On one of our first dates, my Bostonian husband jokingly introduced me to his friends by saying, “This is María, my Mexican girlfriend from Venezuela.” Only our mutual Mexican friend laughed. Our other friends shared an awkward glance, not sure how to react. But when they noticed that I cracked up, they did, too. We all immediately felt a connection and are still close, 10 years later.
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” comedian and pianist Victor Borge once said. I couldn’t agree more. My husband’s irreverent sense of humor is one of the many reasons I fell for him. I also believe that laughter is the shortest distance between two cultures, two countries, two communities. It made me fall in love with Boston, not only because Bostonians and Venezuelans share a similar sense of humor, but also because it was in Boston where I learned to laugh at myself.
I took myself way too seriously before moving to the United States. I did have a sense of humor — or so I’d like to think — but I didn’t really know how to laugh at myself. In May 2006, I was 29 and living in Caracas. I was a professor of “Creativity” and “Creativity Techniques” at two respected universities in Venezuela. I’d just been promoted to “Manager of Creative Services” at the country’s oldest television production company. Climbing the corporate ladder, I rarely made mistakes.
In January 2007, by some unexpected spins in the wheel of fortune, I had quit my jobs and my country and found myself living in the coldest place I’d ever been to. Yes, Boston was freezing and my “winter coat” purchased in Venezuela wasn’t nearly warm enough. But I didn’t focus on that. I focused on the little everyday miracles I wasn’t used to: I opened the faucet and drinking water started pouring. I turned on a switch and there was light. I sent a check through the mail and it arrived at its destination. To this day, I still marvel at those (and a thousand other) daily little miracles. I was freezing, but I was happy . . . until I started to make mistakes.
My first mistake was sending a resume with my age and a picture, common practice in Venezuela. But after blowing some opportunities, I realized this wasn’t typical here in the United States. I then made the mistake of applying to big companies, but strong points in my resume like “Cinesa” or “Televen” meant nothing to recruiters here. I got tons of rejections. And then, I made the mistake that taught me to laugh at all my other mistakes, past and future.
It was April 2007. I had finally found a job teaching Spanish to middle schoolers at a private catholic school in Quincy. I was the fourth teacher they’d had that year. One day, during one of my first classes with the sixth-graders, the kids were very unruly, so I yelled at them, “Come on, kids, you need to focus!” But with my accent in English, it sounded like a different “f” word, followed by “us.” The classroom went silent.
That’s when I knew I had done something wrong. Middle school kids don’t become silent just because a teacher asks them to.
“Excuse me?” one of the kids asked, shyly.
I repeated it, emphatically, and pointed my index fingers at both of my temples. “You need to concentrate, pay attention!”
A massive sigh of relief reverberated through the room.
“Oooooh!” one of the kids said, kindly. “You mean foooooocus.”
That’s it, unemployed again, I thought, but I couldn’t help laughing at yet another mistake. All the kids started laughing too. I think that’s the day when Spanish became their favorite class, and it definitely was the day when I realized no matter how hard I tried, I was going to keep making verbal, cultural, social, and professional faux pas in my new country.
Immigration is a humbling experience. No matter why or under which circumstances you move to another country, it always teaches you lessons and makes you start from scratch in areas you didn’t even expect (like when I needed therapy and realized I did not know how to really express my feelings in a foreign language).
I now work at Linguistica 360 in Cambridge, where we produce the podcast News in Slow Spanish (as well as in French, Italian, and German). What I love the most is the diversity of our team: Argentina, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Russia, Spain, Sweden, United States, and Venezuela are represented. Some of my colleagues were born and raised here, some arrived as refugees, others moved here at an older age and had to learn English from scratch. In the eight years I’ve worked there, not a single person has quit. Maybe it’s because we all have those two things in common: We are deeply grateful at the new opportunity that life gave us, and we know how to laugh at ourselves and with each other. This, to me, is the definition of a community, no matter where you come from or where you are.
María Eugenia Mayobre is a Venezuelan writer and screenwriter living in Watertown. Her first novel, El Mordisco de la Guayaba, was published in Spanish and French and is being developed as a TV series.