Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination

“Where did you learn Spanish?”


First Day of School, Instituto La Salle

“Where did you learn Spanish, Dawn?”

This question pops up often. I was asked again recently, which had me looking for the photo album that I made the year I lived in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico. The stickiness of the album pages long since dried and disappeared and the photos now slide out from under the clear film that covers them. I hadn’t looked at those photos in years and memories came tumbling back.

I knew that I wanted to be a foreign exchange student when I was 13 years old. It took me two years to convince my parents to allow me to go. I was so surprised when decades later a dear friend from high school said to me, “Oh, I thought that you parents made you go.” The time and energy it took to convince them! When they at last agreed, my mom said, “There is too much water between Arizona and Europe. You can go to Mexico.” I will be eternally grateful for this decision. I cannot imagine how different the scope and trajectory of my life would have been if I didn’t speak Spanish.

Mi hermana mexicana, Tere

These were my growing up years of books, braids, and riding on our ranch in southeastern Arizona. My dad raised Brangus cattle and during that time, there was a lot of collaboration between Brangus breeders in northern Mexico and the US. My parents had many colleagues and friends in the ranching communities of Chihuahua and put out the word that I wanted to be an exchange student.

The sister of one of these ranching friends had a daughter who wanted to come to study in the United States. The two families swapped daughters for a year. Teresa (Tere) came to live on the ranch with my family and became my hermana Mexicana. I went to live with her family in Chihuahua and became her hermana Americana.

Don Benito, la Señora Miriam, and Angélica (far right)


I was 16-years-old when I arrived in Chihuahua to live with the family of Benito and Miriam Martínez. Don Benito came from Spain originally and la Señora Miriam Creel de Martinez came from a family with deep roots in Chihuahua. Their daughter, Angélica, lived at home and did all she could to make me feel welcome.

The first months were a swirl of new experiences, new friends, excitement, homesickness, and really not understanding much of anything that was said. I remember coming home from school every day with my head pounding. I attended Instituto La Salle. Students immediately welcomed me, invited me to their homes and parties, and did all they could to make me feel welcome. I think of this often when I hear how immigrant kids are often treated in the US.

My new friends were kind as I stumbled through Spanish and laughed with (mostly) me as I made mistake after mistake, including asking my new friend, who was eating a chocolate covered marshmallow on a stick, “¿Cómo está tu pedo de monja?” I’ll never forget her stopping mid-bite, looking at me, and laughing, “¿Qué?” I had learned that marshmallow in Spanish was pedo de monja, literally “fart of a nun.” Turns out, that is absolutely not the word for marshmallow in Chihuahua. That’s the day I learned the word bonbon and it’s stayed with me ever since.

By Christmas I could understand the gist of things and say enough to convey the main idea of what I wanted to say. I learned to only use Usted with anyone older than me or in a position of respect. It still sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard when I hear people use the informal with people who deserve Usted.

Angélica and Mama Lila

I learned very soon to always use Usted with Mama Lila, Señora Miriam’s mother. She was a grand lady in a grand house in a beautiful area of Chihuahua. We drove through a canopy of trees to drive up the winding driveway to her home. I can still remember the smell of her perfume, the soft paper-thin texture of her cheek when I kissed her in greeting. An elegant staircase wove up and around the wall to the balcony bedroom doors above. Sun steamed in through the kitchen windows at her home, sometimes dappled by leaves.


Libradita and Raramurí woman

Libradita cooked and cared for all of us within our home. Oh, what I would give to be able to go back in time and watch as she made flan! I was so taken with the Raramurí (Tarahumara) women and girls of the mountains surrounding Chihuahua. Their many layered skirts moved as they walked, sprayed around them when they sat. Our class took a field trip up into the mountains for a weekend not long after I arrived. I hardly understood a word of anything said around me. What I remember was the incredible generosity how my classmates treated me, how bitterly cold it was at night in the mountains, and the two young Raramurí girls who came with babies on their backs.

This was years and years before I began to learn of Linguistic Human Rights (LHRs), the marginalization of languages and people, and the impact on the world. I know that when I began to learn of LHRs, these two girls came to my mind.












I turned 17-years-old in March of that year and my friends celebrated with a cake. I look at this photo now and wonder where these now women and about their lives. Oh, and mi querida amiga, Manena. Oh, did we laugh! And, we loved to go get frozen yogurt at Zum Zum. I always added mango and coconut to mine.

17th birthday

Manena Alzaga








Lupita took me to the market and showed me what to look for in the fruit, how to choose the vegetables. I still hear her voice, her laughter.


My classmates, Instituto La Salle











I’ve had many other chapters in Spanish of my life. All builds on my life and experiences in Chihuahua. When I went to study in Spain, I learned that my Spanish was filled with Mexican expressions and vocabulary. In Costa Rica, I learned that my accent sounds Mexican.

When I began to learn about second language acquisition, I scrolled back through my memories and experiences and the theories found fertile and familiar places to land.

I wonder now that I listen to so many audiolibros narrated by Spaniards, Argentines, Mexicans, and Chileans what impact this has on my Spanish.

I will always grateful for this time—the experiences, friendships, inspirations, and love that have come from when I was 16-years-old and experiencing all. I feel the world would be an infinitely kinder place if all could experienced living and learning in another language, another culture. I imagine the empathy this might create if those who know experience the dominance of their own language could experience life through the lens of other languages and cultures.

A shared language opens worlds and windows of connections and relationships.

I am forever grateful.


Don Benito y Señora Miriam


Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination.

21 thoughts on ““Where did you learn Spanish?”

  1. Dearest Dawn, You Spanish is beautiful to hear! Goes to show immersion is by far the best way to learn a second language. Love, Dan

  2. I enjoyed this story of your time as a student in Mexico. La guapa Dawn WInk, as recorded in the local press. Claro que si! I spent a semester of college in Bogota, Colombia, living with a Colombian family and attending the local university. A nun stopped me on the street one day and said something you echo here–“If everyone did what you are doing there would be no more wars.” At least a step in the right direction. Thank you for this piece of your history.

    • Oh, I love this. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and the wisdom from the nun. I really do believe that it would make worlds of difference in empathy, kindness, and compassion in our world so desperate for all. ❤️

  3. Love your beautiful reflection. Being bilingual, looking at all through the eyes of compassion, empathy, and understanding would surely make the world a better place.

  4. My parents were both ESL. Spanish was their first language as neither of my grandparents on either side spoke English. They both suffered discrimination because of the language barriers, especially in school. My dad had green eyes and blonde hair, so the teachers at “the white school” put him in special ed for a year because he wouldn’t talk.

    When it came down to the decision of whether or not to teach their own children their native tongue, they decided not to because they wanted us to be able to compete academically, and to not have to suffer the pain of the teacher’s ruler across our knuckles for “getting caught” speaking Spanish on the playground (as my Mom shows me a scar on her hand where the metal edge cut her once in elementary school).

    I still don’t speak Spanish fluently and I’m rather embarrassed when the best Spanish speakers I know (including my own family members) are “pinche cavachos”!…no offense anyone…somehow they managed to teach us a few things in Spanish, that term being one of them. (It was decades before I learned “pinche” is NOT a term of endearment!) 🤷‍♀️

    • Dearest Edie-that’s the brutal reality and irony, isn’t it? It’s cool when pinche gavachos learn Spanish, but it was literally beaten out of those whose for whom it was a mother tongue. I am so sorry for your parents experience. So many people choose not to pass along their mother tongues to their children in hopes of preventing them pain and advancing forward.

      I am so very grateful to you for sharing your experience sms story here. Your parents’ and your story reflect the greater whole of all.

      Un abrazo fuerte, Edie,
      La pinche gavacha que te quiere mucho ❤️

  5. Gracias por compartir tus fotos e historia. Me encanto tu moda de los 80! I totally googled that translation. 🙂
    I’ve often wondered about your Spanish and thought to ask many times. Of course, you make English sound romantic also when you speak. Hate your velvety voice! HA. Love you, LBA, PhD!

    • Querida TOBA ❤️ Me alegro tanto que te gustaron las fotos y la historia! And your Google translation of 80’s style was right on! 🤗 Oh, you!!!! 🥰 Love you, TOBA!

  6. I agree Dawn; for each of us to fully experience another culture and language, our world would be a kinder, more empathetic place. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Qué divertido Dawn!! I wish so much I’d had a year like that! Gracias por las fotos y las explicaciónes! Liz

  8. ‘Pedo de monja’ had me laughing! My first embarrassing Spanish goof was asking an OJ vendor

  9. Gracias por compartir esta maravillosa historia!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.