In Pilapuchín, a community of 400 tucked high in the Ecuadorian Andes, the local equivalent of the PTA does not get a summer break.
As I stood up to address the group in the school courtyard, I could feel the eyes of the fedora-clad locals on me. There I was, thousands of miles away from home, on the AMIGOS project I had spent all year dreaming about.
“For those of you who don’t know, we’re starting a microempresa—small business,” I shared in broken Spanish. “We’re hoping that it’s going to be—esperamos que será—a success.”
The second the words left my mouth, I could picture my high school Spanish teacher’s exasperation from 3,000 miles away. The myriad worksheets had not been enough to remind me to use the subjunctive sea instead of the future será. While I often sailed through Spanish grammar, the subjunctive mood baffled me. A subtle change made to verbs, the subjunctive is used to express desires, emotions, and the unknown. Though simple in theory, the subjunctive conjures up a seemingly infinite number of gray areas that require years of practice to master.
And yet despite my grammatical error, it was actually the potential for the subjunctive—those moments of excitement and the unknown—that had drawn me to AMIGOS in the first place.
I spent the first week or so trying to adjust to my surroundings, getting to know the local people, and improving my Spanish while also learning a bit of Kichwa, one of Ecuador’s indigenous languages.
But there was the constant question of what kind of business would be established. It felt like everyone had an idea, but there was nothing everyone interested in the project was able to agree on.
And then one day, over a bowl of soup in an elderly woman’s kitchen, our host came up with a plan that everyone was excited about: selling hand-sewn chalinas, traditional wool shawls. They were stunning pieces of art, shimmery with vibrant colors, the product of intricate needlework and centuries of meticulousness. Finding an interested group of women was not difficult, though attempting to understand how they were able to weave such complex patterns certainly was.
Two weeks later, it was time to leave Pilapuchín and attend the despedida—goodbye party—for AMIGOS participants. As excited as I was to see the friends I had made earlier in the summer, I was nervous, since the despedida was also our first opportunity to sell the shawls. A few hours later, after saying some painful goodbyes to community members and arriving at the party, my partners and I set up shop at a table. As potential customers ran the fabric between their hands, question after question raced through my mind. Had the community members working on the project priced the chalinas right? Would people even want to buy them? I had been involved in the project since the beginning, which made the prospect of failure terrifying.
It turned out it would only take 10 minutes for us to make our first sale. By the end of the day, we had collected over $100. As we packed up and the women spoke of investing the money into more materials, I felt foolish for worrying we wouldn’t be successful. But perhaps desiring it so badly had made our success that much more satisfying.
That is the beauty of the subjunctive: it captures those moments of wanting and uncertainty.
AMIGOS taught me to embrace the subjunctive moments we find everywhere. And, yes, immersing myself in the language undoubtedly helped me understand the nuances of the grammatical mood itself, but that was never the point. What I learned that summer is that I do not learn Spanish because I like the way the words sound. I learn Spanish because it gives me another 427 million people with whom I can share my subjunctive feelings and desires.