“Language binds us together. Language and memories…Memories. Secrets that we alone know. That we will carry to our graves, to our graves” (165). This quote touches upon one of the most important themes within They Who Do Not Grieve, that of language and the ability to communicate. This book is full of stories of different families and different generations, yet they all are bound together by language. Furthermore, everyone’s name in this book means something, and thus tells a story of its own. Language is the arena through which all things are connected and flow, like the river from the beginning of the book. Not only is language extremely important in this book, but silence as well. As we discussed in class, even though Malu is our narrator and is telling us the stories of her and her family, in reality, she is silent most of the time. It seems that despite language’s role in the novel, there are certain factors that impede Malu from being herself and truly speaking out. As we have seen, Lalolagi is someone who abuses her granddaughter physically and verbally, which prevents Malu from saying what she truly wants to say. However, despite Malu’s silence, language still pervades the book as it is the means through which these women’s stories are told. Without language, Lalolagi would not be able to teach Malu about the past and about the future. Furthermore, even though these women such as Ela, Lalolagi, and even Mary, are shunned and shamed by the other villagers, language is something that travels from generation to generation, despite whatever may have happened in the past. In this book, language is so powerful because it connects all the characters to one another and it is the way through which characters learn about who they truly are.
Another interesting part of language within this book is the self conflict certain characters feel over learning English, a language different than their own. When Alofa moves in with her Aunt Viv, she is terrified of speaking English for fear she will say something wrong. This is reminiscent of Malu who wonders why she should speak when she has nothing significant to say. It seems that in the second and third books, language is even more prevalent and is a part of every character’s story. When Apa, the mailman/painter, tells Alofa his story, he says of his first language, “He felt that if he lost it, he would lose himself, since it was the only thing that belonged to him. His only sure possession” (207). Not only does language make us human, but it gives us a sense of identity. Speaking English is a desire for the characters in this book, it’s a necessity. Alofa says, “I used the English language only when it was necessary. That is, when it was demanded of me” (185). This difficulty of language is something that I’ve experienced personally and also something that it relevant to my service learning. Just today, I received an email from my service coordinator which included a quote from a student at the Esperanza center: “My name is Carlos. I came 3 months ago to Baltimore City. I am from Ecuador. For me, life is different because I cannot communicate with people. This is the reason why I want to learn English. English is important to look for a job.” Learning a foreign language is incredibly hard, as I’ve come to realize, especially for people who are not just traveling to another country for pleasure and want to learn the language for fun. Instead, people like those I tutor are learning English as a necessity. Even though the classes I help to teach usually cover a specific topic like items in the classroom or introducing yourself to someone, there have been many times when the students just want to know how to say everyday things that are useful to their lives.
Thinking back to my time in Spain, it was certainly difficult to communicate at times and I can sympathize with Alofa’s feelings, but I wasn’t making a living in another language, unlike these students at my service learning. I know for me I at times had trouble thinking of what to say or how to say it but I was also taking language classes five days a week. These men and women work two, sometimes three jobs and can come to class only when they can find the time. I think back to when I just got to Spain: I didn’t know where anything was and I had trouble communicating even with my own roommates, and that is what it is like for some of these people who have only been in the U.S. for several months. Doing this particular kind of service has really made me aware of the value of language and communication. We’ve talked about how travel can open your eyes to things that you had never before realized, and in turn, it can also make you aware of things you possess that others may not. This service experience has definitely made me more conscious of the things I am grateful for. Furthermore, I’ve realized the important of community; the center where I work is a place where anyone can come and receive the help they need. Also, I travel there every week with a group of Loyola students and we are able to share our experiences with one another. In relation to our class readings, even though Malu experiences negative things in her life, she does so surrounded by a community of people who, though at times can be forceful, do truly care for her. In view of that, Sia Figiel shows the importance of familial ties and the enduring strength of female relationships.