Winner of the Study Abroad 2013–14 writing contest.

Cynthia J. Avila, Class of 2016

I could not read Don Quijote, nor you,

yet three months pass there across a table.

“The recipe, please!” I ask, eyes widen.
Behind folded laundry, the soft response
in foreign tones, “Lo siento, querida.”
“But do not pity me,” says the smile.
Memories of an African home, dimmed
by reality on repeat: live, live ...
Two roads diverged, I could not travel both.

 “The recipe … please.” Where are you, pencil!?
(if learning exists without the raised hand).
Why fate spared me deep lines, for skin so fair,
blind eyes, fear, and speechless intelligence.
Do not pity me, querida. Silence.

I wrote “Illiterate” on November 29, 2013. It was another beautiful day in Toledo, Spain, with the final petals on the chrysanthemums falling from the balcony of my host mother’s home. I was in the house with Himo, casually talking to her in the tight kitchen while she brewed a fresh cup of sugared Moroccan mint tea and boiled the green beans for la cena (dinner). Himo was an unexpected member of my host family. She was a 60-year-old woman adopted by my Spanish host mother, and originally was from Morocco. She serves as a very important, though not equal, member of the family. Though very much involved in day-to-day activities, Himo was still requested to eat at a different time and in a different location. For me this was culture shock, to say the least.

As I smelled the aromas coming from the kitchen stove, I asked Himo for a Moroccan recipe that she had made on several occasions during my three-month stay. “Cindy,” she said, “I have it all in my head.” I responded, “That’s fine. If you could write the ingredients for me, that would be really helpful.” I ignorantly smiled. “Lo siento, querida.” She closed her eyes and sealed her lips. “I cannot read or write.”

Three months I had lived with Himo, and not once had it occurred to me that she was illiterate. She continued to fold the laundry, unbothered by her statement. I, on the other hand, was speechless.

The piece has been dramatically revised since its initial submission in early March 2014 to amplify and mature the message of “Illiterate,” which I humbly dedicate to Himo.

Avila participated in the Toledo: Intermediate Spanish program. Her poem “Illiterate” was a winner in the Study Abroad 2013–14 writing contest.


(Photography by Jerzy Durczak, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)