FACETIME- Fluency, the metaphor: Johnson walks bilingual walk

Mike Johnson

When Mike Johnson, 52, goes south of the border, he's not heading to Club Med. Johnson opts for accommodations in a Spanish language immersion program or in people's homes.

Without fluency in another language, he explains, Americans traveling outside their country miss a lot. "They could be on a beach at the Outer Banks," says this part-time employee of Region Ten, who works with Latino families and volunteers for organizations like the Center for Peace and Justice and Pastors for Peace.

The latter group, which opposes U.S. laws that restrict travel and trade to Cuba, is expected to bring its Cuba Caravan through Charlottesville on July 11. Donations to the nation under U. S. embargo since 1962 will make their way to Texas, where the group will defy the embargo and publicly cross into Mexico, from which the supplies will be shipped to Cuba.

"Do we hear about how Cuba has great health care?" asks Johnson. "Living in a number one city, it's hard to recognize other people have good ideas."

"He is very much a man who cares about making the world a better place," says Neil Glassberg, a three-year colleague in a Spanish conversation group with Johnson, "and a man who speaks his mind."  

Johnson hasn't written a book, and he hasn't started a foundation. What he has done is eschew a career in law to seek greater understanding of Central America, which he's been visiting since the 1980s. In 1984, the revolutionary Sandanistas were in power in Nicaragua and under attack by the U.S. government. Johnson decided to learn more.

"I traveled around the country trying to figure out what was going on," says Johnson, who says he found a poor country with a high percentage of illiteracy– and the Sandanistas seeming very popular.

"What I was seeing about this doesn't jibe with what Ronald Reagan was telling us," he says. "Why are they telling us we're going to be imperiled?"

He found more surprises this year in another nation to the north.

"I thought I knew what was going on in Guatemala," says Johnson. "It was shocking to me to find out what was going on during that 36-year war that began in 1960. Two hundred and fifty thousand people were killed."

Bearing witness to such horrors back in his home country, Johnson sees himself as a student of the world: "It's fascinating to see all the assumptions we carry around that don't bear out."