During my first few months of teaching English in Quito, Ecuador, I kept hearing it:
or some version of the phrase. Spanish’s “tocar” translates to English’s “touch,” but what did everybody mean to say about being touched? I was especially confused when the performer of the action, of the touching, wasn’t mentioned.
After those first few months, I finally surrendered to a simple Google search. According to SpanishDict.com’s thirteenth definition of “tocarse” (yes, the thirteenth), the word can be used to express one’s contribution to a group, albeit with a mysteriously-unnamed performer of the touching. For instance,
(1) Te toca can be used to say “it’s your turn” during a game of cards
(2) A mí me toca limpiar el cuarto can be used to say that you’ve now got to clean someone’s room
(3) Le tocó a ella divertirse can be used to say that now it’s her turn to have fun
I thank this online dictionary for providing us with the various uses of the same word. It’s especially interesting to see how Latin American countries – where, 500 years ago, the land was suddenly overrun by tall, white-and-mustached men speaking an alien tongue – have swallowed the alien tongue for themselves. And each of the Latin American countries, spread throughout the varied climates of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, have developed distinct identities.
Still, while each country lays claim to its culture – from the penguins of Patagonia to the minefield at the Mexican border – regional migration is common. For example, my host family in the highland city of Quito is composed of
(1) A costal Ecuadorian from northern Esmeraldas
(2) A Chilean from Santiago
(3) An Ecuadorian from the southern highland city Loja
(4) And four children who beautifully mix the varying backgrounds
How’s that for simplifying all Latinos down to one particular taco-making country, Mr. President?
Anyway – simply put, Latinos aren’t “simple,” especially after considering the extensive mixing between European colonizers, indigenous populations, and African slaves. And like their blood, the language Latinos now speak isn’t simple, either. I imagine you might vaguely remember learning that “bolígrafo” is the Spanish word for “pen.” I laugh and hope that you will join in too: it is simply too simple to match English words with one Spanish translation. In Quito, to say “pen” we say “esfero.” And to venture backwards, we use “tocarse” here as well – but for ideas other than a physical touch.
I had never used this use of the verb “tocar” in Spanish class, so when I first learned it in Ecuador, my mind asked me to equalize it to “tener + que.” You might also remember this one from Spanish class. What does it mean again? Oh yeah: Obligation, English’s “have to.” That is, tengo que hacer mi tarea translates to “I have to do my homework.” So, I started interpreting “te toca limpiar el cuarto” as “you have to clean the room,” with that strong, obligatory “have to.”
But the use of “tocarse” in Quito isn’t quite like that. Let’s go back to its purpose here: to express one’s contribution to the group. While there are endless ways to differentiate Latin American cultures, one common thread runs throughout the countries: the family.
Living abroad to teach English as a 22-year-old white woman, I was doing a pretty good job separating myself from my family. But in Ecuador, everything is centered about the family – life events, meals, celebrations, even the language. So whereas in English, we have this ominous “you must” or “have to” do something, with focus on the individual – in Ecuadorian Spanish, I have come to understand “te toca” not as a faceless individual command, but as an implicit and natural part of being part of a family. Maybe the mysteriously-unnamed performer of the touching was this over-arching idea of community.
One Saturday morning, my host sister-in-law sauntered into the kitchen from her apartment upstairs. Her black-and-red hair, recently dyed, made it look like she had just dipped her split ends into fire. Under her beautiful yellow-and-brown eyes, she conveyed beautiful purple pillows, which probably formed due to long absences from her pillow, given that a ella le toca take care of her one-year-old baby girl.
Standing in the center of the kitchen, she softly slapped her right palm over her forehead, as if to both punish and caress it, smiling, “Me toca lavar la ropa.”
In this simple sentence, she acknowledged – out of all the experiences we have as humans in this world, out of all the roles we play in life and all the happiness and sadness we are made to enjoy and cope with – that now, as a mother of two young girls, it was her time to dedicate herself to housework and cleaning and raising and mothering. She had passed her earlier days experiencing life as she was meant to at that time, and now this naturalness of new obligations as a mother had touched her.
Now it was her turn, while acknowledging all the beings in her family and in the world who had done so before her, to wash the clothes.
Written by Sarah Simon; Photos by Sarah Simon, Marco Antonio López,Tim Chucta, and Paola Flores.
More photos from Sarah Simon’s time in Ecuador can be found on her Instagram “Quito Query” series.