The taste of words | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Victoria Estrada]: OK, so I’m going to record you.
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
[Aemilia]: I’ll start with the first one.
[Daniel]: What you are hearing is the beginning of an experiment.
[Aemilia]: It’s a sweet taste. With a little bit . . . ah . . . some acid tones. It’s a yellow fruit. It’s the taste of pineapple. But when it’s very fresh and diced. That is very important.
[Daniel]: This is Aemilia Sámano. She’s 34 years old and lives in Mexico City.
[Aemilia]: Oh, I love this one! It’s, ah, a pizza that I used to eat when my mother wasn’t home and my father would take us to Pizzas Paolas. It had some very large pieces of ham, like ham in cubes . . .
[Daniel]: She’s not eating any of the things she describes. She’s not looking at it or smelling it. That food is not even in the room where she is.
[Aemilia]: This is fusilli pasta with um . . . with maybe a little butter, I mean, with almost no . . . no sauce. Mhm, this is one of my favorite flavors.
[Daniel]: Aemilia is reading pieces of paper. And on them there is nothing extraordinary, only written words. The first one, the one that made her taste the pineapple, had the word “fifteen” written on it. The one with the ham pizza said “taxi.” The last one, one of her favorite flavors, said simply “three.”
But it’s not that she sees those words and imagines things. Her brain senses those flavors whenever she reads and hears them.
Aemilia has synesthesia, an unusual condition in which the senses combine. For example, there are people who see sounds. Every time they hear a musical note, they see a color. And with different note, a different color.
It’s estimated that 4% of people have some degree of synesthesia. Aemilia’s type—sensing flavors every time she hears, reads or thinks of a word—is less common: about 0.2% of people have it.
Sometimes she even senses smells.
[Aemilia]: Well, the first sensation is completely in my head, but also in my nose. I don’t remember what the other word was that . . . we said a while ago that it tasted like beans. But, yes, that went to my nose. And it’s as if it had been there. I mean, I smelled it as it is.
[Daniel]: For as long as she can remember, words have had that effect on her. At school, math classes were especially tasty.
[Aemilia]: Each number has a flavor that, coincidentally, I like, because not all the flavors, of all the words, taste good to me.
[Daniel]: Number one, for example, tastes like a fruit that is eaten a lot in Mexico, the tuna, that comes from the nopal cactus. Number two tastes like cubes of raw potato. Number three, we already said, like fusilli with butter. They are very specific.
[Aemilia]: In high school what I remember a lot are cheese flavors, one fourth, which is a fresh white cheese, and the number 4, which is that same cheese but melted.
[Daniel]: And, of course, after so much taste of cheese, Aemilia got hungry. When she was in class, and for some reason, the problem they saw had a lot to do with the number 4, the craving increased. Luckily, they sold quesadillas at her school, so it was just a matter of waiting for the bell that announced the end of class.
[Aemilia]: So I would get out for recess craving number 4 and I’d buy my quesadilla of 4. And sometimes I only ate the cheese, to really taste that number 4.
[Daniel]: Aemilia was slow to realize that other people did not experience the world that way.
[Aemilia]: In other words, it never occurred to me that people didn’t think that way, that words had no flavor.
[Daniel]: It’s something that often happens to synesthetes—it’s not so easy to realize that not everyone sees, hears, or feels exactly the same as you do.
In fact, as a child she believed that others didn’t talk about the flavors of words because it was something that should not be spoken of in public. And that silence, in a way, lasted almost her entire life. She talked about it with a few people, but hardly ever in depth. She was afraid of being judged.
But that ended one night in February 2021, in the lockdown of the pandemic. Aemilia was chatting with producer Victoria Estrada, whom she has known for seven years, and she told her that she, in fact, had always wanted to know why that happened to her. Why she was different from other people.
And Victoria, who knew something about her synesthesia but had never dared ask her many questions, made her a proposal: that they get to the bottom of the matter together. They could talk with neurologists, with researchers, with whomever was necessary in order to understand the mystery of her brain.
Aemilia agreed. And so, this scientific journey began.
We’ll be back after a short break.
[Wild Turkey]: This message comes from NPR sponsor Russell’s Reserve. When Master Distiller Eddie Russell created Russell’s Reserve, he sought to make a bourbon delicious for everyone. You can count on their aged-to-perfection, 10 Year Old bourbon to sip neat, on the rocks or in a classic boulevardier cocktail. Order Russell’s Reserve for delivery from Drizly today and share with your chosen family. Russell’s Reserve, forty-five percent alcohol by volume. 90 Proof. 2020 Campari America, New York, New York. Please drink responsibly.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Victoria Estrada picks up the story.
[Victoria Estrada]: Aemilia and I became friends while we were studying for a graduate degree in Translation. A few weeks after we met, she told me that words tasted like things. We were in a bar with other colleagues and suddenly she told us that, to her, all our names had a flavor. Ana Inés tasted like bananas with mayonnaise; Patricia, like green peppers; Hugo, like grape juice; and mine smells like menthol ointment . . . I remember she made us laugh. For me, it was like when someone tells me they’re going to read my hand or the cards, something curious and funny, but nothing more. I still didn’t believe her entirely.
For a while, we stopped talking about it. But last year, with the pandemic, we started talking more. And for months the subject continued to come up. The night we decided to investigate it together, one of the first things I asked her was if this was something that affected her on a daily basis. And she said yes, quite a bit. With simple, everyday things, like getting together with someone for dinner. She is having pizza and the other person is saying words that generate very different flavors . . . like chocolate or lemon, or other more unpleasant things that, believe me, no one wants to hear. And the flavors mix, ruining the food.
[Aemilia]: So that’s how it interferes with me, and the pizza doesn’t taste like what it’s supposed to taste like to me.
[Victoria]: It made me think of all the times we had met to eat and gossip. Aemilia never told me that she would rather stop talking for a while. I never imagined what she could be tasting in her mouth.
That only increased my curiosity. I began asking her detailed questions: had she always had it, did it happen to her with all words, was it possible to control it. But I realized that, beyond describing when and how she felt it, she had no answers about how it worked. Whether it was something to do with her neurons or her taste buds. Or whether it was going to last a lifetime.
And she told me something else, which surprised me: that she had never been to a specialist. It was obvious to me that we should start there. I suggested we make an appointment with the best neurologist we could find in Mexico City. Maybe there we would find the first clues.
I left Xalapa, where I live, to meet Aemilia in Mexico City. It was early April, 2021.
[GPS]: In 500 meters, your destination will be to the right.
[Victoria]: We had scheduled an appointment for the same day. So I picked her up and we went together. We were excited. On the way, we talked about whether there would be some kind of test to find out what was happening to Aemilia’s brain and what it would be like.
[Dra. Rosalía Zerón]: If you want, we can close it or leave it like this . . .
[Victoria]: Dr. Rosalía Zerón’s office is in the Polanco area, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. I arrived with my microphone and my tape recorder, and the doctor didn’t ask too many questions about why we wanted to record the visit. She was a serious but kind woman, and she seemed genuinely interested in helping Aemilia.
She ushered us into her office, a small room with white walls. It had the basics: a desk, three chairs, a scale, and a cot. The only ornament was a painting of red tulips with a white stripe, the symbol of the fight against Parkinson’s, her specialty. I had imagined that any checkups of Aemilia would require machines—sensors, cables, screens—to see inside her skull. But there was none of that in the room. What Dr. Zerón needed was information.
[Dra. Zerón]: So how can we help? Tell me, what has been happening?
[Victoria]: Aemilia tried to be as clear as she could.
[Aemilia]: All my life I have experienced a situation in which every time I hear, well, when I focus on a word, I realize that it makes me perceive some taste or smell, even in some cases, some kind of sensation of pain or disgust. . .
[Victoria]: I was looking at Dr. Zerón. You could tell that she knew what Aemilia was talking about. She didn’t have the look of surprise or disbelief that I’ve seen on other people—and that I had gotten—when she tried to explain her condition. The doctor just started with her questionnaire. She took out a sheet of paper and started taking notes.
[Dra. Zerón]: Date of birth?
[Aemilia]: May 7, 1987.
[Zerón]: Place of origin?
[Aemilia]: I was born in Germany . . .
[Victoria]: Aemilia was born in the German Democratic Republic, in East Berlin. Her mother is German and her father is Mexican. She lived there until she was three years old, and after the wall came down, her family moved to Mexico. That caught the doctor’s attention . . .
[Dra. Zerón]: Is your native language Spanish?
[Dra. Zerón]: Or did you learn German?
[Aemilia]: Well, I spoke German first.
[Dra. Zerón]: Oh, that is very important. Very important, super-important.
[Victoria]: She didn’t say more about why it was so important. I wanted to ask her, but as soon as she was done writing that down, she continued with the questionnaire.
[Dra. Zerón]: Are your parents healthy?
[Aemilia]: According to me, yes, although my mother always claims that my father is diabetic . . . .
[Victoria]: She asked about her parents’ medical history and that of the rest of her close family. And Aemilia’s, of course. Routine questions. There was nothing extraordinary in her medical history.
Aemilia answered with enthusiasm. She seemed hopeful of understanding the causes of what has always happened to her.
[Dra. Zerón]: Any traumas, blows, falls, sprains?
[Aemilia]: Well, sure, I fell many times as a child and hit my head.
[Dra. Zerón]: Any with loss of consciousness?
[Aemilia]: No . . . just one that made me throw up.
[Dra. Zerón]: Oh, OK, there was one that involved vomiting . . .
[Aemilia]: Yes, I fell from the kiosk.
[Dra. Zerón]: At what age?
[Aemilia]: I must have been five years old. My sister pushed me.
[Victoria]: In Mexico, by kiosk we mean a gazebo, those round constructions that you see in the plazas. They have a roof that can sometimes be high, but not much, a meter high at the most.
Then the doctor handed Aemilia a sheet of paper and a pencil.
[Dra. Zerón]: We’re going to do a test more or less similar to this. I’m going to make a series of numbers, after 1 comes A, after A comes B, after B comes…
[Victoria]: She started asking her to do different tests: matching letters and numbers, drawing a cube, saying words that started with “m.” I didn’t count the tests, but there were maybe a dozen, to analyze each cognitive function—memory, orientation, space perception, and so on.
I watched Aemilia go through each one and wondered if she was struggling to concentrate, with so many flavors in her head. The results were clear:
[Dra. Zerón]: It turned out very well. You scored 30 points. That means your brain is perfect.
[Victoria]: If her brain was perfect, what could explain what was wrong with her? Before I could ask, the doctor followed with a physical examination.
[Dra. Zerón]: Well, let’s examine you, this way . . .
[Victoria]: She moved her to a cot. A tap to the knee, to evaluate her reflexes. Checkup of heart, ears, eyes . . . and that’s when she asked her the following question:
[Dra. Zerón]: Have you ever had migraine events?
[Dra. Zerón]: When have you experienced those?
[Aemilia]: I think it’s when I am very stressed, and during one of those migraines I got aphasia; I couldn’t . . . that is, I thought in words and couldn’t say them.
[Dra. Zerón]: That is very important . . .
[Victoria]: Aphasia, Aemilia said. That’s when the ability to speak, write or understand words is lost, momentarily or permanently. It happened to her at the age of 29. From the doctor’s reaction, it seemed like a key piece of information.
[Dra. Zerón]: How long did your inability to speak last?
[Aemilia]: Um . . . about 10, 15 minutes.
[Dra. Zerón]: That’s a lot . . .
[Victoria]: I did the math and was surprised. In those days, we saw each other every week and Aemilia never told me what had happened to her. The doctor said that before confirming that she had synesthesia, other conditions had to be ruled out. Aemilia and I looked at each other. I don’t think either of us expected that.
[Dra. Zerón]: There are many diseases—that I don’t want to name because otherwise, you’re going to be scared (nervous laugh), right? —diseases that can simulate this condition.
[Victoria]: I don’t know if it was better to leave us to imagine what those diseases could be. She explained to us that there were two options—that her brain really had synesthesia, as we believed, or that some other disease was generating those same symptoms, that is, the mixing up of the senses. And what Aemilia said about her migraines was a fundamental piece of data, because migraines can generate neurochemical alterations in the brain.
Aemilia looked worried. She started asking more questions about what diseases it could be. And, in the end, the doctor told her. She needed to rule out epilepsy or some anatomical problem in the brain. And for that she had to do studies. The first thing was an MRI, to get a detailed image of her brain. Any anomaly would be seen there. We agreed that we would return once we had the results.
The visit lasted in all just over an hour. When we left the building, we got into my car and there I turned on the recorder again.
I want to know how you feel, what did you think?
[Aemilia]: Well, I left her office feeling very excited. I would not be thrilled to be diagnosed with epilepsy because I’m very afraid of that disease, but, um, well, I also think it’s good to understand the mystery of my head.
[Victoria]: I was surprised that she wasn’t more frightened or even disappointed. We had gone looking for answers and came up with more questions. Uncomfortable questions. So, was it a disease? Was something serious going on in her brain? Could her life be at risk?
But now that I think about it, I think Aemilia felt fine for an obvious reason: the doctor had never doubted what she was telling her. It was the first time anyone had reacted like this to her story. And further, I think she had never discussed it with someone for so long. Not even we had talked about it to that extent.
Aemilia’s silence had an origin, of course. She told me about it the next day, when we sat down in front of the tape recorder to talk. It was something that had happened to her in school, when she was 10 years old. She was at recess with Jazmín, one of her friends, when it occurred to her to ask:
[Aemilia]: Hey, does your name taste like tangerines to you? Because Jazmín tastes like tangerines to me. She just replied, “No.” And she went off to tell the other girls how weird I was.
[Victoria]: Feeling weird was something that happened to Aemilia all the time, and not just because of the flavors she sensed with words. Since her mother was German, the snacks she packed for school were not typically Mexican. For example, a sandwich made with black bread, cheese and onions, and a whole tomato on the side instead of an apple. The other children said that Aemilia and her sister probably ate whole onions, and they made fun of them.
Aemilia didn’t need any more reasons to be different. So she quickly learned not to mention the thing about words and flavors to other children.
She also does not remember having discussed the matter at length with her parents, or, at least, she doesn’t remember that they ever attached much importance to it. I asked why they were never concerned or took her to a doctor, but she couldn’t say. She does remember that as a child, she used to say things like:
[Aemilia]: This tastes like 8 to me.
[Victoria]: To Aemilia. 8 tastes like spaghetti with ketchup, something she ate a lot when she was little and that’s why she remembers mentioning it. But her parents didn’t seem to react.
[Aemilia]: I think my mother probably forgot about it and to her it didn’t seem too important because sure, if you think about it, it’s not serious, right? That your daughter thinks of food and says words while she eats. I mean, children are strange in general.
[Victoria]: What happened to Aemilia as a child—having her experiences be too strange to be taken seriously—had also come up during the scientific study of synesthesia.
The first recorded case of synesthesia occurred about 300 years ago in England. There was talk of a blind man who saw the color red when he heard trumpets. Over time, several scientists reported cases of people whose senses were scrambled in different ways. They even associated numbers with types of personalities. It was not until 1895 that the word synesthesia became widely used to describe this series of conditions. It comes from the Greek syn, which means “together,” and aisthesis which means “sensation.” That is, the coming together of sensations.
I wanted to know more, so I contacted a neuroscientists who is among the most knowledgeable about synesthesia in the world.
[Dr. Richard Cytowic]: This is Dr. Richard Cytowic, in Washington, D.C. I’m a professor of neurology at George Washington University.
[Victoria]: Cytowic is a professor of neurology at George Washington University, and is famous for pioneering modern studies on synesthesia.
He explained to me that in the early decades of the 20th century, a very strong current emerged within psychology: behaviorism, which very soon permeated all studies having to do with the brain. This current gave scientific validity only to what could be observed objectively—such as a person’s reactions to stimuli—and sought a way to predict and control human behavior. For this reason, consciousness, memory, and other rather subjective phenomena were relegated to one side. And with them, synesthesia itself.
This was the case until 1980. That year, Cytowic was working at a hospital in North Carolina, in the United States. He had obtained his doctor’s degree and was doing a specialization in neuro-ophthalmology.
His spare time was spent in the hospital library. And one day he found, in a Soviet book on neuropsychology, a description of synesthesia. He had never heard that such a thing existed.
He discussed it with his colleagues.
[Dr. Cytowic]: They said, well, this can’t possibly exist. I mean, they’re making it up. They just want attention. They’re old drug addicts having residual hallucinations from too much LSD.
[Victoria]: His colleagues did not take him seriously. They told him it was a fabrication. That those who claimed that just wanted attention or maybe they were drug addicts who kept on hallucinating after taking too much LSD.
The thing is that everything that was known about the brain until those years suggested that synesthesia could not be real. Each sense was thought to work from a different place in the brain, that they ran through completely separate channels, and there was no way they could be combined. But Cytowic approached the problem from a different angle:
[Dr. Cytowic]: I took the opposite view. I thought, well, gee, if our existing theory doesn’t explain synesthesia, then maybe the theory is wrong and needs to be changed.
[Victoria]: If theories of how the brain worked couldn’t explain synesthesia, then the theories had to change. And it was no accident that he thought that way. Mistrusting that rigidity to explain human beings came from his own personal experience as a gay man . . .
[Dr. Cytowic]: So as a 10-year-old in New Jersey, my father’s medical profession said that I was sick. The church said that I was damned, and the State said that I was a criminal and I hadn’t done anything. I was ten years old.
[Victoria]: At age ten, Cytowic told me, medicine said he was sick, the church said he was damned, and the law said he was a criminal. During his childhood in the United States in the 1950s, homosexuality was illegal and was still considered a mental illness. But Cytowic always suspected that the psychologists who treated him like a sick man had no idea what they were talking about. And he thought the same about his colleagues who judged people who spoke of their synesthesia as drug addicts.
Soon afterwards, he had a stroke of luck. He was having dinner with a neighbor, named Michael Watson, when he learned that Watson had something that could be synesthesia. He mentioned that, every time he tasted food, he had the sensation of touching different objects. That same night he had cooked a chicken that felt like holding a sphere in his hands. A different meal, for example, could give him the sensation of touching a figure with angles, like a pyramid. And some he even felt like a slap, or like resting his hands on a bed of nails.
In other words, Cytowic had a case of synesthesia to study at his fingertips. But when he mentioned this to his colleagues, nothing. The usual rejection.
[Dr. Cytowic]: So, when people were saying that, you know, Michael Watson, the man who tasted shapes, that he couldn’t be real, I thought, “I’ve heard this before.” And so, again, I pursued it.
[Victoria]: Impressed, Cytowic began investigating alone. But not in a laboratory with expensive machines. There was no way he could get funding for that. So he used his ingenuity: He prepared thirteen drinks, ranging from water with sugar to citric acid dissolved in water, and designed a diagram with different geometric figures. Michael, the neighbor, had to taste them and relate each flavor to one of those figures.
He then formed a control group with people who did not report having synesthesia, and asked them to do the same. Cytowic recalls that one person even left the study because he couldn’t even imagine how to match flavors with shapes.
It was a simple experiment. It sought to prove that there was something about Michael that made him different from others, that he was not inventing those relationships, as anyone else could have done. So it was. In the more than a hundred times he tasted the drinks, Michael always associated the flavors with the same shapes. The people in the control group, on the other hand, did not have that consistency. One day they chose certain shapes, another day they chose different ones.
In February 1981, Cytowic presented his findings at a conference of the International Society for Neuropsychology. And although there was some interest in the subject, especially among the younger scientists, many of his colleagues maintained the same attitude.
[Dr. Cytowic]: And they looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Oh, man, you stay away from this. It’s too weird, too New Age. It’ll ruin your career.”
[Victoria]: They said he was crazy, and that those studies were so strange, so New Age, that they were going to ruin his career. But over the years, evidence won out. His findings, along with those of other researchers, helped change paradigms about how we understand the way the brain works. Not only in people with synesthesia, but in general. Like the idea, now discarded, that the different areas of the brain function independently of each other.
Since then, more characteristics of synesthesia have been discovered. For example, there is research suggesting that as newborns we are all, to some extent, synesthetic. And that during the first months of life, we lose those connections between the senses. It’s something called “neural pruning.” Some researchers believe that people who for some reason—genetics or external stimuli—fail to lose these connections, continue to be synesthetic as adults. Although these are only hypotheses.
Today there are at least 70 different recorded combinations of the senses. For Cytowic, the most important thing is how his discoveries have influenced the lives of people living with this condition.
[Cytowic]: I mean, many people would reach me in tears saying that: “You’re the first person that ever believed me. All my life, even my mother wouldn’t believe me.” And, you know, I’ve had . . . I’ve had grown men in tears. They can’t believe that there’s such a sense of relief.
[Victoria]: Many have told him with relief, in tears, that he was the first person in their lives to believe them. That not even their mothers had believed.
Aemilia had felt that same alienation. Talking about what happened to her only made others call her weird or, at best, ignore her. When she was 15 years old, her parents took her to therapy. They were worried about her because she didn’t have many friends at school, and they thought she had self-esteem problems.
Aemilia tried to talk about synesthesia with her therapists, a couple she saw once a week . . .
[Aemilia]: I asked them, “I just feel like I’m very weird because words all taste like things to me.” And when I told them, they started laughing and said, “Oh, don’t worry. That just means that you are very creative.” And I thought, “OK.”
[Victoria]: The answer didn’t help because it was something that happened to her involuntarily. She didn’t feel like there was a lot of creativity in it. In fact, she began to see it more like an illness. Well, some words even caused nausea or a painful sensation in her teeth or muscles.
That negative view of what was happening to her lasted several more years. It only started to change when she was in college, studying German Literature, and in one class they talked about “synesthesia” as a rhetorical figure.
[Aemilia]: We were looking at examples of Symbolist poetry where there were poetic associations of two senses.
[Victoria]: For example, a white noise, a sweet voice.
[Aemilia]: And then I felt identified. I said, “Ah, well, that’s the way I think.”
[Victoria]: In class they started brainstorming synesthetic associations, and Aemilia found it very easy. She just started saying what she tasted with any word. It seems trivial, but that moment was key for her: linking synesthesia with poetry put a positive spin on what was happening to her. The issue is that synesthesia, as has been documented, is eight times more common among writers, painters and musicians than in the rest of the population. To name a few famous people: Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov saw colors in letters, and jazz pianist Duke Ellington saw colors too, but when he heard music.
After class she tried to explain to two of her friends that for her it was not just a figure of speech, that she really felt it. But as usual, the same thing happened—they didn’t believe her.
From that moment until we began to talk more about her synesthesia, 14 years passed. And I think we never would have done it if synesthesia hadn’t led her to define a fundamental part of her identity. Something that had always made her feel uncomfortable. A word that, from the moment we are born, somehow defines who we are, how we perceive ourselves.
[Aemilia]: The name my parents gave me doesn’t taste like anything to me, but it smells like dry saliva—in particular, dry saliva on some kind of fabric.
[Victoria]: The name her parents gave her is Cecilia. And ever since she can remember, every time she was called by that name, she got that unpleasant smell.
[Aemilia]: My name was horrible. So I was very envious, just as you envy the smart girls or those whose hair is very long, I also envied them when their names tasted delicious.
[Victoria]: As a child, Aemilia wanted to know why they had given her that name that tasted stinky. But her parents didn’t have any elaborate answers. Her mother said she had seen it in a movie and that she chose it because it can be pronounced easily in Spanish and German.
So Aemilia started trying a change.
[Aemilia]: The truth is that I found ways, every time I could, to adopt a name other than mine. Sort of like when children play dress-up; my game was often changing my name.
[Victoria]: Like when her parents took her to the Girl Scouts, and there she was told that, by tradition, they were going to baptize her with a name that came from legends about the forests.
[Aemilia]: I said, “Oh, they’re going to give me a name that I am going to like. It’s not going to be like Cecilia” . . . But the name they gave me was awful. The name is Mino and that name tastes like sausage to me.
[Victoria]: But Aemilia kept trying. Every time she saw an opportunity, she tried to adopt a new name. At school, at home, with her friends.
[Aemilia]: I said, “I want to call myself Rosa.” Such a name does exist . . . well, rosa is the color . . . it’s a very pretty flower, right? It doesn’t taste as bad as Cecilia.
[Victoria]: It tasted like cherry water ice cream. So, when she was 8 years old, she asked her family to start calling her that.
Her sister said that she wanted to be called Esmeralda because it was her favorite color. Rosa and Esmeralda. They were playing her game . . . although her sister didn’t understand that for Aemilia it was much more than that. Aemilia remembers that she drew those names on some T-shirts, trying to persuade everyone to accept the change, but no one took them seriously.
[Aemilia]: I remember my mother laughing as if to say, “Oh, how funny, how ingenious my daughter is. She wants to be called Rosa Cecilia.”
[Victoria]: It didn’t work.
For years, Aemilia tried to reconcile with her original name. She discovered that Saint Cecilia is the patroness of music. And even though she didn’t change the scent, she could focus on that when she thought about her identity.
When I met her, and until last year, she was still Cecilia. I remember that night in the bar, when she first told us about her synesthesia, she also told us about the smell of dry saliva and that she hated her name. But I don’t remember that she asked us to call her by a different name.
While we were doing this story, I asked her what had finally led her to change her name after so many years of trying. And she told me that it had to do with overcoming in a struggle she had been dragging with her for a long time.
[Aemilia]: I had a writing block caused by an undiagnosed depression, but I went through a period of very strong grief.
[Victoria]: Over a boyfriend who died while they were together at the university. A time when she was writing poems and stories.
[Aemilia]: I associated that person with writing. So when he died, ah . . . writing died with him for about 7 years and oh . . . I’m going to cry. And, well, yes, it was 7 years that I couldn’t write and cried at parties because . . . well, I’m in the literary world, so . . .
[Victoria]: She had been working on the issue in therapy for a while. What she wanted most was to write again, but she couldn’t . . . And then came the pandemic and confinement, and that changed everything. With so much free time, she was able to find the way to bring out everything she had been keeping inside.
[Aemilia]: I started to write. I don’t even know what because I . . . had no ideas, right? I just thought, “I want to write.”
[Victoria]: Eventually she finished a story, and when it was time to try to publish it, she signed it with a name that made her taste her favorite flavor in the world: vanilla.
[Aemilia]: When someone calls me Aemilia, what happens is that I experience a little rush of euphoria. Since I started calling myself Aemilia I can say that I feel happier in general in my life. Writing the name, thinking of myself with that name, and I think I even love myself more now that . . . that my name is Aemilia.
[Victoria]: A-e-milia, the original Latin name from which Emilia was later derived. In the end, that story was not published and, although Aemilia used it as a pseudonym, it took her a while to ask others to call her by that name.
[Aemilia]: It’s a bit like coming out of the closet, asking people, my friends who have always called me Cecilia, “Hey, could you please start calling me Aemilia, it makes me happier,” right? People ask me, “Well, why?” you know?
[Victoria]: Every time she does it, she has to explain about her senses crossing over and that she has a condition called synesthesia. They don’t always understand it, but to a greater or lesser extent her friends have accepted the change. She asked me to start calling her that a few months before we started reporting this story, in November 2020. And she also confessed to something that hurt—her family would not fully accept her new name.
[Aemilia]: I don’t know why, but I don’t think they understand. Ah . . . well, yes, who is going to understand that your name smells like saliva?
[Victoria]: But that’s what this was all about: trying to understand it. So, I stayed at her house for a few days. We talked for hours . . . and I asked her everything I could think of about synesthesia. One of my biggest doubts was how could she focus on anything if she senses a different flavor with each word? But she told me it doesn’t work that way.
She tried to explain that her brain unconsciously chooses which flavors to pay attention to. But not all. It sounded similar to the way the ear is used to filtering out background noise.
[Aemilia]: Just picture it, there are beans, the smell of an old sofa, cigarette, plantain, salad, chilaquiles. It’s a mess that I think would be unsustainable.
[Victoria]: Although we should clarify that she almost never associates the name of a food with its flavor. In other words, the word “control” tastes like beans, while the word “beans” tastes like potato puree. And the word “puree” smells like garbage. And so.
As we talked and she answered my questions, she herself was coming to realize how her synesthesia works.
[Aemilia]: This is the first time I verbalize what I do. I didn’t know it until this moment. I look for a flavor pattern, because if I don’t, I think it would be too messy . . . or well, I don’t know, ask my brain.
[Victoria]: And that is exactly what we did. We asked her brain with an MRI. I accompanied Aemilia to the clinic early on a Tuesday. With the results of this test, Dr. Zerón could see Aemilia’s brain in detail.
What you hear is a resonator, called Signa-Creator, scanning Aemilia’s brain with a 1.5-Tesla magnet, which is equivalent to 30 thousand times the magnetic field of the Earth. Due to pandemic restrictions, I had to wait for her outside, so she recorded with her cell phone.
We talked when she left the clinic.
[Aemilia]: It was a very strange experience. I felt like I was a character from a movie.
[Victoria]: You have probably seen machines like that. They are white, horizontal cylinders, a bit intimidating. Your entire body goes in, lying on a table.
[Aemilia]: Suddenly, well, the table slid in and some horrible noises began, that sounded like a hammer and a robot.
[Victoria]: She was there for 30 minutes, and afterwards she tried to describe everything she heard.
[Aemilia]: The hammer sounded six times. Tac, tac, tac, tac, tac, tac. And the robot answered brrraaa, braaa. Very strange.
[Victoria]: The results would be ready in four hours. While we waited for them, Aemilia told me the technician had asked her what they were for. She told him they were to rule out any disease and to find the cause of her synesthesia. The technician wanted to know how long ago she had been diagnosed. It was a key question, but she had no answer.
The thing is that Aemilia still had no confirmation that she had that. It was something I had thought about several times in those days: What if she were told that she did not have synesthesia. By that time, I knew that it had become an important part of her identity. What would happen, then, if they told her it was something else? I asked her the same thing: What would you feel if they told you that you don’t have synesthesia?
[Aemilia]: Well, it’s like a test, right? And the result is: are you what you thought you were? Well, right now I have believed that I have synesthesia for 14 years. So, I don’t know, if the result is, “No, you don’t have synesthesia,” well, I’m going to fail my test.
[Daniel]: A test whose answer would define everything Aemilia thought about her own life. What, for years, so many had refused to believe.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we accompanied Aemilia Sámano, a young Mexican woman who senses flavors when she hears words, to undergo medical tests that would confirm whether she has a condition called synesthesia. But first, they had to rule out some other diseases.
Victoria Estrada continues the story.
[Victoria]: With the results of the MRI, we went to another clinic for Aemilia to have a second study done, an even more complex one. This was an encephalogram, which measures electrical activity and brain waves. It was the test that Dr. Zerón needed to rule out epilepsy.
When we arrived, a doctor and a technician showed us into a very white room with a desk, a monitor, and an examination table. They seated Aemilia in the center of the room, and out of a bag the technician took a pile of colored cables ending in small gold metal discs. These were the electrodes that would measure her brain activity.
He placed each electrode following a diagram of the skull that was printed, to measure each area of the brain. The other ends of the cables went to a box with a lot of input points. I asked the technician what that was.
[Technician]: It’s an amplifier. The signal comes here, it is amplified, and we can see it on the computer, right?
[Victoria]: It took about 15 minutes to place them. Then they laid her on the bed, her head full of wires, and they began testing her. They shone light in her eyes, asked her to think of specific words, or simply to breathe. The monitor showed a series of measurements resembling vital signs. It was the electrical activity of the different regions of her brain.
It was about 50 minutes in all, and as we were leaving, the technician told us that we could pick up the results the following day.
We couldn’t do anything now but wait.
Although there was only one day before we were to bring the results to Dr. Zerón, we did not talk much more about it. Neither Aemilia nor I wanted to consider the possibility of a serious illness. We were sure, or wanted to be sure, that she didn’t have anything. We told ourselves that those were routine studies, so as not to leave any loose ends . . . although we had no way of knowing. If Aemilia was really worried, she didn’t tell me. She seemed excited at the possibility of finally understanding her brain.
Once we had answers, the next step would be to go talk to her family. Aemilia wanted them to understand her name change, and that the synesthesia thing was real. Maybe the results would help. So we decided to wait and go see her parents after consulting with Dr. Zerón.
We arrived at her office early on a Saturday. I had the idea that it was going to be something quick, just look at the studies, rule out the diseases, and talk about synesthesia . . . but I soon realized that it would not be that simple. The doctor began by reviewing the MRI. They were a series of different images of Aemilia’s brain.
She explained to us that the migraines had not left any permanent damage to her brain. But then she said something that I didn’t quite understand, and it worried me. That in the frontal part of the brain, precisely where language is processed—in Broca’s area—two arteries were missing, the posterior communicating and the anterior cerebral. That is, two key channels that should be supplying that part of Aemilia’s brain were simply not visible.
[Dra. Zerón]: From this test I can’t tell precisely if it is a normal anatomical variant, or if something happened that shut the flow off to those arteries . . .
[Aemilia]: OK, that . . . that sounds strange.
[Victoria]: That those two arteries were not visible, the doctor said, had two possible explanations, one more serious than the other. The least serious was that Aemilia had never had them: that her brain had formed without them, and other minor veins were compensating to carry out that job.
That was the best option. But the other one scared us a lot—that Aemilia did have those two arteries, but that something was blocking them. And that is why they did not show up in the MRI image.
[Dra. Zerón]: I am obliged to rule out that there are no other things occluding them.
[Victoria]: Other things, that is, a thrombus, a clot in her brain.
[Dra. Zerón]: This alters the whole situation.
[Victoria]: It could be a time bomb: If Aemilia had a thrombus, there was a possibility that at some point it would cause a stroke. What is also called a “haemorrhagic stroke.” I felt an emptiness in my stomach. I tried to calm down, thinking that if there was really something wrong with Aemilia’s brain, it was best to find out as soon as possible. But I couldn’t help feeling a certain guilt: I had encouraged Aemilia to know more about her synesthesia, and now, out of my curiosity, she was going through this.
If Aemilia felt the same way I did, she didn’t let it show. She got a little serious, but didn’t say anything. Dr. Zerón ordered another test. This time it would be a magnetic resonance angiography, to observe in detail the veins and arteries in that part of her brain.
She gave us the medical referral and we left her office. We didn’t say anything. I was a little scared to ask Aemilia what she thought, but I did . . .
[Aemilia]: Sure, I’m not 100 percent happy this time because . . . well, yes, it sounds a bit . . . well, not so pleasant.
[Victoria]: There wasn’t much more to say. We made the appointment at a hospital recommended by the doctor, but they couldn’t see us until 4 days later.
We went to Aemilia’s favorite vegan taco place and decided to follow this up with the visit to her parents. At least it would serve as a distraction. They live in Texcoco, a city about 45 minutes by car from the capital.
On the way, Aemilia told me that she had talked to them a few weeks before. She had told them again about synesthesia and that her name change was permanent. But she got the impression that they still did not understand very well. They had not asked many questions or made comments, and they still called her Cecilia. She told me that maybe now things could go better, if I supported her, but she didn’t sound too convinced.
When we arrived, we were greeted by her mother, Petra. She offered us tea and welcomed us to the house, but because of the pandemic it seemed safer to talk on the porch. I sat on one side of the table with the tape recorder; Petra was on the other, and Aemilia at the head, between the two of us. Miguel, Aemilia’s father, was doing some work, so we started without him. I started by explaining what we were doing, and then I asked Aemilia to continue. She got straight to the point: to the definition.
[Aemilia]: Synesthesia is a neuronal condition in which . . .
[Victoria]: The basics. Aemilia had already told them before, but it was as if she was explaining it for the first time.
[Aemilia]: And the synesthesia that I have works like this: when I hear words, they taste or smell like things.
[Victoria]: Petra, her mom, seemed very amused by what she was hearing.
[Petra]: That sounds super, right? I would like to have that.
[Aemilia]: What for?
[Victoria]: Petra didn’t answer Aemilia’s question, but she said something neither of us expected. And that left us with our mouths open.
[Petra]: It happens to me with music; I hear music and colors come to me.
[Victoria]: Yes. You heard correctly: Aemilia’s mother said, like nothing very special, that she hears music and sees colors. That is, she has another type of synesthesia.
[Aemilia]: Ahhh, how about that . . . We didn’t know that . . .
[Victoria]: Aemilia turned around to look at me. She looked just as disconcerted as I was. I think she thought that her mother may not have understood well, or that she was speaking figuratively, so she started questioning her.
[Aemilia]: Can you give us an example of something that you remember well?
[Petra]: Eh, not really . . . In general, when the tones are high, the colors are light and when the tones are lower and become deeper, then they become darker.
[Aemilia]: Is there a song you remember that has only one color?
[Petra]: No, they are all multi-colored.
[Victoria]: And have you always had that?
[Petra]: Yes . . .
[Victoria]: Since you were a child?
[Petra]: Yes. I thought it was normal.
[Victoria]: And have you talked to other people about it?
[Petra]: No, it’s the first time I talk about it. (laughter)
[Victoria]: You didn’t know?
[Aemilia]: No, of course not.
[Petra]: Now the family secrets come out . . .
[Victoria]: We all laughed. I laughed nervously because I felt that I was witnessing a very important revelation in Aemilia’s life. She looked surprised, but pleased. One thing was clear—finding out about it gave us a new clue.
[Aemilia]: What happens is that synesthesia is very genetic.
[Aemilia]: So, we were interested . . .
[Victoria]: Synesthesia has been found to have a genetic component, which can be inherited, although a specific gene that causes the predisposition to develop it has not yet been found. Researchers claim that nearly half of all people with synesthesia may have a close relative with the condition. I thought we had to tell what Petra had said to Dr. Zerón when we saw her. That could be a proof of Aemilia’s synesthesia.
At that moment Miguel, Aemilia’s father, arrived to sit with us. And Petra updated him on the news.
[Petra]: Miguel, we are talking about synesthesia . . .
[Petra]: They are asking if any of us has synesthesia.
[Miguel]: What is that?
[Aemilia]: Oh well, you were late . . .
[Victoria]: Again, Aemilia began with the explanation, but this time she added that, apparently, she was not the only synesthetic person in the family.
[Aemilia]: My mother apparently has a synesthesia where she sees colors when she listens to music.
[Victoria]: Hmmmm. That was all Miguel said. He did not seem very interested in delving into the subject. So, we kept asking Petra questions, and she told us that she sometimes sees geometric shapes too. It is very common for people who have one type of synesthesia to also have others. Aemilia continued explaining how it had been for her to grow up like this.
[Aemilia]: Since I was always thinking about food, because all words are food, I was always very hungry. And I don’t know if you remember that as a child, I used to eat a lot and was always hungry when I got home, and with very specific cravings. Also, that I wanted spaghetti with ketchup because I heard the number 8 a lot.
[Petra]: How funny.
[Victoria]: Her parents remembered that she had strange cravings, but not that she said those things. I think it makes sense: Perhaps for Aemilia it was a very intense internal experience, but from the outside it was not perceived.
[Petra]: Now I am realizing everything that Aemilia has and I also have. So do I take after my daughter, or does my daughter take after me?
[Victoria]: After we had been talking for a while, Carolina, Aemilia’s older sister, arrived. The age difference between then is a year and a half, and as children they were very close. Carolina did remember that Aemilia spoke of words having flavors.
[Carolina]: I think she told me as a girl, but at that time I didn’t pay attention to her because children are also imaginative.
[Victoria]: And what did you think, don’t you remember?
[Carolina]: That she was crazy.
[Victoria]: Carolina also remembered Aemilia´s first attempts to change her name, but as a game. She related it to a certain rebellion: why do our parents have to decide what we are called, right?
But she did make something clear to us:
[Carolina]: For me, seeing my sister now . . . changing at this time, is a surprise.
[Victoria]: Changing her name. Aemilia tried to be as clear as she could with her family about her reasons.
[Aemilia]: All the names of all people smell or taste a certain way to me. And the one that . . . well, the one you gave me, my legal name, smells like dry saliva on a pillow.
[Aemilia]: Mmm . . . mhm . . .
[Victoria]: This time, at least her mother seemed to understand her.
[Petra]: And what does your new name smell like?
[Aemilia]: My new name smells like vanilla to me.
[Petra]: Oh, perfect.
[Victoria]: Petra told her that, although she had not understood the importance of the change before, she had noticed that since she called herself Aemilia she looked happier, as if she had been reborn. Her father agreed. But, as is often the case with change, it is not always easy to process.
[Petra]: When I think of Aemilia, I think of Cecilia. As if inside of me there is a part where I see her as a child, the girl Cecilia, and now the adult woman is Aemilia, so I am working through it. But it’s still going to take me some time because that’s how we mothers are.
[Victoria]: Her sister told her that she would try to call her by her new name. But that it didn’t make much sense to her.
[Carolina]: I don’t really understand it . . . because sure, when I smell something, memories come back to me. But what she’s explaining is totally different. So no, I don’t identify with it, nor do I know if this is real.
[Victoria]: Aemilia didn’t respond.
After turning off the recorder, her parents invited us to dinner. We stayed a few more hours. I could see how they corrected themselves when they began to say Ceci . . . and they turned to look at me as if I was going to reproach them. Whether they understood it or not, it seemed to me that everyone was trying.
It got dark, so we stayed overnight at her sister´s house, nearby, and we returned to Mexico City the next day. I asked Aemilia how she had felt, and she told me that, although it bothered her that her sister still did not believe her, to some extent she understood. The truth is that even I, who have talked so much about the subject with Aemilia, cannot imagine what it would be like to smell my own name. It’s like trying to think of a color that I’ve never seen. There are things that only those who experience them can understand.
But at least everyone was already making an effort to use her new name. We had talked about almost everything with her family, but there was one topic that we left out. We did not say anything about the brain tests that Aemilia was having. Or about the possibility of the thrombus. We did not even want to mention it, so as not to worry them without having an answer.
But the time to face this was approaching.
Three days later, we went for her magnetic resonance angiography that would provide a detailed view of the veins in her brain. The hospital was on the other side of town. We were tired and without the excitement of the first days.
We walked in, and from the beginning everything felt more intimidating than the previous times. We went down to the basement, where the resonator for the test was located. It was cold, and on the door, there was a sign that read, “Danger, high magnetism.” That made us even more nervous.
Aemilia went through the door and was inside for more than an hour. I sat in a chair outside and waited. When she came out, I no longer dared ask how she felt. It scared me that they would have to do brain surgery, and I wouldn’t have known what to say if she confessed to me that she had the same fear.
The results would take a day to be ready and would be sent directly to Dr. Zerón. With them she could know the most important thing—whether the two arteries that had not shown up on the previous study were blocked and Aemilia had a thrombus, or whether they had simply never formed in her brain.
It had been only two weeks since that first appointment, but I felt like we were in a completely different place than where we had started. The end of the trip was approaching.
When Dr. Zerón opened the door, she had a smile on her face. I sensed that it would be good news. She explained that the test had gone well: The arteries were not blocked, no surgery was needed, and there was no risk. She said it so fast that I couldn’t even record it, but I remember Aemilia turning around and she made a gesture of celebration with her hands.
We asked her to explain a little more. She told us that the reason those two arteries weren’t visible was because they had never been there. In other words, she did have an anatomical variant in her brain. She was born like that.
[Dra. Zerón]: Your brain processes things differently from other brains because it has more blood flow in a specific area, which is the left side.
[Victoria]: Let me explain: When Aemilia’s brain was forming, two of her arteries never developed. And to compensate for this lack, other smaller veins appeared, which, the angiograph shows, carry more blood than normal to the left hemisphere of her brain. Aemilia wanted to know what that could mean.
[Aemilia]: And what about the left side . . . what characteristics does it have?
[Dra. Zerón]: The left side, especially the frontal areas, is involved with language, expressing language, and in the temporal area, receiving language.
[Victoria]: Dr. Zerón even put forward a hypothesis—that this extra blood supply could have somehow influenced Aemilia’s synesthesia.
[Dra. Zerón]: So that’s why all those perceptions; likewise, language can be more active, more developed and has more dominance.
[Victoria]: She said that to give her an official diagnosis of synesthesia, even more studies would have to be done—a functional MRI or a nuclear medicine study. But that they are very, very expensive and that it was not worth continuing in that direction because Aemilia’s brain had no problem. Synesthesia is a condition, not a disease, so you don’t need any treatment.
[Dra. Zerón]: So we can relax because it is a condition of, let’s say, a healthy brain.
[Aemilia]: Oh, wonderful.
[Dra. Zerón]: OK . . .
[Aemilia]: Yes, that is a relief.
[Dra. Zerón]: This is very good news. Very, very, very good.
[Victoria]: This time we didn’t even spend 15 minutes in the doctor’s office. We said goodbye to Dr. Zerón and walked out. We were euphoric.
[Aemilia]: I am very, very happy. I feel very, very relieved and very happy that I have no obstructions in my cerebral veins and to know that it is something anatomical . . . The . . . the idea of someone opening my head did stress me a lot.
[Victoria]: We had a hypothesis and the assurance that Aemilia was fine. It wasn’t a perfect ending, but it felt a lot like it.
Without more tests to do on her brain, or at least without more tests that we could pay for, I thought the final thing I could do to help Aemilia was to put her in touch with a neuroscientist specializing in synesthesia, who would answer the final questions she had.
So, I contacted Dr. Juan Lupiáñez, of the Mind, Brain and Behavior Research Center at the University of Granada. Lupiáñez is the co-author of one of the few books in Spanish on the subject, which made him sort of the spokesperson of synesthesia. Every time he gives talks on television, he receives calls from people thanking him because they no longer feel so strange.
I asked him if he could speak to Aemilia. He gladly agreed, and the three of us connected. Lupiáñez began immediately asking her specific questions.
[Juan Lupiáñez]: Are words with meanings the ones that cause the feelings? Or in general the sound of words?
[Aemilia]: The sound of words . . .
[Victoria]: Lupiáñez told her that the way to have scientific proof of her synesthesia was by doing an experiment similar to the one that Cytowic did with his neighbor Michael, the man who felt shapes when he ate. We would have to prepare hundreds of jars with flavors and smells, and then say words to Aemilia so that she would select the jar with the most similar smell or taste. This exercise would have to be repeated several times, allowing months to pass in between.
[Juan Lupiáñez]: And if that is so, if you really are synesthetic and you have a real experience of synesthesia, it would make you faster and you wouldn’t make mistakes.
[Victoria]: As he spoke, I wondered if we could design a study like that, but it seemed impossible because you have already heard Aemilia describe flavors. She has words that distinguish melted white cheese from non-melted cheese, and I wouldn’t know how to put that in a jar. But Aemilia is sure that she would pass that exam and any other similar one.
Lupiáñez spent a long time answering all the doubts Aemilia had always had. He told her, for example, that the most common synesthesia is the kind that has to do with colors; that synesthetes tend to be more creative and have a better memory. And that the connections between some of the neurons are believed to be a little different. According to the Spanish researcher, if the human brain is like a computer, the brain of a synesthete comes with chips that communicate in a special way, and that is why they can perform two functions at the same time.
When we were almost done, he said something that seemed nice to me: that perceiving the world in a different way is a gift, not something to worry about.
[Lupiáñez]: It is something marvelous that, in my experience, I can’t ask someone with synesthesia, “So, do you want me to make it go away?” They would say, “No, man, how could you take this from me, this is my life.” It’s as if someone were to say, “Hey, what do you mean you see in color? You see colors . . . Do you want me to do something here so that you’ll see in black and white?” They would say, “Why would I see in black and white, I don’t want to see in black and white, I want to see in color.”
[Victoria]: Aemilia felt good after talking to him.
[Aemilia]: Thank you very much. I . . . I’m very, very happy with ah . . . many of the answers you gave us also make me feel at peace. Like all these people who contacted you, because it is a relief not to be facing something unknown and . . . and not to be so alone in . . . in that situation.
[Victoria]: The only thing we had left to do would be for Aemilia to find others like herself. I asked her if that was something she was interested in. She said yes, she would love that. So I started looking. To my surprise, it was not that difficult: I quickly found a group on Facebook with over 250 people with synesthesia who spoke Spanish. And I organized a call with some of them to introduce them to Aemilia. She called it “The Meeting of the Synesthetes.”
We agreed to make the call when she came to Xalapa the following week, for my birthday. It was a rainy Friday, and Aemilia didn’t know what to expect. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon, they began to connect.
[Gabriel]: Well, I have sounds, colors.
[Fernanda]: The same with me, sounds, colors. And also . . . when I hear certain sounds, my body reacts . . . it makes certain movements.
[Andrea]: Oh, well, the kind I have is called ordinal-linguistic personification. I assign personalities to both the days of the week, in sequence, and to ordinal numbers. That is, from 0 to 9. And each one has a different personality.
[Victoria]: They are Gaby, from Argentina, and Fernanda and Andrea, from Mexico. They were the first to log in, and as soon as they introduced themselves, Aemilia started asking questions. They told her how synesthesia had marked their lives. Andrea even said it had helped her define her profession. She is a database analyst and works a lot with numbers.
[Andrea]: Well, synesthesia gave a certain touch of imagination to mathematics in particular. I don’t know, for example, 8 is like . . . it makes me a little giggly and embarrassed to say it, but for me it has a personality that is a bit conceited, I don’t know, like. . .
[Victoria]: Like it’s very cocky. When Andrea said that, she made us all laugh. We kept talking and, suddenly one more person joined the call.
[Montserrat]: Yes, can you hear me better this way?
[Victoria]: She had joined from her cell phone in a public place, in Mexico City, which is why you can’t hear her very well. But she told us that her name was Montserrat and she began to describe her synesthesia.
When I listened to her, it was like hearing Aemilia. Montserrat too, had thought for years that everyone could taste words.
We had talked with Aemilia beforehand about whether someone who felt the same way she did would log in, but it seemed unlikely. Aemilia wanted to know everything about how she had handled her synesthesia. And Montserrat told her that not only words had tastes for her, so did the entire person.
[Montserrat]: Sometimes it is a bit complicated because I work in a courthouse, and at times there are many people, and people walk by who . . . I mean, they are not all pleasant flavors, right? So, there are people who taste bad [laughter]. I can’t help the feeling of disgust, of wanting to say “eww,” but it does not happen too often.
[Victoria]: Aemilia knew that feeling perfectly.
[Aemilia]: Yes, I understand, that happens to me . . . It only happens to me with words, but there are also people like that, who—just today I changed somebody’s name because that name, it smells bad to me, so I changed it to one that tastes better. It was unintentional, but it’s like I do tend to avoid . . .
[Victoria]: As I listened to them, I thought that, actually, the true purpose of the trip had always been this: for Aemilia to feel understood. And so, it happened. She was finally with her own kind.
[Daniel]: Aemilia wrote a text where she talks more about her synesthesia. You can find the link on the episode page.
Victoria Estrada is a producer for Latino USA. She lives in Xalapa, Veracruz.
Thanks to Dr. Juan Lupiáñez and Dr. Rosalía Zerón for their great help in verifying all the science in this episode.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura, Nicolás Alonso and myself. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Xochitl Fabián, Fernanda Guzmán, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Ana Pais, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Emilia Erbetta is our editorial intern.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.