18 October 2010
Why Tía Lola and I Love Sayings
I know that How Tía Lola Learned to Teach is filled with Tía Lola's favorite sayings. You guessed right if you think that as the author of the book, I, too, love sayings.
I grew up in the Dominican Republic, a poor country, during a long, brutal dictatorship. People were too poor to afford books, but they were also afraid to be known as bookish. You see, the dictator was very suspicious of readers. He knew that when you read a book, your imagination is free to roam, become other people, and experience different cultures and times. When you come back from reading a book, you've had a taste of an incredible new freedom. You might be less likely buckle down under an oppressive ruler.
But even if the culture did not encourage readers, the Dominican people were irrepressible storytellers. And since they couldn't consult books for wise bits of knowledge, they condensed their experience and wisdom into short memorable sayings. So, when Tía Lola, who never went past fourth grade, is asked to teach, her "textbooks" are her sayings. That's why every chapter in How Tía Lola Learned to Teach has as its title a favorite saying of Tía Lola.
Oral cultures are often rural cultures, that's why many sayings involve observations from the natural world: No hay rosa sin espinas: "Every rose has thorns"; or, el ojo del amo engorda el caballo: "The eye of the owner fattens the horse"; or, cada obeja con su pareja: a sheep version of "Birds of a feather flock together."
That's another interesting thing about sayings: how often there are similar ones in different languages and cultures. Here's one Tía Lola uses in How Tía Lola Learned to Teach that exists both in English and in Spanish:
Amigo en la adversidad
A friend in need
There's a saying that applies to this: nothing new under the sun! Or even: great minds think alike!
Whenever I travel, I love learning the sayings of other cultures and countries. I recently visited Haiti, and one of the things I learned is that poor as this nation is, it is rich in sayings. Here are a few I learned:
Kréyon Bon Dié Pa Gin Gonm: "God's pencil has no eraser."
Yo pa ka achté moso manman nan maché: "You can't buy a piece of mother in the market."
Mizé fè bourik kouri pasé choual: "Misfortune makes a donkey run faster than a horse."
Moun ki pa manjé pou kò-l pa janm grangou: "People who don't eat alone are never hungry."
One of the exercises I give my writing students is to ask them to either make up a saying or pick a favorite one, and then write a story that embodies the truth of that saying. Aesop is a great model. He was a slave, who lived about six hundred years before the Christian Era. He wrote a whole book of fables, stories where the characters are animals who get into all kinds of scrapes that teach them, and us, wise lessons. Aesop's fables often end with a little lesson in the form of a saying. You might have heard the one that says, "Slow and steady wins the race." It comes from Aesop's story about the tortoise and the hare. Another popular saying is, "One man's meat is another one's poison," which comes from Aesop's fable of the ass and the grasshopper. Legend has it that Aesop's fables were so popular, they won him his freedom. Of course, there is a saying that applies to Aesop's own life story: "The pen is mightier than the sword," or, since sayings can be amended to fit new situations, "The pen is mightier than a ball and chain," and a lot lighter, too.
Gracias to AmoXcalli -- amoxcalli.ginaruiz.com
for being the first to share this essay.
Copyright © Julia Alvarez 2010-2014.
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(please contact my agent, Stuart Bernstein).
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