I met Mike while visiting the Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia. He caught my attention as I was strolling through a street arts festival there, when I suddenly overhear some voices speaking Spanish. That was certainly nothing I was expecting to hear during my visit to Northwest Canada!
I’m fascinated to find four people carrying on a conversation in Spanish — one male and three females. I walk over hoping to see if I can strike up a conversation. They notice me staring — I guess I am gaping — and the youngest of the three turns her head to show me her ear. “What do you think? ¿Te gústa?” she asks in Spanish.
Wow! I am so impressed that she immediately assumes I speak Spanish!
I quickly respond, feeling relieved to be invited into the conversation so I wouldn’t be left to stand there, hovering while they chat.
"Muy bueno! ¿Que son esos?”
And with that, we continue our conversation in the Spanish language without either of us batting an eye.
Mike is showing them some ear huggers, and the young lady who spoke to me — she looked to be about 16 — is trying to persuade her mother to buy one for her. After a few moments, they move aside to continue their conversation and I move in to talk with Mike.
During the group conversation and before I spoke with him directly, I eye him to see if I can find any traces of what might be considered “Latino facial features.” I don’t see any so I ask him flat out if he was a Latino. He says that he is not, so I follow in Spanish with: “Well then, where in the world did you learn to speak Spanish so fluently?”
I learn that Mike is a member of the Nlaka'pamux First Nations Tribe in Victoria, BC. He is a single father of two and has been making a living selling his wares in Victoria’s Inner Harbour for more than 10 years. Mike is a rock collector and makes jewelry and art out of them. He has learned the art of woodworking from his native people and makes wooden instruments, like ukuleles.
“I lived and traveled through South America after I graduated from art school because I was interested in learning about art outside of my own culture. I did that for about two years, traveling throughout Honduras, Guatemala and México before I returned home to BC.” During his travels, Mike learned the art of leather making and metal work, and today uses those skills to create jewelry, like the ear huggers, in order to make a living. He lived in Taxco for a while (famed for its silver jewelry production) and sold the jewelry he created while there to make a living during the rest of his travels. He shared his own Alaskan native traditional skills with those he met there, in exchange for the new skills they were willing to teach him.
“I learned Spanish quickly,” he tells me. “I wanted to break down any borders between me and the people whom I met in order to earn their trust and to show my respect for the people and their culture. Learning Spanish was a must and so important to me.”
He speaks in both English and Spanish fluently, and he and I weave in-and-out of the both languages during our conversation.
Noticing some wire and stones on his table, I ask him for a demonstration and he complies by pulling out his tools and some wire to show me how he creates an ear hugger. Before he begins, he asks me to pick out some beads or stones he has laid out, and then proceeds to curl and weave together the wire into a simple piece of ear jewelry (see below).
As he makes my ear hugger, the three women return and I take advantage of that moment to ask where they are from. “We’re Dominican,” answers the young girl, in English. “We crossed the border into Canada because my Aunt and Mom are considering moving here.”
Mike finishes the ear hugger using the stones I have selected, and I like it so much that I purchase it. Then he and the young Dominican girl proceed to show me how to wear it so it doesn’t pinch my ear.
As I walk away, I thank him and then bid farewell to the Dominican women as the mother turns to pay for her daughter’s ear hugger. I notice after she hands him her credit card, the mother has grabbed one and is trying it on for size. I think the young girl not only convinced her to buy the one she wanted, but also to buy one for herself.