Joe Tropeano – “Finding Grandma Martha in Chile”

For Tenx9’s “Travel” theme, first-timer Joe Tropeano ended the night with a beautiful story of remembering his late Grandma Martha while traveling on a farm in Chile. 

“Mari Mari!”

I squinted my eyes, strained my ears, and tried again to understand.  I knew Chilean Spanish was tough, but I had absolutely no idea what my new host mother was telling me.

“Mari Mari!” she said again, her lips curled into a proud smile.

“Si, gracias,” I tried, hoping that was an appropriate response to whatever she was telling me.  After all, I was two months into my semester abroad in Chile, and I had gotten used to struggling to understand.  Chilean Spanish is famous for its out-there slang and rapid-fire pronunciation.  But this was different, I soon realized.  Nora was speaking a different language.

That week, I had bid farewell to the high-rises and hills of Valparaíso to spend a week living on a Mapuche farm in Chile’s Araucanía region.  The Mapuche people were the original inhabitants of most of Chile, but now live mostly in the country’s green southern regions, between the snowcapped Andes and the deep blue Pacific.

When I stepped onto my new Mapuche host family’s property, I had never before felt so out of place.  The bathroom was outside, livestock roamed freely around the yard, and the nearest town was an hour away.  The vast, open fields only reminded me of how many thousands of miles I was from my home in suburban New Jersey.  Walking towards the door to the house, I was tempted to make a run for it and head back to the van.

But Nora was already at the doorstep.  “Mari mari!”  she said, greeting me in what I later learned was her native tongue, Mapudungun.   Beckoning me into the kitchen, Nora invited me to sit as she explained the meaning of the common salutation.  All of a sudden, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d somehow been here before.  That’s impossible, I thought, pinching myself.   Nora’s kitchen had a large hearth with a fire brimming inside, a sight you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in New Jersey.  The chili peppers and squash on the shelf were nothing like the Italian fare I’d grown up on.

Why, then, did things seem so oddly familiar?

And then I remembered my Grandma Martha’s voice: “Chiacchierone!

I could still see her, bent over a boiling pot of spaghetti as she pointed an accusing finger at me.  “It means someone who talks a lot,” she explained with a wink. I had no time to defend myself before she started on her next story—recounting how she had spent her summers learning Italian, singing songs, and swapping tall tales with her Sicilian grandparents.  Though I was only six, I got her point. The chiacchierone genes run pretty deep in my family, a badge I ought to wear with pride.

Of all the things that Grandma Martha taught me, the Italian sticks out the most.  Grandma Martha’s Italian was as seasoned as her eggplant parmesan – it was an asset, a tool and a weapon.  When Grandma’s puppy went crazy begging for treats, running around the house and knocking into her china, Grandma Martha would throw her hands up, open her mouth, and shout “come le pazze! Like the crazies!”  When my grandfather forgot to get the Italian breadcrumbs from the grocery store, Grandma Martha would shout “stonato! You’re stupid!And in my grandma’s house, Rita DiLorenzo from down the block was known solely as la faccia brutta, the ugly face.

Grandma Martha’s Italian had the color and movement of the busy Brooklyn streets she grew up on.  It was as brutally honest, as full of life, and as spectacular as she was.

When I was 13, everything changed.

Though the diagnosis surprised no one, we still whispered when we first heard it: “Alzheimer’s.”  To me, it meant empty glances, uncombed hair, and painful silence from a woman few could have quieted in her prime.  It meant memories unshared, stories untold, and words unspoken.

I decided that I couldn’t leave my chiacchierone heritage behind, that if Grandma Martha couldn’t teach me Italian anymore, someone else could.  I started taking after-school Italian lessons, filling the gaps in my Italian so that I could not only insult others, but soon hold entire conversations in the language.  For me, learning Italian was what cooking eggplant parmesan was for my father, or what collecting old family photos was for my aunt.  We remembered so that Grandma could forget.

When my Grandma Martha died, I felt so profoundly out of place.  I had just started my first semester at Vanderbilt, in a city Grandma Martha had never visited, surrounded by people I had only just met.  I remember angrily thinking, “Have these people ever even heard of a cannoli?”  I tried my best to keep myself calm, but inside I felt empty.  Grandma Martha was my Italian teacher, my personal cheering squad, and my best friend.  Although I continued to learn Italian, I couldn’t help but think that I had lost Grandma Martha forever.

Years later, as I learned Mapudungun words in Nora’s kitchen in Chile, memories came back that I thought had died long ago.  Nora also faced oblivion.  Her sons could barely speak Mapudungun, two of the many Mapuche youths in Chile affected by the quickening pace of assimilation.  They had iPhones and laptops and TVs.  They worked all day in the city while their parents tended to the fields.  I couldn’t help but shudder at the memories being lost, at the traditional Mapuche way of life that was being abandoned.

But there were reasons for hope.  Nora’s sons loved the traditional music of the Andes, and performed songs for us in the family’s ruka around the campfire.  They connected with fellow Mapuche friends and family on Facebook and WhatsApp, and they started learning Mapudungun words with me as the week progressed on the farm.   With each word came a story – of rolling hills and rumbling volcanoes, of a time before the Spanish conquest, of a people negotiating their traditional upbringing with today’s modern world.

Newen was one of the words we learned my last weekend on the farm.  It has many meanings in Mapudungun, but most importantly refers to the inner energy that the Mapuche people believe all beings share.

Mapudungun was still a completely foreign language to me, but I had never encountered a word that so perfectly described the way I was feeling.  I thought about Grandma Martha and the words she taught me.  I thought about her learning Italian from her grandparents, just as I had learned Italian from her.  I thought about my past week on the farm and our Mapudungun lessons, the countless cups of mate and conversations that lasted the whole afternoon long.  Just a week before, I had felt so miserably far from home as I stepped onto my Mapuche host family’s property.  Now I felt that the world was incredibly small.

Flash forward one year and I found myself in another unfamiliar place – Italy.  As I walked through Palermo, taking in the colors of the street markets and the chit-chatter of the locals, I couldn’t help but feel, yet again, that I had been here before.  After all, I was in Sicily – a place Grandma Martha had always traveled to in her heart.

I took a seat on a bench and took a bite of the cannoli I had picked up for lunch.  “Pretty good,” I said to the chiacchierone sitting next to me.  Even though the seat was empty, I knew, just as sure as Nora was of newen, that Grandma Martha was sitting there next to me.

Our conversations continue.

Travel: The Understory

As our journey begins

Headed along the Pacific Coast Highway via LA,

Some advice:

You may be too scared to sleep,

You may be going to fast,

You may be nearly dead,