Third Prize Winner of the 2013-14 Writing Contest

Cynthia J. Avila, ’16, participated in the Toledo: Intermediate Spanish program.



I could not read Don Quijote, nor you.
Three months pass - across the table, standing.
“The recipe, please,” I ask, eyes widen.
Behind folded laundry, the soft response,
Lo siento, querida.  Blind eyes, sealed lips.
Twenty years ago, an African home.
No more.  The bus, la puerta, there, and back.
Do not pity me, querida.  Silence.
Himo, the recipeplease.  Still pencil.
Not once school children.  Sixty years before.
Two roads diverged, I could not travel both.
Fate spared me deep lines, for skin so fair.  Why?
Blind eyes, sealed lips.  Communication, none.
“Do not pity me, querida.”  Silence.

I wrote Illiterate on November 29th, 2013 in the afternoon. It was another beautiful day in Toledo, Spain with the final petals on the Chrysanthemums falling from the balcony of my host mother’s home. I was in the house with Himo, casually talking to her in the tight kitchen while she brewed a fresh cup of sugared Moroccan mint tea and boiled the green beans for la cena (dinner). Himo was an unexpected member of my host family, who I had met three months earlier upon my arrival to the medieval city. She was a sixty year old woman adopted by my Spanish host mother, and originally was from Morocco. Today, she serves as a very important, though not equal member of the family. Very much involved in day to day activities, Himo was still requested to eat at a different time compared to everyone else, and in a different location. For me this was culture shock, to say the least.

On November 29th, as I smelled the aromas coming from the kitchen stove, I asked Himo for a Moroccan recipe which she had made only on several occasions during my three month stay. She slightly chuckled at my inquiry, and I thought nearly nothing of this. It was not uncommon to ask Spaniards for family recipes more than once and, because Himo had been living in Toledo for twenty years, to some degree I considered her a Spaniard in her own right. Upon my second attempt, she looked at me briefly and then back at the laundry that she was then folding. “Cindy,” she said, “I have it all in my head.” I responded, “That’s fine. If you could write the ingredients for me, that would be really helpful.” I ignorantly smiled. “Lo siento, querida.” She closed her eyes and sealed her lips. “I cannot read or write.”


Three months I had lived with Himo and not once had it occurred to me that she was illiterate. She continued to fold the laundry, unbothered by her statement. I, on the other hand, was speechless. This sonnet, titled Illiterate, is dedicated to Himo and based on this experience. The structure of the piece is 14 lines long and each line has no more than 10 syllables, following the traditional sonnet structure.