The cool evening air envelops me like a well-starched coat, something I wished I’d thought to bring along. I survey the lines for lemonade and pizza, as well as the slowly-growing crowd. Some people begin to settle near the gargantuan screen. The diversity that surrounds me is breathtaking — every race, every culture, every sex, every background. A whole community came together with a sole purpose: to watch a movie in the park.
I run behind the inflatable screen to check on the popcorn, soon emerging with a plastic trash bag full of popcorn bags. The other volunteers and I methodically pass out the bags, and soon the air is laced in buttery goodness.
At the end of the front row, I approach a blanket where three Latina girls sit. The first two happily accept popcorn, but when I ask the last girl if she would like a bag, one of the first two says, “Sorry, she only speaks Spanish.” She quickly translates what I asked, and the girl politely accepts.
Hesitantly, I say, “Hola. Me llama Lily. Como tu llama?” Her eyes brighten, and she says something quickly back in Spanish. I explain that I know very little of the language, and she simplifies her speech. I soon find that her name is Michelle.
We spend time talking, at first verbally, but as I run out of words we resort to Google Translate. We talk about the basic things — what our favorite colors are, whether we are excited about the movie, where we’re from, and the like. Using Google Translate makes our conversation choppy and awkward, and we sit in relative quiet, writing things on our phones to show the other, just two teenage girls sitting on a blanket in the grass.
The little light left fades quickly, and greasy hands are wiped on the grass in anticipation of the coming movie. I say goodbye to Michelle, walk back to my blanket, and sit down. The opening music blares and the world on the screen envelops us.
After the movie ends, the crowd trickles out of the field like water through a pair of cupped hands; slow, but deliberate. I wander and help break-down where I can. The sky is a navy velvet, with stars like the stubborn flakes you always find after a spill. The air is crisp and breezy, and I make a few quick laps to warm myself up.
I help carry things to the cars — a popcorn machine, the folding tables, the speakers. As I turn from the hatch of one car, I find Michelle and a middle-aged woman standing behind me. In beautiful broken English, the woman, who I find is Michelle’s aunt, tells me how grateful she is for my efforts to connect with Michelle.
“No one has talked to her since she came,” she says. She wrings her hands, tears streaming down her face. I am too stunned to say a thing.
Another volunteer walks by and notices the scene. She happens to be fluent in Spanish, and she and Michelle’s aunt talk rapidly. Michelle and I just smile at each other. Even though I never saw her again, I will always remember her.
I have experienced similar circumstances over the years. First, with a little boy at the park who was extremely disappointed with my limited knowledge of Spanish. Short, hesitant conversations with the lady who cleaned our friend’s house. More recently I have practiced my Spanish with people I know, attempting to get ahead in my Spanish class. None of those situations shook my perception of language like this one. It gave me a love for language and the connections they make. Now, I devour language. I love my Spanish and Latin classes, and writing is my passion.
My experience with Michelle showed me that words are valuable, and the lack of the right words can leave someone alone and voiceless. Whether you have words and can’t use them, or never had them in the first place, being without a voice is incredibly scary. So instead of leaving people who speak different languages than us to fend for themselves, we should reach out. Reach out with words, love, and kindness, give them a voice and an advocate. So many people have no voice, so share yours.