“Imperfect Tense: An Ethnodrama of American adults learning Spanish in Mexico”

Imperfect Tense: An Ethnodrama of American Adults Learning Spanish in Mexico is a play based on fieldwork in Oaxaca, Mexico where I observed Spanish language classes for foreigners, and interviewed North American adults about their experiences acquiring Spanish as a second language. The cast represents a handful of the 70+ participants interviewed and observed for this study and is as accurate as “anonymity” in research can allow, using strategic inventiveness and play. I’m looking for ways to compress further, create composite characters so that the “t” truth of interviews with bankers from New Jersey, artists from New Mexico, and scientists from Colorado do not take 9 months to perform on stage (the time spent in fieldwork doing research).

Criteria for participation in this study: over the age of 30 (one participant was 25 and I made an exception because she was an ESOL [English to speakers of Other Languages] teacher and I just LOVE teachers) and do they consider themselves “Spanish language learners.” If they felt they became “fluent” in Spanish in high school or college, they were not included in this study. Prior to turning 40 and living in Mexico for 9 months at age 43, I might not have included myself in the study. But after speaking Spanish “fluently” for over half my life, I still very much consider myself a life long Spanish language learner.

The goals of this piece are to entertain and “edu-tain” to spark conversations about how we, in the U.S., teach and learn (or don’t learn) non-English languages, Spanish in particular; how we do or do not identify as mestizo (mixed race, origin), how we do or do not have the skills to communicate across difference.  

What appears in this June 2015 post is a selection (SCENE 1 – 3) from the play which was first performed April 2015. I’ve applied to perform this ethnodrama again at the annual meeting of American Anthropologists 2015 (Denver) and which I seek to publish in its entirety so that more of us can illustrate what “creative ethnography” means and its power to represent our findings to both academic and public audiences to spark what Tom Barone (2008) calls “conspiratorial conversations” based on artful presentations of research. The ethnodrama helps showcase the power of language education research findings and complicate what it means to speak more than one language, and the privilege of becoming and remaining bilingual.

The opening scene introduces some of the tensions in how Spanish is marketed to and perceived by the American consumer. We meet two of the main characters: Meredith (a representation of myself, the researcher) and Cherryl, a key participant. The play balances the tensions between Meredith’s research passion and concern for Latino youth in the U.S., her “non-native” identity as a Spanish speaker, and her need to “publish or perish” following university protocol. The play contrasts this tension with those experienced by “Cherryl,” a research participant who was unwillingly drawn into learning the Spanish language by falling in love with an undocumented Mexican worker who was deported.

Invented dialogue, imagined “sales” characters, autoethnographic connections—does this play represent legitimate ethnography? I trespass many of the ethnographic norms in order to produce a piece of scholARTistry that can best represent numerous tensions regarding language, culture, identity and power that present themselves to North Americans as they engage their own emergent bilingual potential in Mexico.


Barone, T. (2008). How arts based research can change minds. In M. Cahnmann-Taylor, & R. Siegesmund (Eds.), Arts-based inquiry in diverse learning communities (pp. 28-50). New York: Routledge


“Imperfect Tense” SCENE 1 CAST*

MEREDITH: An arts-based researcher of language education, racially identified as White, who spent 9 months “going native” among American Spanish learners in Mexico.

CHERRYL: Spanish language student in early 50s who moved from Georgia to Mexico to be with her deported husband CHRISTIAN

CHRISTIAN: Cherryl’s undocumented husband, mid 40s, who worked in landscaping prior to deportation from the US back to his home town in Oaxaca, Mexico.

DIANE: Cherryl’s friend who hired CHRISTIAN to landscape the front of her small business. She met CHERRYL in a Ladies Business Club.

WARNER: African American, 40 years old, who has been living in Oaxaca for 16 + years since graduating from Morehouse College.

GRINGO: Denver native, Gringo retired to Mexico with his wife Gringa and enrolled in Spanish Miracle School. (also plays PROFE , UGA Dean)

GRINGA: Married to Gringo. Decided to celebrate her 60th birthday by learning Spanish in Mexico. Has since decided to have semi-permanent residence in Mexico.

SALE1: Represents quick fix “language for sale” solutions to the monolingual English problem.

SALE2: Represents a competitive company to SALES1.


ANGÉLICA: immigrant child in the US.

SANTOS: UTSA professor who theorizes Chicano identity and is an accomplished creative writer.

DR. PROFE: A university department head who has just hired MEREDITH to be Assistant Professor.

MARTA: Spanish language teacher from Oaxaca.  Trained as a dentist, she practices many trades to make ends meet.  She remarks how many Americans study Spanish because they are “so lonely.”

Scene 1 | Scene 2 | Scene 3