Something I've noticed about native Spanish speakers is that many of them tend to confuse pronouns when learning English. For example, they'll say "she" when they mean "he" or replace "their" with "they." My theory is that this has something to do with the fact that Spanish verbs are more inflected than English ones and therefore don't always require pronouns to clarify who's doing what. "Tengo" means "I have"; "tuvimos" means "we had." Maybe my students mix up their pronouns because they're not used to having to focus on them. This difference influences English speakers' Spanish as well: A Chilean once told me she'd noticed that we gringos, recurring to the rules of our own pronoun-peppered language, have the tendency to use the possible but repetitive "yo tengo" and "nosotros tuvimos."
As it turns out, I have pronoun troubles in English too. Of these little words, the one that complicates my life most is "we."
While talking to my mom on Skype last night, I mentioned that we here in Chile had gone off daylight saving time over the weekend. My use of "we" got me thinking about a time when I'd chosen a different pronoun: when I was home in Minnesota visiting from Ecuador and asked her, "Where do you keep the pots now?"
You. Not we. Through a simple inquiry about kitchenware, I had implied that I was no longer a full member of the household.
Which is true, in a sense. Ever since I went off to college, I've only spent a handful of weeks per year at home. However, for me, the phrase "at home" has never ceased to mean my family's house in Minneapolis. When I'm in the States, I don't talk about going "home" to Chile. Perhaps I would if I had a family here or had definite plans to stay here permanently. But I don't, at least not for now.
Still, the pronoun dilemma remains. If a foot of snow falls on Minneapolis while I'm frying under Santiago's summer sun, did we just have a blizzard or did they? Do we start partying late at night here in Santiago, or do they?
I have to admit that using "we" to refer to Santiaguinos makes me feel kinda warm and fuzzy. Like using "we" to refer to myself and a significant other. To me, "we" means that even though I'm far from home -- and from most of the people who know me best -- I belong to a community and to my surroundings. That I'm not a visitor in this city but a resident in it. A member rather than an observer.
Of course, there are certain contexts in which I would never presume to use "we." For example, "We suffered under Pinochet." And not just because I wasn't here during his regime. I don't know how Chileans who lived in Chile during the dictatorship would react to Chileans who didn't -- either because they were living abroad or hadn't been born yet -- saying the same thing, but I have the feeling they would find it more acceptable than if a foreigner had said it. There are certain aspects of this country that will be forever off-limits to me, certain things I will never be able to fully understand. I first encountered Chile by stepping off a plane when I was 20, not by growing up immersed in its history, culture or reality. For me, Chile is like a second language: I started learning too late to never have an accent.
There are other cases, though, in which I feel I have every right to use "we." I've lived in Santiago for almost two and a half years and have many of the same experiences as people who were born and raised here. We complain about the Transantiago bus system. We huddle around gas-fueled heaters in the winter.
Sometimes I feel a bit uncomfortable using "we" in this way, as if someone were going to call me out as an impostor. It's a feeling I'm trying to move past, though. Both because my experiences in Santiago completely justify the "we" and because, as certain things about Minnesota slip further into the realm of "they," "we" needs to absorb things about Chile to replace them. Because living in a world of pure "they"s would be downright depressing.