As a mother for 20+ years, I did not start out with the end in mind, but I know now that mothering is rooted in legacy. I define it as something handed down from an ancestor or preceding generations; an inheritance. It is a birthright of every child to be raised with gifts that endure beyond our lifetime as mothers. The very first gift I intentionally saw as a legacy for my children was Spanish.
With the birth of my twins in 1995, I had a taste of how deep sacrifice and love can go. My father’s death and my mother’s ensuing depression meant I was even more responsible for what my children would inherit. Like little children fascinated by their parents’ shoes, I was clomping around, feeling big and awkward at the same time. This was particularly true in regards to my wish to raise mis chiquillos to value and speak Spanish, a legacy from my parents I resisted for many years.
In researching pre-schools, the one with Latino cultura and Spanish had a long waiting list. It was our first choice, but four months had passed and we were still waiting. We enrolled them in one where the owner was a Latina who sometimes spoke to them. Their exposure to Spanish became me and their few palabritas faded like finger paintings forgotten outside on an easel in the bright sun. It was a stark contrast to their first three and a half years with two immigrant Latina caretakers and served as a spotlight on how monolingual my community had become in the twenty years since I left my parents’’ home.
I thought I was echandole muchas ganas to woo them to Spanish, but an insidious panic invaded my determination – they were getting less than I had as a child. They understood it, but they did not have to speak it as I did. My Tía Lucrecia and Gloria lived with us when I was very young. My abuela came after Gloria left, so I swam in Spanish even if I resisted speaking it.
Only English showed up at my children’s play dates and birthday parties. My mom was no help, as she was programmed to speak the language that was spoken to her.
“Claro que sí.”
“Do you want jelly on your English muffin?”
“Jes, do yu have estrawberry?”
Since my kids spoke English, no matter how many times I told her to speak to them in Spanish, her neurotransmitters didn’t budge from their lifelong pattern. I ensnared myself in an endless battle where every word, radio song, and kids’ TV show became the enemy. Like ants after a downpour, a silent, determined trail of English words found every which way to enter mi hogar. No amount of turning up el volume de mi voz could compete with the hard, sharp corners of English.
I made them watch the Spanish version of Sesame Street, took them to concerts in Spanish, bought books in Spanish and translated the ones we received in English. I did this silently, in isolation, reverting to the lessons of my immigrant parents to keep fear at bay with added effort.
Shaking off the dust from the palabras de amor exchanged by Latino families, I used them until they were no longer foreign to my tongue — Mi cariño, mi vida, mi amor, mi cielo. Words I never heard from my mother. From her, I was more likely to hear “¡Cochina!” when I left my room messy, “Necia” when I would stubbornly resist her advice, and the lovely and popular “Burra” for no particular reason.
My home phone rang eight months after my kids started Via Nova. It was Mago from Centro Vida.
“It never happens, but we had two children leave the program so I can offer you full-time slots for Gina and Teo.”
A rush of air entered my pulmones, as if I had been holding my breath underwater and had just reached the surface.
“Yes! ¡Sí! We’ll take the slots. What do we need to do?”
I raced around the kitchen, looking for a pen and paper to take down notes. After hanging up, I slid down the wall and sobbed. I was so tired of being la primera. Instead of cutting paths with a machete I had no idea how to use, I could be with gente whose machetes were well honed. At the first meeting of the parents of the Estrellas, I sat with mostly immigrant Latinos, knowing I had made unconscious choices to keep me from predominantly Latino environments. Being born in the US, I had inherited the legacy of believing our differences separated us. As we sat in tiny chairs, I was ready to shift my children’s legacy.
The next day I loaded the twins into their double stroller and pushed them to the renovated play area two blocks from our home. I followed them around like a sheepdog, first pushing Gina in the swing, her little legs kicking back and forth in delight.
“More, Mami, more.”
Then Teo yelled at me from the slide. “Wait for me at the bottom! Here I come!”
“Espere, amor.” His gleeful face followed his body down the curved yellow slide.
“I’m thirsty, Mami.”
“Ven. Te traje juguito y crackers.”
We walked to the bench where I had left the backpack. There were several Latinas seated on a bench a few feet away, charlando en español. Normally, I would have kept speaking Spanish, but I felt a new self-consciousness, as if the veneer had rubbed off what I thought was solid wood. I was speechless, silenced in both languages. If I spoke Spanish, they might think I was an immigrant and when they found out I was not, their comfort with me would fade. If I spoke English, I was part of the white world, the one where they treaded cautiously. I might have been the dorm maid as a freshman at La Verne College, but I was still in college. I might have provided childcare for children during the Sunday service, but I was still a transfer at Stanford. Leaving the familiar shore of English placed me in the middle of a roiling river of idiomas. I whispered to my kids in Spanish, turning my body away.
I was once like my kids, a little four-year-old toddling about, surrounded by español. My mom took three kids to parks where there was no chance of finding another Latina immigrant as my parents were always the only Latino family in their neighborhoods. What happened to her there, the one who didn’t speak English well? Did she decide then to speak to us more in English or to have the TV on more, invite the harsh ‘r’’ into our sweet ears?
I packed the kids up and walked them home slowly until they fell asleep. After their nap I drove us to Trader Joe’s and watched myself switch to speaking English to the kids when another shopper passed by. My heart raced and sweat trickled down my arms as if I was chasing another player after a soccer ball. I was giving my children the message that Spanish was good, except if someone might be uncomfortable. Why did I care if others didn’t understand? I wasn’t speaking to them, I was speaking to my children. I tested a hypothesis.
“Gina, ven aca, mi vida.”
I saw it. A woman who had been standing uninterested, deciding on a flavor of ice cream, tilted her head slightly, glanced sideways to see who I was and her eyes widened.
“Teo, mi’jo. No vamos a comprar ese dulce.”
She almost stared. I didn’t want white people to think I was an immigrant because I knew they then thought less of me. I added another dimension – I established my Spanish in the juice aisle and then threw in a phrase or sentence in English. The folks there did a double take. The bubble I imagined over their heads said: ‘Why is she speaking Spanish when she can speak English?’
It made sense, in a sad way, that I avoided Spanish even as I now spoke it more. In my twenties I had worked on my Spanish, spending time in Nicaragua, Spain and going to a language school in Cuernavaca, México. Despite working in internships and jobs that required me to speak Spanish, I never reached the level of bilingualism that everyone accepted at face value. The arms of English enfolded me again and again. In my heart of hearts, I held Spanish and Latinos at a distance because I was much more competent in English and being competent mattered in a country still rife with racism and sexism.
The next weekend we joined a Centro Vida parade from the pre-school to their after-school program several blocks away. The sun shone down on the mariachi band that led a colorful array of parents and children. Walking with Ana, the mom of Marcelo, and her partner Karen, we spoke in a mix of English to Karen and Spanglish to each other. I kept marching, speaking Spanish with immigrant parents, carrying Gina or Teo when they became tired, and waving at Antonio and his daughter Anastasia to come join us when I saw him parking near our destination.
Pushing myself to speak Spanish in public, I felt the vise of forty years loosening. Switching to almost total Spanish with my mom and other friends I had known for years, these bilingual gente met me happily and corrected my grammar. I had made a wish and blown on a dandelion flower, releasing its light airy seeds to sprout all over the nice, neat lawn of English. One person’s weed is another person’s hope.
This legacy is still a work in progress as my twins resisted Spanish for many years. Their college applications became a significant tipping point because their bilingualism became an asset that was valued. Unlike my experience, I never shamed or blamed them when they complained or told me to speak English. Legacy is not an event, it is born of hard work and absolute commitment to long-term benefit. I will continue to call them mi vida, mi cielo, y mis queridos until I die, making sure their inheritance is always laced with amor.
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