Fieldwork in Spanish


In the days and weeks before I was supposed to leave to do research in another country I took comfort in the idea that I was going to a place where I knew the language. I’m a native Spanish speaker and I was going to Ecuador. Everything else about the trip was just a rough sketch: leads on people to interview, lists of data I needed to get, but knowledge of the language was solid and I wrapped the comfort of knowing Spanish around me like a blanket.


When I arrived in Quito, my mind racing with thoughts in English about what I had left behind and what I was coming to, I was amazed that people could understand me at all. Though I have command of the language, the idea of using my first language to describe a place I had never been to before made the whole experience surreal. I felt like maybe I wasn’t speaking Spanish, maybe I was doing one of those accented-English things they do in the movies when they want to pretend that the characters are speaking in another language but without actually having to speak another language.


Then, as my time in Ecuador passed I learned new words for the new things that I was seeing, and they were wonderful words. Ecuador is a fairly boring name for a country: it was literally named after the Equator, which runs through it. Quito, also, is a somewhat lackluster name as the sounds are present in many words in Spanish. The capital’s name is perhaps notable only because it is one of the few places in the world that start with the letter “Q.”


That’s where the blandness of names stops and a whole other language starts. Bus terminals have names like Quitumbe and Carcelén named after something I don’t know and for an independence hero’s wife’s family name, respectively. You can go places like Papallacta and Cotopaxi and eat maracuyá and guagas con colada morada. The streets are named after people that are famous there, but are unknown to me. The names of the bus stops repeat every single time, but they are different names than the ones I know by heart in Washington, DC which, though sometimes long and absurd, don’t seem foreign to me.


The first few days in Quito I enjoyed repeating the new words that I learned and trying to match them to things I knew, thinking they sounded new and sometimes a little childish and funny. As the days passed and I felt more at home in Ecuador and less in need of the warm comfort of knowing Spanish, I started to enjoy inserting these words into conversations about anything. I started up conversations about how hard it is to get to Quitumbe, commented on the traffic on Río Coca or discussed the relative merits of Papallacta over Baños with complete strangers. It made me feel like I was a local. It made me feel comfortable enough to not need the warm blanket of Spanish wrapped around me. And it made me feel like it would be alright. If I had figured out what these funny-sounding words meant, I could certainly interview people and get numbers about things.


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