I was sitting in Portuguese 103 one dreary winter day last semester when it occurred to me — and this thought was not in English, but in the Portuguese-Spanish cocktail pseudo-dialect known as “Portunhol” — that I was, in that moment, a visitor to the Portuguese language. “Eu soy una visitante,” to put it as it actually occurred in my head.
This idea came to me more as a vision than as a single thought. Here I was, in this Portuguese classroom, compelled to stay despite how much I fumbled to carry a conversation in the language. As the professor talked about the latest reading we had completed for discussion, I turned this vision over and over in my head. The visitor. O visitante.
I was never a good student of Portuguese. That’s something I’ll admit up front without any qualms at all. When I arrived at UC Berkeley as a wide-eyed freshman, I was already enrolled in Portuguese 50. Formerly known as Portuguese 101 and formally known as “Portuguese for Spanish Speakers,” I thought it was going to be a breeze — after all, I’m a “heritage speaker” of Spanish. Although I had chosen to be on my high school yearbook staff and take AP history courses over AP language courses, I, for whatever reason, strongly believed in my language-acquisition skills.
Plus, I had absentmindedly completed a few Portuguese lessons on Duolingo over the summer. What else could I possibly need?
Flash forward to the end of the semester and me in tears on my dorm room bed, frantically making flashcards I already knew were vain efforts. By then I knew what the outcome was going to be: I barely passed Portuguese 50, by the mercy of a higher power or a GSI who took pity on my very unorganized, very “freshman” approach to the class.
Did I give up? Of course not. As soon as winter break ended, I was sitting in Portuguese 103, a writing-focused course that went a little easier on my terrible speaking skills.
In that class, I operated on the knowledge that, in the interest of my mental health and other academic pursuits, I likely wouldn’t be enrolling in another Portuguese class after 103. Thus I didn’t always focus as much as I should have, if that wasn’t already clear from the fact that I was fantasizing about wearing a hat and being a “visitante” to the Portuguese language.
Yet it was there that I learned to truly appreciate Portuguese in all of its fascinating complexities. In Portuguese 103, my writer brain was challenged to reimagine my inner worlds in a language distinct from the two I had grown up with. It was no easy task, but it was a fulfilling task. We covered all the pertinent genres — essays, poetry, journalism, fiction and the “crônica,” which was my favorite.
I have a hard time explaining what a crônica is. I suppose it is something of an opinion column, but not exactly. For me, it was initially baffling to approach this genre because it doesn’t count as literature and it doesn’t count as journalism. I suppose the easiest English definition would be something like: a diary entry, but with a specific focus. Essentially, it is a short commentary on daily life, written in the vernacular of the time so that everyone can understand it.
Personally, I see crônicas as little conversations — the crônica is the author’s greeting, and we contribute by reading, reacting and analyzing their words.
The crônicas I wrote for Portuguese 103 were fairly cookie-cutter exercises. On one occasion I had to answer the question, “What makes someone a good friend?”
Yet despite this simplicity, it was as we were approaching the end of the crônica unit that the vision of me as a visitor came to me for what would not be the last time. The concept of certain genres existing only in certain languages seems almost unnatural. And yet it is such a natural thing, with linguistic art forms organically emerging as we find different ways to talk about how we feel. I can read and write all the crônicas in the world, all because this genre happened to emerge exclusively within the Portuguese language, and I happened to study Portuguese.
I’m no longer a student of Portuguese. I still study Spanish as part of my comparative literature degree, but Portuguese is on hold for the moment. But even though I’ve left Portuguese behind, I still find some solace within this language that welcomed me as a visitor — mispronunciations, misspellings and all.