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When Nicolás Barreto went up the mountains of Venezuela for the first time, he was chasing after a girl. There he worked alongside her for a month putting together a play that would inaugurate the highest theater in the country. He came down from that mountain transformed, filled with a love he wasn’t expecting.

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Transcript

Nicolás: Esta es una historia de amor que no terminó como yo esperaba.

Martina: That’s Nicolás Barreto. The setting of his story is the páramo, or high moorland, at the end of the Andean mountain range in Venezuela. It’s the highest and coldest region of this otherwise tropical country.

Nicolás: Subí a ese lugar remoto en el año 1997. Iba por una mujer.

Martina: Nicolás and the woman he was chasing went there to put on a play—specifically, a comedy full of love, magical places and unexpected situations. Little did Nicolás know then that the play’s themes would make their way into his real life.

Nicolás: Bajé de esa montaña transformado en una persona diferente, pero no de la forma que pensé.

Martina: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host, Martina Castro, and each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers across the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context, in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language.

Martina: Before Nicolás took his trip up to the páramo, he was an unmotivated university student in Caracas, Venezuela. He was 21 years old, and his only interest was music. Well, music, and Erika.

Nicolás: Érika era una artista con mucha confianza en sí misma. Le gustaba el teatro y la fotografía. Tenía ojos marrones grandes y una mirada profunda. Era alta, delgada y de piel marrón. En secreto, yo estaba enamorado de ella y preparado para hacer cualquier cosa por su amor.

Martina: Nicolás and Érika were your typical twenty-somethings in search of their future. They were classmates at the university in Caracas.

Nicolás: Érika siempre me gustó, pero mi amor por ella creció cuando comenzamos a ir a los mismos eventos y a estudiar juntos. Después de un tiempo, nos hicimos buenos amigos.

Martina: In their last year of school, they were both disappointed because they felt like their major —Educational Sciences— didn’t leave room for what they most loved: art and culture.

Nicolás: Pero un día, una profesora nos invitó, a Érika y a mí, a participar en un proyecto para educar a jóvenes usando el teatro.

Martina: As the professor was talking to them, Nicolás saw the way Érika practically jumped with joy. She loved theater, and she agreed to participate without a second thought.

Nicolás: A mí también me gustaba el teatro, como espectador, no como actor. A diferencia de Érika, yo era muy tímido. Pero acepté la invitación: sabía que era la única forma de pasar más tiempo con ella.

Martina: To participate in the theater project they would go to San Rafael del Páramo, one of the highest and most remote villages in the country. They would debut a work that would inaugurate a theater there.

Nicolás: Era un teatro simple y rústico, hecho de madera y piedras. El más alto del país.

Nicolás: Finalmente llegó el día. Érika y yo estábamos sentados en el autobús en ruta a una de las montañas más altas de Venezuela. El viaje iba a ser de 14 horas.

Martina: Fourteen hours sitting on a bus isn’t ideal for most people, but Nicolás was happy for every minute he got to spend by Érika’s side.

Nicolás: Érika y yo hablamos durante todo el viaje. En la noche, ella se durmió con su cabeza junto a mí. Yo no lo podía creer, estaba muy feliz de estar junto a ella.

Martina: As the sun rose, Nicolás started to see small villages in the mountains.

Nicolás: Por la ventana vi caminos de tierra y pequeñas casas tradicionales hechas de piedra, madera y con paredes blancas. También vi granjas y cultivos de zanahorias, papas, lechuga, coliflor y brócoli. Las personas locales trabajaban muy duro en el campo. El páramo era un espectáculo hermoso y fantástico.

Martina: As soon as they arrived in the village, they met the rest of the theater group from the university. After welcoming them excitedly, the group leader revealed what their mission would be over the next month:

Nicolás: Preparar la obra de teatro “Sueño de una noche de verano”, de William Shakespeare, con cien niños y jóvenes de la región.

Martina: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. It’s a comedy about mix-ups that revolve around the wedding of two young lovers who are put under a spell by fairies in the forest. That’s where most of the play takes place.

Nicolás: Es una historia de amor entre personas jóvenes que se rebelan a las restricciones de los adultos.

Martina: Nicolás immediately thought to himself, “Shakespeare in this rural area of Venezuela? With kids and teenagers who don’t even know what theater is?”

Nicolás: Los jóvenes de la comunidad no tenían experiencia en el teatro y eran muy tímidos, como yo.

Martina: Rather quickly they turned to Nicolás and asked, “So what can you do to help with the play?” Shyly, he replied that he was a musician and that he knew how to play the guitar.

Nicolás: Me dijeron que mi tarea iba a ser enseñarle a los niños sobre música a través de actividades divertidas. Yo no tenía idea de qué iba a hacer. Érika se reía de mí: ella sabía que yo no estaba preparado.

Martina: San Rafael del Páramo is a town of about 600 people. Unlike urban Venezuelans, who are known for being gregarious, the people in the mountain areas are perceived as being more quiet and introspective.

Nicolás: Iba a ser un proyecto difícil y grande y solo teníamos un mes para completarlo. Esa noche no pude dormir. Estaba muy preocupado. Me preguntaba: “¿En qué problema me metí por mi amor por Érika? ¿Qué va a pensar si mi trabajo es un desastre?”.

Martina: The next day Nicolás found himself in front of a group of teenagers all staring at him blankly. Their wary faces seemed to be saying, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” None of them had ever performed in public before.

Nicolás: Yo estaba muy nervioso, pero pensé en una idea. Con mi guitarra toqué “La Bamba”, una canción que todos conocían. Organicé a los niños y jóvenes en grupos. Un grupo cantaba la canción. Otro grupo seguía el ritmo. El último grupo bailaba. ¡Todos sonreían y disfrutaban!

Martina: At the end of that day Nicolás had a better idea of what he would do for the rest of the month.

Nicolás: Me sentía seguro y emocionado por el trabajo. Iba a ser el encargado de la música de la obra. Pero tuvimos un problema muy grande: muchos de los niños y jóvenes no sabían leer. Y la historia de Shakespeare era difícil hasta para un actor con experiencia.

Martina: So they came up with a plan: each day they read the play out loud to the actors. They explained the most important passages, so that the kids could write new lines in their own words.

Nicolás: El resultado de esa idea fue increíble. Los estudiantes inventaron su propia versión de la historia: hermosa, simple y fácil de entender.

Martina: Érika’s extensive theater experience and her uninhibited personality made her and Nicolás the perfect team. But their schedule was so demanding that they didn’t have much free time. Each night, they returned to their hostel, exhausted.

Nicolás: Una noche mientras caminábamos al hostal, Érika me dijo: “Nico, estos días eres una persona diferente. Antes de venir al páramo eras muy tímido, pero ahora haces cosas que nunca imaginé. ¿Cómo lo hiciste?”.

Martina: It was true, Nicolás was not the same as when he’d first arrived in the village. He had never before felt so natural speaking in front of so many people. What had made him change?

Nicolás: Usé todas mis energías y le respondí: “Fue el amor”. Ella me miró sin entender y preguntó: “¿Amor a qué?”.

Martina: “Love of what?” Érika replied, confused. Nicolás quickly made up a line – love of doing things well, teaching people to improve themselves, you know… love of the play they were working on.

Nicolás: No era falso, pero en realidad quería decir algo diferente: que mi amor por ella me daba fuerzas.

Martina: Once again, Nicolás spent the entire night awake, this time berating himself for his lack of courage to tell Érika how he really felt about her. But even though it was painful to think about that moment, Érika’s question and the answer he improvised led him to realize something really important:

Nicolás: Con cada actividad nueva mi interés en el proyecto aumentaba. También comenzaba a sentirme más seguro de mí mismo, a tener más confianza. Y esto me hizo tomar una decisión: el día de la presentación iba a clarificar las cosas con Érika… le iba a confesar mi amor.

Martina: But then, a week before finishing the project, Érika got some unexpected news from home.

Nicolás: Su hermana pequeña estaba enferma y su familia le pidió regresar a Caracas para pasar tiempo con ella.

Martina: Before leaving, she made Nicolás promise that he would stay and finish what they had started together. He hesitated for a moment. After all, he had only gone there to follow her.

Nicolás: Finalmente decidí quedarme y completar la obra como Erika me pidió. Le dije adiós y le di un gran abrazo. Ahora la responsabilidad por la obra y educar a los jóvenes era solo mía.

Martina: One week after Érika left, it was opening night. A hundred young people were about to perform Shakespeare with a Venezuelan flavor in that magical place. The air was heavy with anxiety and inspiration.

Nicolás: Todos estábamos nerviosos. Había silencio total en la audiencia. Pero, poco a poco, la gente empezó a reír y a divertirse.

Martina: There was one scene Nicolás was especially nervous about. A group of kids would have to do a dance that Érika had choreographed, and in rehearsals they had never managed to get it right. When the scene began, Nicolás, who was playing guitar off stage, was on pins and needles.

Nicolás: Finalmente llegó el momento. El grupo completó la coreografía a la perfección. ¡No lo podía creer! Todos sonreían, felices, disfrutando los aplausos de la audiencia.

Martina: As the play ended, for the first time ever that little theater in the middle of the Venezuelan Andes echoed with thunderous applause.

Nicolás: En el páramo yo no encontré el amor de Érika.

Martina: But he did find a new passion for theater.

Nicolás: Entendí que el teatro es una forma especial de educar fuera de un salón de clases. Esa se convirtió en mi principal motivación.

Martina: Nicolás Barreto is director of the UCAB Theater, a teacher, and an artist in Caracas, Venezuela. He and Érika remain good friends to this day. If you liked this story, we’d love it if you shared it with your friends who are also learning Spanish. Send them a link to podcast.duolingo.com. There, you can find a transcript of this story and the rest of the episodes. Subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app so you never miss one. With over 200 million members, Duolingo is the world's largest online language learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes that everyone should have access to education of the highest quality for free. Learn more at duolingo.com. I´m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from J.Zazvurek, Stevious42, dobroide, Halleck, unfa, SoundDog60 and Omar Alvarado under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org, and was produced by Adonde Media.

Author: Nicolás Barreto
Script Editor: Catalina May
Sound Designer: Isabel Vázquez
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro
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In Perú, writer Marco Avilés and his dog Piji were inseparable. But when Marco decided they should pursue better lives in the United States, and Marco found himself working for a top chef, their bond and sense of adventure would be tested in ways he had never imagined.

How to Listen

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Transcript

Martina: In Peru there’s a breed of dog that is very famous… so famous that it’s considered part of the country’s cultural patrimony. It’s called the Inca Orchid, or informally known as the hairless Peruvian dog.

Marco: Y en el Perú, uno de esos perros es muy famoso, como una celebridad. Es mi mejor amigo y se llama Piji.

Martina: That’s journalist and writer Marco Avilés. He loves Piji so much that he started documenting his companion’s adventures for a big Peruvian newspaper. The articles were a hit. Piji gained an online following and Marco got an idea that would take them both on their biggest adventure yet: they would immigrate to the United States.

Marco: Quería escribir libros en el bosque, vivir con mi novia y mi mejor amigo junto a mí. Pero todo fue muy diferente.

Martina: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host Martina Castro. Each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers across the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context, in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language.

Martina: The Peruvian hairless dog is an ancient breed that has been in the country for thousands of years. They almost went extinct a few decades ago, but a campaign by a local breeder made them famous again.

Marco: Piji es delgado, atractivo y atlético. En la calle, la gente admiraba a Piji y los niños preguntaban si podían tocarlo. Pero para Piji, no era fácil encontrar una novia como él. Yo decidí ayudarlo a encontrar amor.

Martina: One day, Marco decided to use his journalistic skills to help Piji find a mate. He started writing a column about Piji’s romantic life.

Marco: El primer artículo se llamó “Busco novia para mi perro”.

Martina: It was published in La República, one of Perú’s biggest newspapers, and the response was immediate. Readers started sending in pictures of their female dogs. They wanted to meet Piji and have “babies” with him.

Marco: Un día, me contactaron amigos de una perrita que se llamaba Uma. Uma tenía un año y era delgada e hiperactiva como Piji. Planeamos una cita romántica para ellos: una tarde de verano en la playa. Pero Uma no estaba interesada en mi mejor amigo. Ese día, intentó atacar a Piji dos veces y él se fue corriendo con miedo.

Martina: As Piji struggled to find love, Marco struggled to love his life in Lima. He wasn’t happy with his job as director of his publishing house. Writing about Piji had awakened in him a dream of writing full-time. To top it off, his American girlfriend, Annie, was ready to return to the United States after living for more than a decade in South America.

Marco: Annie tenía una casa hermosa en el bosque en el estado de Maine, donde también vive el famoso autor Stephen King. Era el destino perfecto para el cambio de vida que quería.

Martina: And it was perfect for Piji, too.

Marco: Lima es una ciudad con pocos parques o espacios verdes. A Piji no le gustaba vivir todo el tiempo adentro en nuestra casa, pero en Maine Piji podía correr en el bosque.

Martina: So in July of 2014, Marco decided to quit his job and pursue a dream of a better life for him and Piji in the United States. They arrived in Maine in the dead of summer. Piji ran freely in the forest all day, happily chasing squirrels, while Marco started to organize his routine as a writer.

Marco: ¡Nuestra vida era perfecta! Piji y yo éramos dos inmigrantes felices. Jugábamos en el bosque o íbamos a tomar sol en la playa. Los amigos y la familia de Annie eran muy buenos con nosotros.

Martina: But the summer was brief and Maine became less social as the winter approached. People were focused on preparing their houses for the snow.

Marco: Cuando la gente veía a Piji, preguntaban: “¿Cómo va a sobrevivir el invierno?”.

Martina: When Marco met Piji, it was love at first sight.

Marco: La primera vez que vi a Piji, él y sus seis hermanos estaban jugando, distraídos. Piji fue el único que me miró y caminó hacia mí con curiosidad. Sus ojos eran pequeños como uvas. Su piel era como la de un elefante.

Martina: Piji’s ears were huge, like wings of a bat. In fact, they inspired his name. “Piji” is short for “píjiri”, which means “bat” in Machiguenga, a language from the Amazonia.

Marco: Desde ese día, Piji y yo siempre estuvimos juntos.

Martina: Ever since Marco adopted Piji, they’ve traveled all around Peru, spent their days together in Marco’s office and even traveled to meet Annie’s family in Maine. Piji was crucial to that trip -- he was the first to win over Annie’s parents.

Marco: Piji fue mi primer perro desde que yo era niño. Yo me preguntaba: “¿Cómo pude vivir tanto tiempo sin él?”.

Martina: But if Piji was unique in Perú, imagine him in snow-covered Maine. The most typical dog you see there is the Labrador Retriever, a large hunting dog covered in thick fur. Piji, on the other hand, was built for the Peruvian desert.

Marco: Piji ama correr bajo el sol y dormir en la playa. Además, es hiperactivo: siempre está bailando y saltando.

Martina: Friends and family in the States didn’t know what to make of Piji.

Marco: Algunos niños creían que yo le cortaba el pelo a Piji o que era un familiar de Dobby, el elfo de Harry Potter.

Martina: Maine’s population is predominantly white. So, in many ways, Marco felt like he stuck out there, as much as Piji.

Marco: No tengo barba, mi piel es marrón y mi cabello es negro. En el Perú hay muchos hombres como yo. Pero, en Maine, la gente me mira en la calle y me pregunta: “¿De dónde eres?".

Martina: Marco spent his first month in Maine consulting remotely for customers back in Peru. He also kept writing his weekly column about Piji, to keep his followers informed about his life in their new country. One of those last autumn nights, Marco and Annie made an outdoor fire to enjoy the full moon.

Marco: Piji salió con nosotros e inmediatamente corrió hacia el bosque. Fuimos a buscarlo.

Martina: They started looking for Piji, worried that something bad might have happened to him.

Marco: Habíamos escuchado que a veces los coyotes atacan a perros. “¡Piji!”—gritábamos—”¡Piji!”

Martina: Eventually they found him walking slowly towards them, his head covered in quills as thick as nails. A porcupine had attacked him. Marco’s brother-in-law took the quills out one by one with pliers.

Marco: Cuando llegó el invierno estábamos más tranquilos afuera porque los animales peligrosos para Piji no salen en el invierno.

Martina: But with the cold came different dangers for Piji. His lack of hair made going outside for simple activities, like peeing, a complete torture.

Marco: La primera vez que nevó, Piji solo pudo caminar en la nieve por cinco minutos. Después se paró confundido y comenzó a llorar. Yo lo llevé de regreso a casa. Ese día compré sus primeras botas de nieve.

Martina: But there was something wrong with the boots. Piji seemed to hate them. One day, Marco took the boots off and noticed Piji’s feet were bleeding. The boots had been squeezing his nails so tight that they were piercing his own feet. Piji’s ears didn’t fare well in the cold either. The skin started to crack and fall off.

Marco: La mamá de Annie lo ayudó mucho: compró calcetines para Piji como protección para sus pies dentro de las botas. Jane también usó muchas cremas hasta encontrar una que ayudó a sus orejas.

Martina: While Annie and Marco worked on helping Piji get used to the cold, they got some bad news from Peru. Marco’s newspaper editor told him he couldn’t secure any more funding to cover his salary and let him go.

Marco: Fue un momento difícil. Tenía poco trabajo como consultor. Mis clientes preferían trabajar con alguien en persona, no en Internet. Después de un año en Maine, tuve que hacer lo que todos los inmigrantes deben hacer cuando llegan a un nuevo país: buscar un trabajo de verdad.

Martina: Maine is a rural state and has one of the most senior populations in the U.S. Carpenters and lumberjacks are some of the most popular jobs. But Marco had little experience in manual labor. So, what could a Peruvian journalist do in a place like Maine?

Marco: Durante días busqué trabajos en Internet. Piji me acompañaba desde su cama. Él también estaba triste porque ya no íbamos mucho al bosque.

Martina: Marco made a list of the jobs he could possibly take on: operator of demolition equipment, factory worker at a brewery, supermarket clerk... and cook.

Marco: Finalmente, elegí trabajar como cocinero porque me gusta cocinar.

Martina: Piji went with Marco to hand out his resume in dozens of restaurants. Marco recalls waiting anxiously for an answer as if he had applied to some kind of literary prize. His mind was full of questions and doubts.

Marco: Tenía muchas preguntas. ¿Fue un error venir a Maine? ¿Cuál era mi futuro? ¿Qué iba a decirles a mis amigos en el Perú? La única respuesta que recibí fue de un restaurante chino.

Martina: That Chinese restaurant was one of the best restaurants in Maine. The chef, Cara Stadler, is a culinary celebrity. Marco was baffled when he got the job and remembers wondering what the chef saw in him.

Marco: Soy un cocinero de casa: escucho música y bebo cerveza mientras cocino. Pero iba a aprender que la cocina profesional no es para divertirse. Para sobrevivir, necesitas disciplina militar. Cuando empecé, me dieron las tareas más básicas.

Martina: Marco was assigned to the salad area. His boss was Kyle — a strong man about 10 years younger than him. Kyle was incredibly fast and precise with a knife. Marco, on the other hand, was not. That first day, it took him 20 minutes to cut up a handful of cilantro.

Marco: Kyle me miraba impaciente. Tomó mi cuchillo y cortó el cilantro en treinta segundos. “Aprende”—me ordenó, como a un niño.

Martina: During the dinner hour, the kitchen workers took to their tasks with the synchronized rhythm of a well-trained orchestra.

Marco: Cara Stadler era como la directora de esta orquesta. Gritaba órdenes a todos desde su estación. Los cocineros seguían todas sus instrucciones.

Martina: But to Marco it was all chaos. At some point, Kyle pulled him aside and yelled, “What are you staring at?! Go bring me more shiso!”

Marco: ¿Shiso? No sabía qué era eso. El refrigerador era muy grande y estaba lleno de cajas y estantes con productos exóticos. No sabía qué hacer ni por dónde empezar a buscar.

Martina: Marco was paralyzed with fear. All he could do was repeat, “Please, please… All I want to do is survive this day!”

Marco: En ese momento, Kyle me encontró. Tomó unas hojas verdes y violetas y me dijo: “Esto es shiso. ¡No lo olvides!”.

Martina: Marco’s work at the restaurant forced him to leave Piji with Annie’s parents. That night, when Piji greeted Marco with his usual enthusiasm and jumps in the air, Marco was too exhausted to play.

Marco: No me gustaba cómo me gritaban todo el día. Annie me escuchaba hablar sobre cómo detestaba mi trabajo y me consolaba. Esta escena se repitió durante semanas. A veces, cuando Annie estaba dormida, yo lloraba.

Martina: While Marco worked at the restaurant feeling like he was stuck in a tragic soap opera, Piji was having quite a good time with Annie’s parents.

Marco: Piji parecía estar más feliz que yo Ellos le daban muy buena comida y Piji estaba fuerte como un atleta. ¡Parecía el rey del bosque! A veces, yo lo visitaba muy temprano en las mañanas, pero verlo solo unos minutos era peor que no verlo. A veces me preguntaba: “¿Y si Piji comienza a querer a los padres de Annie más que a mí?”.

Martina: One afternoon Marco picked up Piji at Annie’s parents’ house and decided to take him on a walk before heading back home. Even though this was new territory for Piji, Marco decided to walk him off-leash so he could run around a bit.

Marco: El sol estaba bajando cuando vimos pasar a un venado.

Martina: Un venado is a deer.

Marco: Inmediatamente, Piji corrió atrás de él.

Martina: Piji’s barking echoed as he ran deep into these woods that were unfamiliar to him.

Marco: Sentí pánico. El cielo estaba casi oscuro y tenía miedo de perder a Piji para siempre. Caminé por todos lados y grité su nombre hasta perder la voz. “¡Piji! ¡Piji!”. Pero no lo encontraba.

Martina: Marco decided to go ask for help before it got too dark. As he walked back to Annie’s parents house, he couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with shame and anguish as he imagined telling everybody that he had just lost his best friend.

Marco: Casi empecé a llorar cuando vi a Piji. Él estaba muy cansado y tenía sangre en sus patas, pero estaba vivo y feliz de verme. Quizá yo era el perdido...

Martina: Over the following months, Marco slowly accepted that in his new job — and in many ways, in his new life — he had to start from scratch.

Marco: Empecé a observar con más atención cómo mis compañeros trabajaban en la cocina, y escuchaba con cuidado las instrucciones del chef. Traté de ignorar los gritos.

Martina: Eventually, he got faster with the knife and wasn’t cutting his fingers any more.

Marco: La chef me dijo que mi trabajo era muy bueno. Seis meses después de empezar, me convertí en el asistente de una de las cocineras principales. Iba a ser responsable de la estación de carnes. ¡Finalmente formaba parte de la orquesta!

Martina: For all of Marco’s success at his new job, each night he still came home exhausted from the intensity of the kitchen. It also pained him to be far from Piji and to put aside his writing. “If I’m going to work this hard,” he thought to himself, “wouldn’t it be better to work on something of my own?”

Marco: Un día la jefa de cocina me dijo: “Debes de escribir un libro sobre tu experiencia en el restaurante”. Yo creía que era una buena idea. No pude dormir esa noche y pensé en mi vida en Maine. Si mi vida era como una novela, quizás era tiempo de pasar a una nueva página.

Martina: The next morning, Marco went to pick up Piji at Annie’s parents’ house.

Marco: Yo estaba nervioso. ¿Y si Piji no me recordaba? Pero no fue así: saltó sobre mí, invitándome a correr con él. Piji estaba feliz de estar junto a mí.

Martina: Marco assured him that their adventures weren’t over just yet.

Marco: Lo miré a la cara y le dije que íbamos a estar juntos de nuevo. Esa tarde hablé con la chef y dejé mi trabajo en la cocina.

Martina: Marco turned his attention again to his dream of writing, but now with more determination than ever.

Marco: Decidí escribir un libro sobre la experiencia de ser inmigrante en Estados Unidos.

Martina: And the hero of the book?

Marco: Piji, un héroe de cuatro patas.

Martina: Marco Avilés is a journalist and is back to writing every day — he, Piji and Annie are still living in their cabin in Maine. If you liked this story, we’d love it if you shared it with your friends who are also learning Spanish. Send them a link to podcast.duolingo.com. There, you can find a transcript of this story and other episodes. To get the episodes sent to you, subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app. With over 200 million members, Duolingo is the world's largest online language learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes that everyone should have access to education of the highest quality for free. Learn more at duolingo.com. I´m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from Bone666138, Ayamahambho, Craftport and Sabotovat under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org, and was produced by Adonde Media.

Author: Marco Avilés
Script Editor: Teresa Bouza, Martina Castro
Sound Designer: Isabel Vázquez
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro
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Maria Murriel used to struggle with living between languages and cultures, and for many years tried to hide the accent that marked her as an immigrant in the United States. Eventually, she realized that what she had been treating as a challenge was actually a key part of her identity.

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Transcript

Martina: Maria Murriel moved to the United States from Peru during one of the toughest times in a kid’s life: puberty. To make matters more complicated, she had to learn to maneuver a new language — and we know how tricky that can be.

Maria: Yo hablaba inglés con un acento fuerte y los niños de mi clase se reían de mí.

Martina: Maria had moved to Miami, probably the city with the highest concentration of Spanish speakers in the U.S. But even there, she learned to be afraid to stand out. She will never forget the day a girl got angry with her in the middle of class...

Maria: La niña me miró y dijo: “Stupid ref!”.

Martina: “Ref” was short for refugee, and it was used as a derogatory term for immigrants who had recently arrived. The majority of Miamians are Latinos, but assimilated, generations ago, so some of them used this term to put down those who had just arrived and perhaps didn’t speak English yet.

Maria: Fue un momento difícil y triste para mí. Yo no pensaba que ser inmigrante era malo. Pero ese día, aprendí que “ref” era un insulto muy fuerte. También aprendí a tenerle miedo a esa palabra.

Martina: Fear of that word would change Maria’s relationship with her culture forever. Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host, Martina Castro. Each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers around the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language. When Maria was growing up in Peru, her parents were always trying to save money.

Maria: Eran los años 90 y Perú había vivido terrorismo y violencia por más de una década. Y ahora, el país estaba en una crisis económica. No había trabajo y la gente no se sentía segura.

Martina: One day, Maria’s dad was robbed.

Maria: Alguien atacó a mi papá en la calle.

Martina: It was the last straw. The family decided they needed to leave and find better opportunities.

Maria: Unos meses después, nos fuimos a Estados Unidos. Era mi primera vez en un avión. Yo tenía 11 años. Mi hermano menor tenía 7... y vomitó por casi 5 horas en el viaje.

Martina: It was a nerve-wracking moment for the whole family. And María was the only one who spoke English. Back in Peru, since she was five years old, she had studied English at her all girls’ Catholic school. They learned the language by singing songs.

Maria: Cantábamos canciones fáciles como: “pollito: chicken, gallina: hen, lápiz: pencil, lapicero: pen…”

Martina: When María turned 10, her teacher, Miss Berta, had the class listen to music in English through headphones. Specifically, hits from the Swedish disco band ABBA, in all of its 70s splendor.

Maria: Miss Berta decía que ABBA era la mejor opción para aprender la pronunciación en inglés. Como era una banda de Suecia, hablaban inglés despacito.

Martina: So now Maria would spend classes transcribing the words to songs like “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia”.

Maria: Miss Berta siempre decía que yo estaba avanzando rápido, que mi inglés era excelente.

Martina: But when Maria entered sixth grade in Miami, the school assigned her to the lowest level of English, along with every other newly arrived immigrant kid. They didn’t seem to care that she knew all the words to “Dancing Queen”.

Maria: En esa clase conocí a Melanie, mi primera amiga en Estados Unidos. Ella era de Guatemala y vivía cerca de mi casa. Melanie y yo pasábamos mucho tiempo juntas. Los fines de semana jugábamos en la piscina con nuestros hermanos pequeños.

Martina: And they had a lot in common: their families had both recently arrived to the U.S., they had both gone to Catholic school and they were both shy.

Maria: Pero yo hablaba inglés mejor que Melanie.

Martina: Maria and Melanie took science class in English, away from the other kids who had recently arrived in the US. And since Maria understood a little more English than Melanie, the science teacher often asked Maria to translate for her friend. Every day, the teacher would give her lesson, and Maria would whisper the lesson to Melanie in Spanish.

Maria: Un día, unas niñas en mi clase de ciencia no paraban de hablar. La maestra estaba furiosa.

Martina: The teacher told the other girls to stop talking. When they realized they were in trouble, one of the girls got furious. She pointed at Maria, and screamed, “But she is always talking! Yell at her!”

Maria: Mi cara se puso roja por la vergüenza. Yo solo hablaba para explicar las lecciones a Melanie. Nunca pensé que iba a causar un problema.

Martina: The teacher told the girl that Maria had permission to talk in class. Just like that. She didn’t explain why. And that’s when that word came into Maria’s life.

Maria: La niña nos miró a Melanie y a mí y dijo: “Stupid refs!”.

Martina: Again, “Ref”, short for refugee, was an insult. It was a classist and xenophobic word, used by Latinos who were more established in Miami against those who had just arrived. From this moment forward, María was determined to do whatever it took to lose her accent and blend in.

Maria: Un año después, todo cambió: nuevo barrio y nueva casa. Ya no podía ir a la piscina con Melanie. No tenía amigos en la nueva escuela. Estaba sola. Mi hermano estaba aprendiendo inglés, pero solo estaba en tercer grado. Y yo no hablaba sobre estas cosas con mis papás. Pensaba que no iban a entender.

Martina: María’s parents didn’t face the same social pressures in Miami as she did. Even though they may have occasionally faced discrimination from Latinos who were fluent in English, it was still Miami and completely possible for them to go about their lives speaking only in Spanish. Plus, they had each other. So when it came to Maria’s struggle to belong and fit in at school, she felt like she was on her own. Maria remembers walking into her new school with her mom on her first day.

Maria: Recuerdo que la escuela era fría. Todos los estudiantes hablaban inglés.

Martina: Maria was given a placement test to see what level of English she should take.

Maria: El examen fue muy fácil: me preguntaron cosas como “how old are you?” y “my name is Maria”... La maestra estaba sorprendida con mi inglés. Dijo: “Tu inglés es perfecto, no necesitas tomar más clases de inglés”.

Martina: The teacher told Maria that she was fluent in English, and that she should have never been placed in such a low level at her previous school. From here on out, Maria would be put in a regular class with native speakers.

Maria: Mi mamá estaba feliz, pero yo tenía mucho miedo. ¿Podría asistir a clases con hablantes nativos de inglés? Y pensé: tengo que hablar muy bien para que nadie me llame “ref”. Practicaba mucho en casa para perder mi acento. Veía Scooby-Doo en la televisión con mi hermano. Imitaba el acento de Velma y el de Daphne.

Martina: Maria knew all of the Scooby-Doo episodes by heart because she had seen them already in Perú, dubbed over in Spanish.

Maria: Yo repetía: “Let’s split up!” y “We got him!”. Pero todavía tenía un acento fuerte. Era muy difícil pronunciar algunas palabras: por ejemplo, no entendía la diferencia entre “this” y “these”.

Martina: She also struggled with the various ways to pronounce an S. In Spanish the S is always the same, but in English it’s trickier. For example, she had trouble with the word “loser” -- a key word for survival in high school.

Maria: Mi primer novio fue Adrián. Teníamos 13 años, y la familia de Adrián era de Argentina, pero él había nacido en Estados Unidos. Sus papás tenían una tienda y la abuela de Adrián siempre nos daba empanadas y dulces. En la escuela, Adrián me escribía notas de amor. Él también tocaba la guitarra y escribía canciones. Yo sabía que algún día él iba a ser mi futuro esposo.

Martina: Until one day, when Maria said a word with a Spanish accent, and Adrian, told her jokingly, “Aw, you’re like a little ref!” That word again, the one Maria feared the most. She was mortified and overwhelmed with shame.

Maria: Mi acento todavía era muy fuerte y ahora Adrián pensaba que yo era una ref. Otra vez, sentí mucha vergüenza por no hablar como los demás. Quería cambiar, quería hablar “normal”. Entonces decidí estudiar más con Scooby-Doo. Empecé a hablar con mucho cuidado en la escuela. También con Adrián.

Martina: Maria did get better at hiding her accent, but she and Adrian didn’t get married. Years later, when Maria went off to college, she entered a bilingual program. At first, she didn’t want to go, because she was afraid of returning to the years she spent with Melanie as an outsider.

Maria: Pero era un programa muy importante. Los otros estudiantes eran de Latinoamérica. Yo había leído al Quijote. Pero ellos también leían a escritores como Borges, Fuentes, Mistral y a otros autores latinoamericanos.

Martina: After so much effort to mask her Latin American roots, now she didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about authors from her own region and in her native language.

Maria: Descubrí una triste realidad: pensar solo en inglés no era bueno. Tampoco era bueno tener vergüenza de mostrar mi cultura. Mis nuevos amigos conocían a mi cultura mejor que yo.

Martina: One of Maria’s classmates, Frank, had been reading poetry by Jose Martí since he was a kid in Cuba. Félix knew all about leftist politics in Chile. Javier could tell jokes in a Honduran slang that would leave everyone dying of laughter, but Maria didn’t get them. She remembers a party in the beginning of the program, where everyone was dancing cumbia.

Maria: Yo bailaba lento, sola. Javier me invitó a bailar con él. “¡No sé bailar muy bien!”, le dije. Él me respondió: “¡Eres muy gringa!” Y todos se rieron.

Martina: Yeah. Gringa. And Maria laughed with them, because she knew he didn’t say it with bad intentions. She was a little embarrassed, but not that paralyzing kind of shame from when she was younger. More of a sadness that they would see her as too much of a gringa.

Maria: Nací y crecí en Latinoamérica. Viajé por muchas ciudades hermosas. Pero mi música, comida y arquitectura favorita es la de mi país. Soy y siempre seré de Perú.

Martina: But it’s also true that at this point, Maria had spent the majority of her life in the United States. Her sense of humor, the way she dances, the way she expresses herself, all of it is more American than not. So this moment, when she struggled with being defined as a gringa, it ended up being almost like a revelation for her.

Maria: Soy peruana, pero también soy estadounidense. Ahora, soy periodista. Después de trabajar en Miami por cinco años, me mudé a Boston. Boston es muy diferente a Miami – no hay muchos latinos, hace frío, y casi nadie habla español. Ahora, además de ser periodista, soy maestra.

Martina: Now, in Boston, one of Maria’s freelance jobs is to teach creative writing to adults. One day, she arrived early to prepare for her class. While she was working, she overheard a man she didn’t know talking to a group of colleagues in the kitchen across the hall from her classroom.

Maria: El hombre hablaba de sus vacaciones en Perú, de la temperatura y de las comidas. El grupo estaba muy interesado en escuchar sobre Perú.

Martina: Exactly at that moment, a woman asked, did you eat anything weird? And Maria stopped working so she could listen more closely.

Maria: El hombre respondió: “No, pero los peruanos comen cuy”.

Martina: A cuy is a guinea pig.

Maria: Mi cara se puso roja, como en la escuela. Pero esta vez, no por la vergüenza.

Martina: “Guinea pigs? The same guinea pig we have as pets?” They asked. And he said he didn’t know because he hadn’t tried it.

Maria: Me paré. Fui a la cocina para beber agua y a escucharlos hablar.

Martina: One of the women went on to wonder out loud to the group why Peruvians would eat guinea pigs if they didn’t have that much meat, and at that moment Maria turned around and said to them:

Maria: “Hola, mi nombre es Maria. Yo soy de Perú. Sí, los peruanos comemos cuy. Sí, es un guinea pig. Y sí, es una comida exquisita para ocasiones especiales”.

Martina: It’s delicious, she told them, and it’s a key dish of Peruvian cuisine which is praised all over the world.

Maria: Esta vez, los que tenían vergüenza eran ellos.

Martina: Maria Murriel is a writer, journalist and podcast producer in Boston, Massachusetts. She teaches journalism and writing -- in English AND in Spanish. You can find a transcript of this story at podcast.duolingo.com. And don’t forget to subscribe at Apple podcasts or your favorite listening app to hear other episodes. With over 200 million members, Duolingo is the world's largest online language learning platform and the most downloaded education app in the world. Duolingo believes that everyone should have access to education of the highest quality for free. Learn more at duolingo.com. I´m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode includes recordings from shall555, InspectorJ and tim.kahn under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org, and was produced by Adonde Media.

Script Editor: Annie Avilés
Sound Designer: Isabel Vázquez
Mixing & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz Farga
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María Clara Calle grew up hearing about the atrocities committed by the FARC rebels in Colombia. She never imagined that one day she would not only meet them, but eat and sleep among them, deep in their territory, as they thought about their role in the future of peace in their country.

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Transcript

Martina: Imagine living in fear of being kidnapped, extorted for money, or simply made to disappear?

Martina: This was the case for many Colombians in what was known as Latin America’s longest civil war. For over 50 years, the Colombian government fought the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the Farc, a guerrilla army that survived mostly in the southern jungles of the country.

María Clara: Recuerdo escuchar noticias de las FARC en la televisión: sus secuestros y ataques a ciudades pequeñas eran bastante comunes.

Martina: That’s María Clara Calle. She first heard about the Farc rebels when she was a little girl during family discussions at the dinner table. María grew up to become a journalist, and wrote dozens of articles about the Farc over the course of three years. But in all that time, she had never seen a guerrillero, a guerrilla fighter, in person.

María Clara: Nunca. Pero un día entré al territorio de las FARC y no solo los entrevisté, sino que también comí y dormí entre ellos.

Martina: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m your host, Martina Castro, and each episode we bring you fascinating first-person stories from Spanish speakers around the world. The storytellers will be using intermediate Spanish and I’ll be chiming in for context, in English. But these are not language lessons, they're real life lessons through language. And just a heads up, in this story you’ll be hearing a few words that are super important to keep in mind. First, proceso de paz, or peace process...and guerrillero, which refers to a combatant or fighter in an insurgent group. In this case, in the FARC. María and her colleague Andrés Celis entered the plains of southern Colombia on the back of rented motorcycles. Their drivers took them down a dirt road that led toward a hard-to-access region.

María Clara: En este lugar no había casas, no vivía nadie. Durante el viaje, tuve mucho tiempo para pensar. Pensé en el conflicto con las FARC. Pensé también en cómo las FARC y sus actos de violencia afectaron a Colombia.

Martina: The Farc was born back in 1964. It started off as a peasant movement that took up arms to defend their land from a conservative government. They were persecuted for their liberal ideas like protecting land for the poor. Over time, they moved from self-defense to seizing power through violence.

María Clara: Y empezaron a secuestrar a personas, atacar a pueblos y a traficar drogas. Como periodista, yo escribí mucho sobre las FARC y sus actos de violencia. Hablé con las familias y amigos de personas que ellos habían atacado.

Martina: Now, María was headed toward the Tenth National Guerrilla Conference. It was September of 2016, a peace process was under way, and the guerrilleros were gathering to vote on the deal before them. It would be the first meeting in the history of the Farc that could be attended by journalists, both Colombian and foreign.

María Clara: Tenía mucha curiosidad, sí. Pero también un poco de miedo. No sabía cómo iba a ser la situación en la conferencia. Iba a un territorio nuevo. Y a un evento histórico.

Martina: A little further on, the motorcycles María and her colleague were riding encountered a group in the road. They were men in full camouflage uniforms, with machine guns against their shoulders.

María Clara: “Son guerrilleros”, me dijo el chofer de la moto. Mi corazón paró por unos segundos. Era la primera vez que veía a un guerrillero en persona.

Martina: They stopped María’s group and began to search them.

María Clara: Nos pidieron documentos de identificación y, furiosos, nos preguntaron por qué estábamos allí.

Martina: When Andrés replied that they were journalists going to cover the Conference, their attitude changed.

María Clara: “Pueden continuar”, dijo un guerrillero. Era obvio –ahora estábamos en territorio de las FARC.

Martina: Further on there was a big white tent where several guerrilleros were searching people as they arrived. They gave María and Andrés ID tags and t-shirts with the conference logo.

María Clara: Yo estaba nerviosa. Querían saber mi nombre, email y número de teléfono. Pero yo no quería dar mi información personal a la guerrilla. Además, un guerrillero quería tomarme una foto.

Martina: María told him that she would only allow him to take a photo of her if she could take a photo of him too.

María Clara: Él respondió “no” y me tomó la foto. Yo estaba furiosa, y le tomé una a él con mi celular.

Martina: At that point Andrés interfered...

María Clara: Me dijo: “Tranquila, estás muy nerviosa”.

Martina: Andrés asked her to stop arguing with the guerrilleros, but María explained that it wasn’t that easy for her.

María Clara: Le dije que era la primera vez que hablaba con un guerrillero. Para mí era difícil ignorar que eran un grupo ilegal. No podía estar tranquila: en este lugar ellos tenían el poder y el gobierno colombiano no estaba presente.

Martina: After getting past security, they were taken to their caletas. The “caletas” were cots made of bamboo stalks, covered with grass, plastic, and a thin mattress. They were placed right next to one another, organized in rows of thirty beds. Each one had a mosquito net to keep the insects out.

María Clara: Las caletas no parecían confortables. Tampoco me gustó ver que iba a dormir con guerrilleros.

Martina: To lighten up the mood, María told Andrés that she had brought cotton balls to put in her ears before sleeping. She confessed she was terrified of bugs getting inside her ears.

María Clara: Andrés empezó a reírse. Me sentí como una niña. Unos minutos más tarde decidimos salir y caminar un poco por el lugar.

Martina: After walking for ten minutes, they saw some brick houses that the journalists weren’t allowed to enter. Later, María and Andrés learned that that’s where the highest ranked leaders of the Farc slept.

María Clara: También vimos el área para los reporteros — era muy grande. Había electricidad e Internet, pero no había señal de teléfono celular, por lo que estábamos bastante aislados.

Martina: María was shocked by how the Farc was able to offer so many services in the middle of nowhere. There was a restaurant, portable toilets, and, what most impressed her: a stage for concerts with professional lights, microphones, speakers, and a sound board.

María Clara: Había un rumor que el último día de la conferencia iban a cantar grupos famosos de Latinoamérica. Pero los rumores eran falsos.

María Clara: La primera noche llegó un grupo colombiano no muy conocido. Algunos reporteros bailaron y bebieron cerveza con los guerrilleros.

Martina: The journalists partying with the guerrilleros had interviewed the Farc before. In that sense, they were old acquaintances. For María, it was all a bit surreal.

María Clara: Yo no bailé ni bebí mucho. Casi no hablé con los guerrilleros. Estaba muy cansada. Necesitaba dormir. Andrés continuó bailando en la fiesta y yo me fui sola a mi caleta.

Martina: She walked more than 20 minutes through the darkness, lighting the path with her cell phone flashlight.

María Clara: Había escuchado que podía encontrar muchas hormigas, mosquitos, escorpiones y serpientes.

Martina: She reached her bed and took what she needed from her bag, including those two pieces of cotton.

María Clara: Me puse el algodón dentro de mis oídos…

Martina: Algodón is cotton and she put them in her oídos, her ears…

María Clara: Lo hice como protección contra los insectos. Así, cansada después de ese largo día, me fui a dormir inmediatamente.

Martina: In the morning, María looked for a place to bathe. Some guerrilleros pointed her toward a small river.

María Clara: Después del baño fui a desayunar con Andrés. Le dije que dormí mucho y tranquila con el algodón en mis oídos. Él de nuevo se rió de mí.

Martina: As they walked toward the press room, María and Andrés saw a group of guerrilleros gathered around a woman. She was covering one ear with her hand.

María Clara: La mujer era una reportera de otro país. En la noche, mientras dormía en su caleta, un insecto entró a su oído.

Martina: María looked at Andrés out of the corner of her eye. It turned out she wasn’t so crazy after all!

María Clara: Él se quedó sorprendido, en silencio.

Martina: There was a first aid station at the conference, so some of the guerrilleros knew how to deal with medical emergencies. In wartime they’d had to treat their comrades after battle or when someone had a health problem in an isolated place.

María Clara: El insecto estaba muy profundo dentro del oído. Los guerrilleros sólo pudieron extraer una parte. Para extraer el resto, la reportera iba a necesitar una operación médica.

Martina: Some of the event organizers went to find a car and decided to take her to a hospital in the nearest city.

María Clara: Toda mi vida había pensado en las FARC como “los enemigos”, un grupo violento e ilegal, responsable de actos terribles en Colombia.

Martina: That’s why María couldn’t imagine trusting these enemigos, or enemies, with her health and safety.

María Clara: Para mí era raro ver a la guerrilla dar asistencia médica a una reportera. No sabía qué pensar.

Martina: Later that same day, the Farc opened the doors of the house where their leaders were staying, and let the journalists in to interview them.

María Clara: Fue increíble hablar y estar cerca de los comandantes. Ellos tomaron las decisiones más importantes de las FARC, incluyendo las más violentas: secuestros y ataques a políticos.

Martina: But now María was watching these same people make jokes, smile, and stress out with all the questions the reporters were throwing at them. She remembers one interview in particular from that day.

María Clara: Hablé con una guerrillera, una mujer que tenía 25 años, como yo. Tenía una manicura perfecta y muy buen estilo. Era difícil creer que ella era parte de uno de los grupos más violentos dentro de las FARC.

Martina: This guerrillera belonged to a group that had been responsible for kidnappings of political leaders and terrible attacks in some of Colombia’s largest cities. María was surprised to hear the reason she had decided to join the FARC.

María Clara: Me dijo que cuando ella era pequeña su papá la golpeaba. No sabía cómo escapar de su violencia física. Por eso entró a las FARC. También hablé con algunas guerrilleras que estaban embarazadas.

Martina: The pregnant women María interviewed told her that they were happy about the peace process. If it was successful, they’d be able to raise their babies outside of the jungle and without being at war.

María Clara: Durante esos días vi a muchos guerrilleros recibir visitas de sus familias. Cuando los vi pensé en cómo ellos también perdieron contacto con sus hijos e hijas.

Martina: The conflict had taken a lot from them as well.

María Clara: El último día de la conferencia, aún en mi cama, escuché un helicóptero. Una guerrillera que dormía cerca despertó con miedo, buscando su arma. Generalmente, un helicóptero significaba que los militares estaban cerca.

Martina: But the helicopter was not there to attack them —quite the contrary. It had the logo of the International Red Cross, and it was coming to take the Farc’s leaders to Cartagena.

María Clara: Allí los líderes iban a firmar el acuerdo de paz.

Martina: Maria learned that during the conference the guerrilleros had voted yes on the historic peace agreement.

María Clara: Pero terminar el proceso de paz no fue tan simple. Los colombianos votaron y la mayoría votó que NO. Muchos tenían miedo: no querían guerrilleros de regreso a las ciudades, en la sociedad. Otras personas votaron NO por ideas políticas. O porque pensaban que los guerrilleros no iban a pagar por sus actos de violencia.

“Colombianos, hoy me dirijo al país como presidente de todos los colombianos….”

Martina: A few months later, a new agreement was signed, and this one was ratified by congress. The Farc finally agreed to relinquish it’s weapons. Today the Farc maintains its characteristic acronym, but the letters stand for something different:

María Clara: Ahora se llaman “Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común”.

Martina: The Alternative Revolutionary Force of the People. They are now a legal political party.

“Nos transformaremos, a partir de este evento, en una nueva organización exclusivamente política…”

María Clara: Los guerrilleros hoy estudian en escuelas o toman cursos para trabajar como agricultores, ingenieros, músicos.

Martina: But there is still a lot of distrust, so the process of reintegration will be a long one, not only for the ex-guerrilleros but also for the people who witnessed the impact of this war on their towns, their families, and their ways of life.

María Clara: Nunca voy a olvidar los actos violentos de las FARC y cómo afectaron a Colombia. Pero los vi felices y tener miedo y hablé con ellos de sus problemas, de sus familias y de sus futuros. Ahora puedo imaginar que un día los voy a ver como mis vecinos.

Martina: Now María can imagine them becoming her vecinos, her neighbors.

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In 1996, Luis von Ahn left Guatemala to study in the United States and never moved back. That’s partly because of something that happened just before his departure, something that changed his life forever: the kidnapping of his aunt.

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Transcript

Martina Castro: Welcome to the last episode of our first season of the Duolingo Spanish podcast. Today we bring you a story from someone you might recognize. Here’s a hint: A clip from one of his TED talks —

Luis von Ahn: So what we’ve been working on for the last year and a half is a new website — it’s called Duolingo — where the basic idea is people learn a new language for free while simultaneously translating the web. And so basically, they’re learning by doing.

Martina Castro: That’s Luis von Ahn, cofounder and CEO of Duolingo back in 2011. There’s a path that led Luis to this stage that starts before he launched Duolingo or became a Computer Science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. It starts back when he was a regular kid growing up in la ciudad de Guatemala. He has fond memories of that time — of visits to his family’s candy factory, and of how obsessed he was with math and science. But there’s one memory from the year he graduated high school that Luis wishes he could erase — even though it’s what eventually led him to leave Guatemala for the United States.

Luis von Ahn: En el año 1996, mi tía fue secuestrada.

Martina Castro: “Secuestrada”… as in, she was kidnapped. It happened often during those final years of the civil war in Guatemala. By the mid-90s, when the war between the country’s military and communist guerrilla fighters was over, more than 200,000 indigenous people had been killed. As a child, Luis was mostly unaware of the war because it was fought in the rural areas of the country. Until the day his family got that fateful call –

Luis von Ahn: Solo dijeron que tenían a mi tía, que estaba viva, y que iban a llamar después con más información.

Martina Castro: Again, welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, where we bring you true bilingual stories of travels with unexpected turns, plans unraveled, and destinations unknown. The Spanish in this story is for intermediate level learners, but if you get lost, don’t worry, we’ll be chiming in throughout the story.

Martina Castro: Luis’ aunt, whom we will call Marta, was the matriarch of the family. She was married to a colonel in the army who retired early, and never got another job.

Luis von Ahn: Después de tener seis hijos juntos, mi tía y el coronel se divorciaron. Después del divorcio, mi tía estaba sola y necesitaba pagar los costos de la comida y educación de sus hijos.

Martina Castro: In order to support her family, Marta started a food business, and she became very successful. By 1996, Luis’ aunt had become a wealthy woman with kids and grandkids.

Luis von Ahn: Yo tenía 17 años y vivía con mi mamá a poca distancia de la tía Marta. Yo iba a su casa todos los días, y la tía Marta era como una segunda madre para mí.

Martina Castro: One afternoon, Marta’s oldest son, Luis’ cousin, called Luis. He said his mother had gone missing. In Guatemala, kidnappings were common, so they feared that this is what had happened to her. His voice trembled; that’s how Luis knew this was not a joke.

Luis von Ahn: Corrí a la casa de mi tía. Ahí estaban sus otros hijos y algunos de sus nietos. No teníamos mucha información.

Martina Castro: That day, Marta had gone to pick up her ex-husband.

Luis von Ahn: Mi tía y el coronel estaban divorciados, pero todavía eran amigos.

Martina Castro: She was supposed to bring him over to the house.

Luis von Ahn: Pero nunca regresó.

Martina Castro: But she never came back. Within a few hours, they received two calls.

Luis von Ahn: La primera llamada fue de una persona que no conocíamos. Dijo que el coche de mi tía estaba abandonado, sin nadie adentro.

Martina Castro: The second call was from the kidnappers.

Luis von Ahn: Dijeron que tenían a mi tía Marta, que estaba viva, y que iban a llamar después con más información.

Martina Castro: By that time there must have been 15 people in the house already, and everyone was asking questions over one another… Why was she driving alone? Who had found the car? How much money did they want? Would they have enough to rescue her?

Luis von Ahn: Fueron horas de peleas, gritos, y lágrimas. Después tomamos una decisión: pedirle ayuda a los amigos militares de mi tío, el coronel.

Martina Castro: After making a few calls, Luis’ family ended up talking to his uncle’s friend — someone at the anti kidnapping unit with the government.

Luis von Ahn: Ellos preferían no hablar por teléfono, así que decidimos encontrarnos en una calle en el centro de la ciudad. Fuimos en uno de los coches de la familia, una minivan con ventanas muy oscuras.

Martina Castro: The men they picked up were dressed in plain clothes and never shared their full names, but Luis remembers his family was instructed to call the boss “El Capitán” or “The Captain”.

Luis von Ahn: El Capitán era un hombre alto y musculoso de como 40 años. No dijo mucho en el viaje de regreso a la casa de mi tía, pero nosotros le contamos lo que había pasado. Cuando regresamos a la casa, nos reunimos todos en la sala.

Martina Castro: First, the captain assured them that Luis’ aunt would return alive. Kidnapping was a business, he said, and it’s bad business to kill your victim.

Luis von Ahn: Dijo que los secuestradores iban a llamar otra vez para pedirnos dinero.

Martina Castro: And he warned them that they would have to go against their instincts. No matter what amount of money the kidnappers demand, he said, you must say it’s too much and that you can’t pay it.

Luis von Ahn: Nos dijo: “Si dicen que sí, y pagan muy rápido, los secuestradores van a pensar que pueden pagar más. Así, van a pedir más dinero y el proceso va a tardar más tiempo”.

Martina Castro: The Captain said the most important thing was to choose one person who could negotiate with the kidnappers on behalf of the family. Ideally it would be someone who wasn’t too close to Marta, because the kidnappers would try to manipulate them. So they chose the husband of one of Luis’ female cousins, whom we will call Juan.

Luis von Ahn: Juan iba a tener que pedir pruebas de que nuestra tía Marta estaba viva. Tenía que decir que no teníamos suficiente dinero para pagar lo que pedían, pero que estábamos haciendo todo lo posible para obtener el dinero.

Martina Castro: The captain was clear — the kidnappers will say on the call that they will kill Marta if the family doesn’t pay the ransom quickly. They will hang up in the middle of the call and then not call back for many days, to make the family believe that Marta was dead.

Luis von Ahn: Pero necesitábamos mantenernos fuertes, nos decía el capitán. Yo no sabía qué pensar. No conocíamos bien a este hombre.

Martina Castro: Not only had they just met this man, but Luis and his cousin picked him up with these other tough looking dudes in the middle of a parking lot and not one of them was in uniform. Luis couldn’t help but wonder — could the family really trust them?

Luis von Ahn: El capitán dijo que el proceso iba a tardar entre 7 y 15 días. Si seguíamos sus instrucciones, ella volvería viva. También explicó que no era como en las películas.

Martina Castro: First, the family had to actually pay the ransom. There would be no SWAT team rescue. Second, the captain explained that the exchange wouldn’t be in the moment. The kidnappers would say where to leave the money, and then Marta would be returned to the family several hours or perhaps even days later.

Luis von Ahn: Ahora sí teníamos miedo. ¿Íbamos a darle todo el dinero a los secuestradores antes de ver a mi tía? No tenía sentido. Pero no teníamos otra opción. Teníamos que creer en el capitán.

Martina Castro: That same night the kidnappers called back. By then, Juan, the designated negotiator, was anxiously waiting by the phone. The person on the line said he was calling about Marta. Juan said they had been expecting his call and that he would negotiate on behalf of the family.

Luis von Ahn: Juan le preguntó a la persona cómo se llamaba. “Me podés llamar Tío Sam”, dijo él. Después dijo cuánto dinero quería a cambio de mi tía y que si no lo pagábamos, mi tía iba a morir. Como lo habíamos planeado, Juan dijo que eso era demasiado dinero.

Luis von Ahn: El Tío Sam, or Uncle Sam, said the family better find a way to get all of the money…Otherwise, Marta would die.

Martina Castro: Then he hung up.

Luis von Ahn: La cantidad de dinero que querían era alta pero no era imposible de pagar, entonces algunos en la familia insistieron en pagarla toda.

Martina Castro: At that point, many family members had set up camp at Marta’s house to keep her family company. So they discussed the best course of action as a group, until they came to a consensus — they would follow the captain’s instructions and wait.

Luis von Ahn: Cuando el Tío Sam llamó al día siguiente, preguntó si ya teníamos el dinero. Juan dijo que era demasiado, pero que estaba tratando de conseguir todo lo que podía. También pidió pruebas de vida antes de seguir hablando.

Martina Castro: Prueba de vida, or proof of life, was essential, said the captain. Each time the kidnappers called, Juan needed to ask for evidence that Marta was still alive. El Tío Sam insisted on the original sum of money they had requested, but agreed to give them proof of life.

Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo al Tío Sam que le preguntara a Marta algo que solo ella podía responder. La pregunta era sobre una conversación entre ella y su hijo que ocurrió un día antes del secuestro.

Martina Castro: At that point, el Tío Sam hung up. The following day, he called back, and gave Juan the correct answer to his question. Marta was still alive.

Luis von Ahn: El Tío Sam preguntó si ya teníamos el dinero. Juan le dijo que solo teníamos US$10,000. Preguntó si era suficiente.

Martina Castro: Ten thousand dollars was about a tenth of what the kidnappers had originally requested. Luis and various other members of the family thought this was too little, that they should give something closer to the original amount, even if it was high. But after much debate, the family settled on this figure. They had heard that kidnapping negotiations started very far from the original asking price, similar to haggling in a street market. Tío Sam was not happy to hear this counter offer.

Luis von Ahn: El Tío Sam empezó a gritar, diciendo que sabía que podíamos pagar más.

Martina Castro: And he hung up. They didn’t hear back from Tio Sam until the next evening. He was agitated and said his bosses were losing their patience with them.

Luis von Ahn: Dijo que entendía que la cantidad original era muy alta, pero quizás podíamos pagar $80,000.

Martina Castro: And just like that, they were back to the bargaining table. Following the Captain’s advice, Juan went up from the original amount, but still offered less than what Tío Sam requested.

Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo que tenía buenas noticias: que habíamos encontrado más dinero y podíamos pagar US$30,000.

Martina Castro: Tío Sam said no, that they needed to come up with more money immediately.

Luis von Ahn: Juan fue firme y dijo que eso iba a ser imposible. El Tío Sam dijo “lo siento mucho” y terminó la llamada.

Martina Castro: The following day, Tío Sam didn’t call back. Nor the next. Even though the captain had said this would happen, everyone started to worry they had made a mistake. What if they had pushed too hard? Or offered too little? What if they didn’t get another chance to negotiate for Marta’s release? What if she had already been killed?

Luis von Ahn: Vi que Juan estaba muy nervioso. Era probable que iba a sentirse responsable por la muerte de Marta. Nadie pudo dormir esa noche. En la mañana, todos saltamos cuando sonó el teléfono.

Martina Castro: Juan had been waiting near the phone and picked up quickly. But it was just a distant cousin asking if there was any news about Marta.

Luis von Ahn: Al día siguiente, el Tío Sam no llamó. Muchos familiares se fueron de la casa.

Martina Castro: After the third day without word from the kidnappers, members of the family who had been camped out at Marta’s house started to pack up their things and head home. Luis took this as a sign that they had lost hope of Marta returning alive.

Luis von Ahn: Yo empecé a sentir pánico. ¿Y si mi tía nunca regresa? Pero unas horas más tarde, el Tío Sam llamó.

Martina Castro: El Tío Sam sounded even more agitated and angry than the last time he called.

Luis von Ahn: Juan le preguntó si mi tía estaba viva, y el Tío Sam dijo que sí. Juan le dijo que solo teníamos 50,000 dólares.

Martina Castro: Surprisingly, Tio Sam said that was fine. He asked them to put the money in a suitcase and to leave it in a trashcan in a mall a few kilometers from the house. But first…

Luis von Ahn: Juan le dijo que antes de pagar, necesitábamos otra prueba de vida. Una hora después, el Tío Sam llamó con la respuesta correcta a otra pregunta para mi tía.

Martina Castro: Tio Sam then asked that the ransom money be taken to the mall immediately. He warned that he would be watching the area, so they better leave it there within the hour. Marta’s family put the cash in a small suitcase and handed it to Juan to make the drop.

Luis von Ahn: Cuando Juan regresó a la casa, dijo que no vio nada raro en el centro comercial, y que había dejado el dinero donde pidieron. Las próximas horas fueron muy largas. Pasamos otra noche casi sin dormir.

Martina Castro: Hours passed, but they received no news from Marta, nor calls from the kidnappers confirming the receipt of the money.

Luis von Ahn: Pensaba en mi tía, quien era como una segunda madre para mí. Me preguntaba si la volvería a ver.

Martina Castro: Then early the next morning… The doorbell rang…

Luis von Ahn: Era mi tía. Estaba viva y bien, pero muy nerviosa.

Martina Castro: Marta stood in the living room, while everyone sat around, eyes fixed on Marta. The 65-year-old woman trembled as she told them what happened the days she was kept captive.

Luis von Ahn: Nos dijo que estuvo en una habitación pequeña y oscura, y que no podía ver porque sus ojos estaban cubiertos. Dijo que los secuestradores le habían dado de comer, pero que tuvo mucho miedo.

Martina Castro: Days after being placed in that room, she was able to make out the face of someone familiar through her blindfold. She recognized one of the army generals who had worked with her ex-husband. For fear of retribution, she never denounced him for his crime.

Luis von Ahn: Después del secuestro, mi vida cambió. Cada día me preguntaba si alguien más iba a ser secuestrado. ¿Sería yo, mi mamá, uno de mis amigos? Meses después, me fui a Estados Unidos a estudiar en la universidad, en parte por la inseguridad de Guatemala.

Martina Castro: And he never moved back. Just months later, in December of 1996, the decades-long war in Guatemala officially ended. Luis says, today, the country is much safer. But people walk around with ghosts from that time — loved ones they lost, regrets and fears that they were never able to shake. For Luis, his ghost is Marta’s kidnapping…

Luis von Ahn: Todavía puedo sentir la ansiedad de esos días del secuestro de mi tía.

Credits and Media

This episode includes recordings from coldwellw, THE_bizniss, Percy Duke, and kwahmah_02 under the CC Attribution License from freesound.org.

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