It’s Monday, so time for Spanish Christmas carols; los villancicos navideños españoles. This one is very special to me, but first a little back story.
Like a lot of kids in Southern California, I took four years of language between middle and high school. Well, in my case, five, but the last year was German because I’d topped out with the AP (advanced placement) class in the other one.
The first four years… well, four levels over five years, I was lucky enough to get Spanish. (It was luck of the draw between Spanish, French, and German.) I loved the language and loved learning it — I’ve had a thing for other languages since about first grade — but when we got to that last class, our teacher did us a great disservice.
She let us vote on whether we wanted to focus on language or literature, and the vast majority of us voted for the former. She overruled it — so why did we vote, again? — saying that we would learn the language by reading the literature. The only problem was that we weren’t ready for it, especially since we started with Cervantes, who wasn’t even writing modern Spanish. Imagine giving a bunch of fourth-year ESL students Shakespeare and you’ll get the idea.
So it turned out to be a non-productive year, and most of us would drive over the Cal State University Northridge library on weekends, since it was open to LA Unified School District students, although we couldn’t check anything out. What we could do, though, was find and copy the English translations of our reading assignments. (Hey, not quite everything was on the Internet yet.)
This defeated the entire purpose of that year. We would have learned so much more focusing on grammar and conversation. And that was where my Spanish learning ended, although the basics were always in the back of my mind. Still, I forgot quite a lot of it, and couldn’t have carried on a conversation anyway after I graduated.
Flash forward to about seven years ago, and for reasons I won’t get too much into, I found a reason and a need to refresh my Spanish skills. (TL;DR: Doing rewrites on a play of mine being produced that had scenes set in Mexico City and wanted to get it right.) So I started studying again via various methods, like Duolingo, along with reading, joining Spanish language Facebook groups, watching videos on YouTube, and changing my car radio to only Spanish language stations.
And that brings us to this. Every December, the local station KLVE plays a lot of villancicos, and this one was one of the first I ever heard and learned the words to. I also have become a big fan of the performer, Juanes. His stage name, while it looks like the plural of Juan, is actually a portmanteau of the performer’s first two names: Juan Esteban Aristizábal Vásquez.
It’s a simple song about a man riding his little donkey from the savannah (burrito sabanero) to Bethlehem (a Belén.) Belén is also the Spanish name for what English speakers call a nativity scene. ¡Disfrútalo! Enjoy the video!