I needed a steady, good-paying job. Okay, I admit it. Over the years, I’ve developed an addiction to food.
So I became a police officer because the job paid well and offered good benefits. Being a police officer wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t so many criminals. In 1987, the Chicago Police Department encouraged everyone to go back to college to get a bachelor’s degree order to qualify for future promotional exams. Well, at first I resisted going back to school. But the very first time I had to work midnights, with the realization that I would have work midnights every third month, I made up my mind to finally graduate from college and find another line of work. So I enrolled at Richard J. Daley College and earned my A.A. in two years while working fulltime on the afternoon shift. When I went back to school, I was able to request working the straight afternoons and avoid midnights altogether. I loved the fact that Chicago’s Mayor was Richard M. Daley and I attended the college that was named after his father.
When I transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, I also transferred to a police district closer to home. So I lived and worked in Bridgeport, the home of Mayor Richard M. Daley. As luck would have it, I was the new officer in the district so I would have to work assignments that the seasoned veterans didn’t want. As the new guy, I had to sit in an unmarked car guarding the mayor’s house because most police officers didn’t want to be anchored to one place for the entire shift. I, on the other hand, loved guarding the mayor’s house, sitting there reading the assigned texts for my classes. I was the perfect officer for the post because the mayor didn’t like the officers to watch TV while on duty. I loved to read and I always studied to get good grades. When the mayor would leave his house, I had plenty of time to put away my book before he saw it. For a while there, I really loved being a police officer! I must admit that I loved the job, but I hated working most of my weekends.
Well, I graduated with a double major in English and Spanish. And since I could study most of my shift, I also graduated Phi Beta Kappa. I applied for a few jobs after graduation, but I was unsuccessful. When the mayor was reelected, I just had to take advantage of my situation. I applied to graduate school for both English and Hispanic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, since they offered many classes that would fit my schedule. I applied for two graduate programs because I desperately wanted to go to graduate school. I wasn’t sure which program would accept me and I really didn’t care as long I could become a graduate student. I wanted to guard Mayor Daley’s house with a purpose. The mayor’s security detail loved having me in front of the Mayor’s house because I was always wide awake and actually guarding the mayor.
Well, I did get accepted to graduate school! To both programs! I agonized over which program to choose. I loved English and American literature, but I realized it would be more difficult finding a job with an English degree. I made up my mind to choose the Hispanic Studies program because I loved Spanish literature and I could probably find a job with a Spanish degree since I was bilingual. But, why should I be forced to choose between the two programs? Suddenly, one afternoon, while I was guarding the mayor’s house, it occurred to me, like an epiphany. Since I could read all day while I’m at my police job, I could enter both programs! And so I did.
When I graduated with two MAs in 1995, I was hired by the community college, even though I never actually got the job. But I was still in a doctoral program for Hispanic Studies. Mayor Daley was reelected again and I was finally on the road to Dr. Rodríguez in earnest.
When I earned my Ph.D., one of my police partners bought me a nameplate for my uniform that said, “Dr. D. Rodriguez” as a graduation gift. At first, I was hesitant about wearing it, but then I wore it proudly. The supervisors and top brass who saw the nameplate were impressed. All my police colleagues began calling me “Dr. D.” Whenever someone would ask me a question and I knew the answer. Someone would invariably say, “That’s why he’s the Doctor!” Of course, there were playful jokes, too. One police officer would always tell me about his aches and pains, and then ask me for a prescription for painkillers. “I’m not that kind of doctor,” I’d tell him. “But if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll read you some poetry.” No one ever took me up on the poetry reading.
I’ve been teaching for twelve years now. I really love the interaction with the students, even when we argue over silly matters. I’m the greatest teacher in the world! (But aren’t we all?) Most students seem to enjoy my classes and often ask me what I’m teaching next semester. Sometimes, I say things that make the students laugh, so I write them down. I’m thinking of going back on stage. I’m not joking!
Well, I’ve given up looking for a tenure-track position. So if some university or college wants to offer me a position, I may accept it, but only if I don’t have to go through another interview with a search committee. I’ve learned to accept the fact that I’m a retired police officer after a mere twenty years of service: I came, I saw, I retired. I really enjoy teaching so I’ll continue teaching as a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago. However, I am proud to have earned a Ph.D. I once made a pilgrimage to the UIC Library to visit my doctoral dissertation. As I wrote it, I often wondered if anyone would ever read it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that not only had it been checked out a few times, but someone had also marked some passages! So now, I flaunt my degree whenever possible. I use Dr. or Ph.D. next to my name whenever possible. My PBK newsletter comes addressed to Dr. David Diego Rodríguez. I can’t wait to start getting bulk mail addressed to Dr. Occupant. I started a blog titled, “David Diego Rodriguez, Ph.D.” at davidrodriguez.us. I love being Googled. If I ever accidently bump into someone on the mean streets of Chicago and they say, “Watch it, asshole!” I’m going to say, “Hey, that’s Dr. Asshole to you!”