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  • Writer's pictureCullen Heater

Travel The Words...

Author's Note:

This article was originally written in collaboration with my former high school Spanish Teacher, Sr. Connolly, for publication in Milton Academy's Spanish Language Magazine, La Voz. The intention of the piece was to encourage Spanish language students to use their newfound linguistic powers for good. It has been translated and edited for content and clarity. To read the original Spanish version titled "Usa tu voz" visit:

Cullen Heater

28th of September, 2018

Boca de Cuiria, Coclé, Panamá

I am here to tell you that you are capable of something special, a superpower that could change your life and open doors to an unknown world. You do not yet know how to use it and, in all honesty, you are scared. I must warn you that yes, something this powerful can be dangerous. You will fail sometimes. Maybe you will do harm to yourself or to someone else; but, it is worth it. The rewards are so great that there is no excuse to not use it.

You are a superhero. Through your ability to speak, read and write in Spanish, the second-most spoken language in the world, you can communicate with 460 million people, or 6% of the global population with whom you could not speak before. I have met these people in faraway places like Spain, where I went in 2007 with the Spanish Exchange Program as a student at Milton Academy, and Panamá from where I am writing you this message right now in 2018 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. But these people are also your neighbors: the waiter in your favorite restaurant, the cook in the dining hall, the custodian cleaning the floors of the student center.

When I was a student in the classes of Sra. Ramos, Sra. Colbert, Sr. Connolly and Sr. Ryan, I did not realize that they were teaching me magic. Language is pure alchemy, transforming words, phrases and sentences from one language to another. But, the result is even more valuable than gold. Learning another language changes not only your perspective, but also the way in which your brain works, transforming you into a citizen of the world. It is impossible to measure how much my teachers have changed my life. I would like to thank them and the whole language department at Milton Academy- an insuperable program that works diligently to prepare us for a life beyond Milton. But, ultimately, the responsibility is yours. Now is the time to sharpen your abilities, to fail in a safe place and to grow.

Dare to do more, to take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of your nose. Challenge yourself not only with advanced classes and exchange programs, but also in your daily life. My experience in Spain was incredible. To live with a host family in an apartment in Madrid, watching the spectacle of the matadors and the marvelous flamenco dancers was unforgettable. Furthermore, those experiences prepared me extensively for my adventures as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

At this moment, I am writing to you by the flickering light of several candles, listening to the sound of the rivers flowing in the distance. I live in a little shack deep in the countryside of Panamá. It is a hidden paradise named Boca de Cuiria located where the waters of the Cuiria River flow into the Tulú River. I work with the farmers that live here, supporting and helping them with their coffee farms, and with the crops that they harvest to feed their families. When I was 16 years old, I had a dream of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was green, very naïve. I thought that I could change the world, that I could do something extremely important, that I could help people. Was I wrong? I still don’t know; we’ll see. But here I am, living my dream. I am a superhero (at least in my mind), using my power of speaking Spanish to connect with a world completely different than that from which I came, traveling through space and time to a place where there are more horses than cars, where the children bathe in the river, and the people feel free. Truthfully, it is a difficult life here as well. The people here experience difficulties that I have never had to face, and the change in lifestyle has been enormous for me. I fail frequently. Sometimes, I want to give up; but, I always remember that this is my dream and I have to be grateful every day for this opportunity, for the power that I have to talk to and get to know the people from this place, and for the teachers that have supported me along the way.

We are all citizens of one world. Don’t listen to those that want to divide the world just so they can control their little piece of it. The people of Boca de Cuiria are my people, and they are yours as well, same with the Spanish, Venezuelans, Mexicans and all of the others that seem different or speak differently from you. It is a gift that we are all different. We must use our powers to unite people. Can we change the world? I still don’t know. But at least we can reach out to people and develop our own potential. Your superpower will serve you well. Use it. Now is the time to start.

Between my high school graduation and my acceptance into the Peace Corps, I worked in the food and restaurant industry. Suddenly, I was submerged in an alternate universe that exists in every city in the United States. Behind the kitchen doors, Spanish is the lingua franca. At first, surrounded by different accents, and unfamiliar words being spoken at inconceivable velocity, I kept my superpower a secret. I was scared to speak Spanish, and honestly, I enjoyed being like a spy, the gringo that nobody thought could understand. But that was just weakness. A wise man once said: "With great power comes great responsibility." Little by little, I began to use my voice, practicing and improving a little at a time. This skill will help you greatly in your personal and professional life. You don’t have to fly to travel to the Spanish-speaking world. The United States is now a part of Latin America, with a population of more than 40 million Spanish-speakers, the second largest after México. Think about that for a moment: there are more people in the United States that speak Spanish than the entire population of Spain!

This world is open for you. Use your voice. Practice your superpower. Look for opportunities to widen your perspective. The adventure begins now.

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