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Thursday, 16 October 2014 00:00

Finding love in the Spanish-speaking community Featured

Written by Jessica Brown
Bob and Judy Schaal share memories of their Puerto Rican Wedding Day. Bob and Judy Schaal share memories of their Puerto Rican Wedding Day. Jessica Brown

People who marry into the Spanish-speaking community may find themselves assimilating into both a new culture and a new family. 

One couple's journey led to overcoming a language barrier, while another merged both of their families into one.                

Bob Schaal and Tracie Avila each faced challenges, but they were able to find love and share their stories on what it takes to adjust to another person's culture. 


Imagine going into a Spanish-speaking community, without knowing the language, then meeting a woman you want to date. You pay a young boy quarters to translate what you say to the person who could potentially become your spouse. 

Bob Schaal of Johnson City, Tennessee, had to do just that. It was the language of love that ultimately brought Bob and Judy Schaal together.

Bob is from Minnesota and Judy grew up in Puerto Rico.

They met when Bob was stationed in Puerto Rico in 1975 at the Ramey Air Force Base.

Judy lived in the area her whole life, but didn't realize that a single evening would change everything.

"I went out to a local bar one night," said Bob. "There was this girl wearing red and she was laughing. I instantly knew I wanted to get to know her."

Bob said he went out with his friend "Papa John" Pyatt, a retired Air Force sergeant. It turned out that Judy knew Papa John Pyatt's daughters.

Since that first night, Bob and Judy have overcome many obstacles.

"I didn't know any Spanish and she didn't know any English," Bob said. "I remember I paid a boy a bunch of quarters to translate for me."

Bob said it was the best quarters he'd ever spent.

Throughout the course of a couple months, they got to know each other by Bob coming to see Judy at her house, talking on the front porch and even spending a weekend at the beach.

They also made frequent trips to the mall, where everyone dressed up really nice, Judy said.

"Her dad was very protective of her," said Bob. "I remember I had to have her home by 11 p.m. and we had chaperones."

At the time, Bob was 21 and Judy was 22.

"After only knowing each other for a few months, I proposed in July and we got married in October," said Bob.

Bob said his transition into the Puerto Rican world wasn't hard.

"On base, I lived in English basically," said Bob, "although I couldn't figure out salsa [dancing] until later."

Bob and Judy had a traditional Puerto Rican wedding.

IMG 1915

"We spoke the language of love."
                                              – Judy Schaal


"Her dad fixed up the yard nice with a cabana," said Bob. "There was a pig roast, white table cloths and my parents came down to celebrate with us."

When the two families came together for the first time, communication was non-verbal.

"Our families couldn't understand each other," said Judy. "Everyone was just kind of smiling at each other."

Judy recalls how her father was very polite about everything, while her mother thought she was crazy.

"We spoke the language of love," Judy said.

Judy's mothercooked a wide variety of food such as rice and beans, blood sausage, breadfruit, flan, turnovers and "spaghetti soup."

"Lunch was the main meal," said Bob. "Then we had leftovers later."

Bob said the food was an easy adjustment, but one of the harder ones was dealing with the water company.

"I remember I didn't get a water bill for over a year and a half," said Bob.

Bob said this was due to inefficiencies in the system, making the waits in the water company lines terrible. After taking a number, Bob said a person would sit and camp out for the rest of the day there.

"After they learned I worked for the government, they turned it [the water] back on real fast," Bob said.

After leaving Puerto Rico, Bob and Judy have lived in several places including: New Mexico, Miami, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

"When I got out of the Navy, I went back to electronics school and took a Spanish 101 class," said Bob.

Judy picked up English quickly and Bob took classes in Spanish.

"It seemed to work for us," said Bob.

Today, the roles are reversed and Judy resides in Bob's world. They are both prominent members of the Club Latinoamericano in Johnson City and travel back to Puerto Rico each year to visit family.

A couple with a similar multi-cultural marriage is Luis and Tracie Avila, who not only had to adjust to one person, but two families.

Lou and Me

For Tracie Avila, she had to adjust to many changing circumstances in her in-laws', Fernando and Marta Avila's, culture. 

They met at a local high school football game in South Florida.

"Luis was the first one born of his family in America," said Tracie, who lived in South Florida her entire life.

After Tracie and Luis were married in 1991, they remained in Florida and then moved to Johnson City, Tennessee.

"They [the Avilas] didn't treat me any different than their sons," said Tracie. "I was their daughter."

Luis Avila's family originally emigrated from Cuba to Miami in 1960 after Fidel Castro took over.

"It was hard for my parents to come here because they were very wealthy in Cuba," said Luis.

"They came here with nothing because Castro took everything, all the money, all the houses, all the property." - Luis Avila 

Like many others, this was a difficult time for the Avila family to go through, Luis said.

"My dad saw it coming," said Luis. "He said 'put money in the bank in Miami', but my grandfather was stubborn and they lost it all."

Luis said his parents went to school with Castro, and when he took over, his mother's childhood home was turned into a hospital.

"When they were getting on the plane to come to America," said Tracie. "They stuffed rings and earrings into toothpaste."

They never returned to Cuba because they felt if you went there, you were supporting Communism and Fidel Castro, said Luis.

"They always hoped to live to see a free Cuba," said Tracie. "But they never did."

After moving to Johnson City, Tracie made frequent visits to South Florida when her In-laws became ill, as their primary caregiver.

"My mother-in-law had Alzheimer's and she could understand English," said Tracie. "But she would only communicate in Spanish so when I was caring for them, right away I learned 'ten cuidado,' which means careful."

Fernando and Marta Avila

Tracie explained that she would go down to South Florida for weeks at a time, while her husband was at work.

"Thank God she was able to because I was working and my brother was working too," said Luis.

After making several trips down to South Florida, Tracie and Luis decided to bring his parents to Johnson City to live with them.

Luis' parents passed away a month apart from each other in March and April of this year.

Since then, Tracie has been on and off with her Spanish.

"Years ago, I would be able to understand as long as I could catch the verbs," said Tracie. "But when we were away from the South Florida vibe, I've lost a lot of my Spanish."

The language barrier was difficult at times, although his parents did speak English, Tracie said.

"When his family would get together, they would talk really fast [in Spanish]," said Tracie. "Especially when the women get together they speak fast and loud and then faster."

During the holidays, they usually alternated between both of their families.

"We had Thanksgiving, my side of the family, we had a lot of Polish food along with turkey and dressing," said Tracie. "But Christmas with Lou's family, it was celebrated on the 24th and it was strictly Cuban food."

Some of the food included picadillo, shredded pork, arroz frijoles, tostones and generally finished the meal off with a Cuban coffee.

"Our families are very friendly families," said Tracie. "And we all became one family."

Upper right: Bob and Judy Schaal dance in Puerto Rico on their wedding day. Left: Tracie and Luis Avila remember stories about how they first met. Bottom right: Fernando and Marta Avila left their home in Cuba to discover a new life in South Florida (contributed photos). 

En español: Buscando amor en la comunidad hispanohablante

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