It was last Thursday night in Coamo, Puerto Rico, and some members of the “More Than A Game” group were practicing with a local team at the Alberto Ortiz Aponte youth baseball complex.
David Lopez, Kyle Lewis and John Jones were working with the infielders on ground balls and footwork, when they decided it was time to switch to another drill.
“Let’s do slow rollers next. How do you say ‘slow rollers’ in Spanish?” Lopez asked Lewis.
They didn’t know a direct translation for a baseball term like that.
“Mas despacio,” Lewis said around the infield--meaning ‘slower’ or ‘more slowly’ in English--while making a forward underhand motion with his right hand to get the point of the slow rollers across.
The team featured some bilingual coaches and players that could translate to the players who only spoke Spanish, so the situation wasn’t a problem for the MTAG guys.
But that minor inconvenience in switching the drill highlighted an inevitable encounter with the language barrier.
A significant amount of Puerto Rico natives speak at least a little bit of English and many are fluent given that the island is a United States territory, but Spanish is still the predominant language, proving that the flow of communication wouldn’t always be easy.
If you ask the MTAG crew what the biggest non-physical challenge of the week was, the most common answer would be trying to speak Spanish.
“I never really used the language,” said Lopez, who is of Mexican descent but from Tucson, Arizona. “I’ve heard it at my grandparents’ house and family visits and things like that, but I’ve never really had to use it. It almost felt like public speaking again, you know, when you’re in middle school and high school.”
It was Lopez’ first time on a service trip like this, and he wasn’t alone. Jared Oliva was making his first MTAG trip as well and was another member of the group who had to dip into his limited Spanish vocabulary.
“(There was) definitely the culture shock, being around a language that I’m not really comfortable with and trying to be able to communicate with kids, people at a restaurant, whoever it might be. That’s been the biggest thing,” Oliva said.
Both Lopez and Oliva found ways around the Spanish-English barrier, even if it meant making an extra effort to work through an interaction.
“That’s definitely (getting out of) the comfort zone, having to try to communicate in my second language,” Lopez said. “But it was good, it’s been fun.”
Just being with the kids, being able to talk to them, the parts of Spanish that I do know, it’s kind of cool to see what they do and kind of pick their brains a little bit, and they do the same with me, just talking baseball, so it’s fun,” Oliva added.
Xavier Borde felt the effects of the language barrier during the MTAG youth baseball clinic at the Pedro Miguel Caratini stadium at the end of the week. But like the rest of the MTAG team, he powered through the setback.
“I was instructing the group on some outfield things and I don’t speak much Spanish, but one of the kids was doing the drill very well and another kid wasn’t, so it was getting hard for me to explain how to do it properly. So the kid that was doing it well, I had him instruct the kid that didn’t really understand, and I let them work on it together,” Borde said following the clinic.
For one MTAG member, language wasn’t a barrier; it was a path to a unique relationship with the kids in Coamo.
Rio Gomez, who is Cuban and Colombian, is a native English speaker but grew up learning Spanish as well. He was the only member of the MTAG group who could rely on his second language more than his first during the week.
“My Spanish isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough for me to get by on and to communicate and understand them, and have them understand me,” Gomez said. “It’s nice having that special connection with them through language.”
As the week went by, one thing held true for the MTAG group, even the ones who didn’t speak any Spanish at all: They were there to make a difference through baseball, and a difference in language wasn’t going to prevent that.
Baseball is baseball, everyone kind of rallies around it,” said Oliva. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, you know, if baseball is in common you can kind of relate.”
Story by Michael Marcantonini