Spanish is my first language. I learned to read it when I was 3.
I am Guatemalan but speak Spanish with a Cuban accent. This drives my mother’s family in Guatemala nuts. But I grew up around a very vocal Cuban family. They were just this big extended family who lived in the building my grandmother lived in. Two of them became my godparents and so I sound like them. Just like that.
I grew up in L.A. Displaced. With two immigrant women who were just making their way, befriending strangers and turning them into family, navigating a new world, shaping their American dream.
I didn’t grow up in Guatemala. I didn’t grow up with a family that was mine. That drives me nuts. So I guess we are even. My family and me.
I learned english in a day. My mom says I went to my bilingual kindergarten one day and came back speaking english. Just like that. Came home chattering like a little parrot in english.
And she cried and cried and cried.
I don’t speak english with an accent. Never have. And that is why I can pass. Why I can be white when it behooves me, when it’s easier, when it is more seemly. People see what they want to see and I am too tired. Too tired to educate anyone.
When I was little, my mom would ask me to speak english to her. To help her with her accent. She would make me lie down to say certain words to see my mouth better, from a better angle. Isn’t that funny? Picture this grown beautiful brilliant woman who left everything behind – her homeland, her culture, her education, her family, her love and her language. For me. She did it for me. And somehow I also taught her how to do it – how to leave it all behind and become an American. Or at least pass for one.
I was five. And she was 35. And I taught her. Cosas de la vida.
As a child, I resisted speaking to her in English. Still do. It was probably selfish of me. But it just didn’t feel right. It felt disingenuous.
Her and me. We exist in Spanish. Spanish is beautiful and lyrical and magical in ways English isn’t. Just like her and me. We make sense in Spanish. I don’t know much but I know that.
Speaking to her, the most important person that ever was or ever will be, in English feels like a lie. And it’s ironic because I exist in English now 30 years later, almost exclusively. My writing, my ability to communicate, my gift, it is now primarily an English thing.
But I dream mostly in Spanish. Isn’t that odd? All the characters in my life suddenly speak Spanish in my dreams. It has never struck me as strange because it is just my life but it is. It is weird and wonderful and just another thing to share with people to make them smile and cry and feel and breathe because they exist on a planet with a bizillion and one stories. None of them quite the same.
In the middle of a broken and overwhelming world, I believe my little story might make them see themselves and that person that they pass on the street a little differently.
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