My family recently started frequenting a tiny one-room Mexican restaurant where we’ve developed an addiction to the tacos and gorditas. We’ve been working our way down the menu methodically, but we keep missing the shrimp tostada, which has been sold out. So Saturday night we went back—my third visit in two days—to try again.
We were so laser-focused on the tostada situation, that when we saw a sign handwritten in Spanish and taped to the door, I feared that it said, “No more shrimp.” But I didn’t know what it said, because I don’t speak Spanish.
We opened the door to find the dining room completely empty. Meanwhile, across the room, outside the back door, we saw a bouncy castle, helium balloons, princess paraphernalia, and a light-and-music machine flashing red and blue strobes to a cheerful Latin beat in the restaurant’s large backyard.
Realizing that we were intruding on a private event, we turned to leave, but it was too late. The proprietor insisted that we join the party. We lacked the language skills to demur politely, and once we saw the oversized trays of Oaxacan mole, rice and homemade tortillas circulating among the tables set for one hundred, we really didn’t want to. We joined the party.
Our hostess explained that it was the eighth birthday of Maria, who was swirling nearby in a frothy gown, gleefully examining her mounting pile of presents.
We wished Maria feliz cumpleaños, then pulled up folding metal chairs next to two couples—two more Marias among them—who filled our red Solo cups with Sprite and reassured us that it was okay to crash a child’s birthday. “People from Mexico are very welcoming,” someone explained.
“How do you know Birthday Maria?” I asked one of the other Marias. Her daughter was in Birthday Maria’s class, she answered in tentative but flawless English.
When I asked a husband of one of the Marias what he did for work, he said he was in construction.
“Me too,” I said.
“My husband is an electrician,” the other Maria said, motioning to her spouse. I explained that I was very impressed, using a zapping gesture to express my fear of voltage. Or maybe amperage? I still don’t know the difference. Electricity is a language I’ll never speak.
But I actually spoke a little Spanish at the party, and I made plans with one of the Marias to take a walk on a greenway near the restaurant to help each other practice our language skills. Maria’s English is infinitely superior to my Spanish. She has been studying at St. Luke’s Community House.
“We really want to learn English. We need it for everything,” the husband in construction said, listing off doctors, schools and other places where English fluency is essential. He is well on his way to mastering the language. No doubt it helps that he is a naturally conversational gentleman.
As for me, I’m eager to improve my Spanish, but just for right now I’m grateful for my family’s lack of fluency. Because if any of us knew more than one Dora the Explorer episode worth of español, we would have known that the handwritten sign taped to the restaurant door— “Hoy Cerrado”—meant the restaurant was closed today. We wouldn’t have barged in, and we would have missed a magical night of Southern hospitality.