I first encountered this story when I was a teaching assistant during graduate school. I was teaching fourth-semester Spanish with Pasajes, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. I did a little checking, and it looks like Pasajes: Lengua is still available, although the story was in its companion volume Pasajes: Literatura and it’s not completely clear to me whether that title is also available or not.
In any case, I was delighted with “Espuma y nada más”. It is very comparable to Gabriel García Márquez’ better-known and more widely anthologized “Un día de estos” (1962). In fact, for more advanced students there are a lot of interesting possibilities for comparing and contrasting the two narratives. I may go into that in a future post, but for today I am going to focus specifically on Téllez’ story and its possibilities for intermediate-to-advanced learners, because I think it has a lot to offer on its own, particularly with respect to the preterite/imperfect contrast. It contains a number of richly contextualized examples in which the accurate interpretation of preterite and imperfect makes a critical difference to learners’ ability to understand the story.
For learners reading “Espuma y nada más” on their own:
If you are a learner working on your own to build up or maintain your Spanish proficiency, I can’t emphasize enough how beneficial reading is for language acquisition. The more you read, the more vocabulary and grammatical structures you get exposed to and the more you build your network of linguistic knowledge. Also highly beneficial? REreading. When you revisit a text you already know, you can deepen your understanding and appreciation by discovering new layers and depths, as well as reinforcing what you learned from it the first time. The process is similar to what I talked about in last week’s post when I recommended watching an already-familiar favorite movie in Spanish: once you already know the content of the book/story/film/etc., you can devote more of your attention to the details of language that you might have glossed over on the first reading or viewing.
For second language learners, reading in the target language is challenging. This is true even for people who love to read for pleasure: enthusiastic readers are typically highly fluent readers in their native language, and it can be frustrating to read in the L2 and find yourself frequently having to pause to look up words and tease apart unfamiliar expressions. And if reading is not your favorite activity to begin with, it might be really unappealing to wrestle with reading in another language. There are ways to make it easier on yourself, however.
If you prefer to read on paper, I encourage you to keep a pencil handy and take as many notes as you need to. It depends, of course, on whether you’re reading from your own book vs. one that belongs to the library or one that you hope to sell at the end of the semester, and you may have to photocopy the pages so that you can write with impunity, but I see a lot of value in the physical act of notetaking by hand while reading. There is some good research on the encoding hypothesis that explores why notetaking by hand seems to be so effective. Much of it focuses on notetaking while listening to a lecture or presentation rather than reading, but I think that some of the same underlying reasons apply: stopping to write something down forces you to pause and spend a few extra seconds thinking about what you write, reframing and synthesizing information, and there is a kinesthetic element that is also activated while writing. So please, write all over the margins while reading in Spanish.
If you do your reading online, I recommend that you take advantage of a great support tool, “the coolest dictionary known to hombre”, the website lingro.com. You could, of course, have your story in one browser tab and then open another browser tab for an online dictionary, and click back and forth as needed to look up unfamiliar words. But if you go to lingro.com, copy-and-paste the URL of whatever you are reading in Spanish into the field in #1, select “Spanish -> English” from the dropdown menu, and click the blue arrow. Lingro will open a page with the text from your source page, and all of the words will be clickable. As you read, whenever you come to an unfamiliar word you can click on it and a dictionary translation will pop up. (*Note: anything that was hyperlinked in the source page will still be a live link, so you can’t click those for definitions – they will take you to a new page. Also, images and formatting will not come through in Lingro, just the text.) Lingro does have a few limitations: in addition to losing the images and formatting, the dictionary is not comprehensive and doesn’t always do the best job with regionalisms and variant word meanings (which sometimes are what you need most when reading online in your L2). But the ability to click a word for a quick definition without having to change tabs and type into an online dictionary makes Lingro a much less obtrusive way of grappling with unfamiliar vocabulary while reading. I encourage you to check it out! Put the URL for “Espuma y nada más” into Lingro and try clicking when you get to a word like “esmero” or “faena” that may not have come up in any of the vocabulary lists in your intro Spanish classes.
Whether you read “Espuma y nada más” on paper or online, pay careful attention to the way the barber describes everything in such close detail, and also note the dilemma that he wrestles with throughout the story: “Yo era un revolucionario clandestino, pero era también un barbero de conciencia, orgulloso de la pulcritud en su oficio.” He literally has Captain Torres with a knife at his throat, torn between his desire to do his job well, thus keeping his cover intact, and his temptation to take advantage of this opportunity to take revenge on the captain on behalf of his fellow revolutionaries. “¿Asesino o héroe? Del filo de esta navaja depende mi destino.” Finally, pay close attention as well to the way the author uses preterite and imperfect while describing the scene and narrating the events.
If you haven’t yet read “Espuma y nada más”, I encourage you to pause and do so now, before reading the rest of this post. I always have my disclaimer about spoilers on every page of the site; I am definitely going to be discussing them in the “For language educators” portion of this post, so if you want to read the story without knowing the ending, pause here and come back later. 😉 ¿Qué decide el barbero? ¿Qué pasa al final del cuento?
For language educators:
As I alluded to in the introduction, “Espuma y nada más” is going to be appropriate for intermediate through advanced language learners rather than for beginners. It is an approximately 1,750-word story with reasonably challenging vocabulary, and it deals with themes of conflict and political violence that will require some maturity on the part of learners. This story can also open up a wider conversation about the history and politics of revolution, conflict and military dictatorships in Colombia and in Latin America more generally, so it is probably best for learners no younger than middle-school aged, more likely high school and above.
There are a number of interpretations of “Espuma y nada más” available on YouTube that could be used productively in the classroom. All of them range between 5 and 12 minutes. The one embedded at the top of this post is probably the one I would be most likely to use. It is pretty clearly a student project with limited production values (for example, the “razor” is a Swiss Army pocket knife and the captain’s beard is less than convincing) but it hews very close to the original text, it includes on-screen subtitles, and it does a good job of capturing the essence of the story. This version has better production values, but it departs from the original text. This one gives a more accurate vision of what the scene would have looked like at the time the story was written (notice, for example, the straight razor, depicted very clearly in the opening and especially around the 30-second mark), but it conveys the dialogue only and the viewer has to infer the barber’s interior monologue. For some classroom activities, that might be highly desirable, while for others, you might prefer a more complete voicing of the text. (For example, you might screen this version and have students practice narrating the barber’s interior monologue. You might then ask them to speculate about the captain’s internal monologue as well.) This version is a straightforward reading of the text over still images, while this one is a significant transformation from the original.
One of my favorite ways to approach “Espuma y nada más” is to highlight the consequences of preterite and imperfect aspect for understanding the story. In addition to analyzing how the verb forms are used in the story itself (for example, in the sentence “Iba a ser, pues, muy difícil explicar que yo lo tuve entre mis manos y lo dejé ir tranquilamente, vivo y afeitado”), I like to point out that you need to get the verbal aspect right in order to accurately describe what happens in the story. I ask the students to select the options that best reflect the action of “Espuma y nada más” in the sentences that follow:
- Al final del cuento, el barbero supo / sabía que el capitán ya supo / sabía que fue / era un revolucionario clandestino.
- El barbero quiso / quería matar al capitán, pero al final no pudo / podía.
I also like to use this story as a way of introducing the idea of literary symbolism. I ask students to think about what the espuma might represent in the context of the story, and how the title might be interpreted in various ways. We also discuss the razor, how it contrasts with the foam but also works in tandem with it, and how that symbolism relates to the barber and the captain.
The role of the narrator is another topic that “Espuma y nada más” lends itself to exploring in the classroom. The story is told from the first person point of view of the barber, and because of the way he describes his attention to detail and his pride in doing his job well no matter what the circumstances, the reader tends to trust him and take him at his word. Because the barber assumes throughout the story that the captain doesn’t know about his clandestine revolutionary activity, on first reading we tend to assume the same thing. Upon learning that in fact Captain Torres was aware of the barber’s sympathies the entire time, we now have grounds for questioning the narrator’s perspective: the barber is not an unfaithful or untrustworthy narrator per se, but his perspective is revealed to be limited. This can open up a discussion about possibly reinterpreting earlier moments in the story in light of this new information. For example, the conversation that begins when the captain says “Venga usted a las seis, esta tarde, a la Escuela” may take on an even more sinister undertone than it did the first time. This conversation about the narrator’s perspective could even be extended into a writing activity: once the class is aware of what the Captain knows, they can re-tell the story from his point of view and develop his interior monologue (similar to the speaking activity suggested above with one of the YouTube videos of “Espuma y nada más”) .
Finally, a word about lingro.com, the website I recommended to learners in the previous section. There are a lot of productive ways to use Lingro to support your classroom teaching. For example, whenever intermediate and advanced students do presentations requiring Internet-based research, I recommend that they focus on Spanish-language websites and use Lingro to assist their comprehension. For instance, if a student is going to start off by reading up on their topic on Wikipedia, I direct them to use Wikipedia en español and open the page through Lingro. Even if they access the English-language Wikipedia page afterward to shore up their comprehension, they are getting some experience reading in Spanish and seeking information, supported by Lingro’s clickable translations.
Have you engaged with “Espuma y nada más”? Share your ideas, experiences and suggestions in the comments!
Title: Espuma y nada más
Author: Hernando Téllez
Genre: Short Story
Publication Information: in Cenizas para el viento y otras historias (1950; Editorial Universitaria, Bogotá, Colombia)