The Fergusons were children of Scottish immigrants in Canada before one of their sons — my great-grandfather — crossed the border into the United States.
Discovering my Swedes and Scots
Swen and Ingegorg met sometime in the early 1600s, perhaps not too far from Aspeboda, Sweden, where they were born.
Ancestry.com tells me they are my 10th-great-grandparents.
Stay with me, through a brief history of my non-Cuban-ness. It’s quick-ish. It leads to questions about identity, often discussed here.
So, Swen and Ingegorg’s union produced a long line of people who created a man named Johannes Magnusson, who left the family farm in Urasa parish, Sweden in 1866 to cross the oceans, settle in Minnesota and change his name to John. John married a Swedish immigrant named Ellen.
John and Ellen’s son, Andrew, married a girl named Clara, whose parents were Norwegian immigrants settled first in Wisconsin. Andrew and Clara (my great-grandparents) had Mabel, my paternal grandmother, a beautiful blue-eyed blonde who in old age looked like Mrs. Claus.
Mabel married Peter, whose Scottish grandfathers immigrated to Ontario, Canada in 1849 and whose father, Alexander, crossed the border into North Dakota around 1879.
So, ancestry.com tells me I am descended from Pioneers to the Americas who were Swedish, Norwegian, and Scottish, with one Yorkshire, England-born great-great-grandpa thrown in, too. Mostly, they were farmers.
I have, thanks to a Cuban relative, long known about the last 300 years of my Spanish and Cuban roots, but I knew very little of my paternal side before I started the research.
In these last few weeks, as I have lived with the ancestral ghosts who are anything but Latin, it has left me with a near-constant inner-conversation about my identity, which has always been firmly rooted in the pica-pica side.
“I’m so freaking Swedish!” I told my husband, showing him my extensive family tree.
“You’re not Swedish,” my husband answered.
“I am sooooo Swedish!”
“Mom, you’re Swedish?” the 9-year-old asked.
“Ay,’’ the husband said, walking away.
What Creates Identity?
What creates identity? Genetic soup? Passed-down traditions? Language? Place of birth? Where you were raised?
Ask me what I am and I say: “My parents are Cuban,” which refers to my mom and the step-father who raised me. Ask me to explain my “Ferguson” and I say “Scottish on the biological father’s side.”
But these extra ancestors — the Swedes, Norwegians, Scots, English — are like an added spice that doesn’t add flavor to a dish. They’re in there, but not really.
But, here is what learning of them has given me: A more firm identity as an American, as “just American.” (If you’ve ever had to answer the question “But, what really are you?” you know what I’m talking about.)
Spend time inside those records and you will be reminded in full force that most of us 313 million Americans come from somewhere else. Some of us got here last week and some 300 years ago, but the records shout out this one fact: We are all children of immigrants. It is our shared story as Americans.
We’re all American
Set aside the wretchedness of slavery and the cruelty done to Native Americans, and the thing that ties us together as Americans is that someone in our line got on a boat, or an airplane, or walked across a border to get here. (And some of us got here on a raft, let’s not forget…)
At work, I encounter young undocumented Mexican kids. They came with their families as little children. Some know casi nada of Mexico and they have thick Southern accents, which is, I admit, a little freaky. But, they’re American. Like my Swedes, Scots, Norwegians and Cubans, their gente came for something better. They are New Americans.
We get here, we plant roots, we meld. Our identity shifts. Our offspring gain new accents. We go from Immigrant to American just.like.that. Our descendants forget. Whatever my Swedish/Norwegian grandmother learned from her own “old country” grandparents, I didn’t get. Traditions lost in four short generations…that’s so very American, right? What will my own grandchildren never know of my Cuban traditions?
People who scream shit about New Immigrants really need to spend time researching their own family’s arrival dates.
The Gringo is Spanish
So, one Sunday morning as I was over-dosing on ancestry.com, I asked my gringo Scottish-Irish husband to hand over his family names so I could begin a research tree for him.
A few hours later, high on coffee and ancient Census records, I called him into the room and announced:
“Dude! You are Spanish!”
Turns out the WASPy gringo husband had a Spanish ancestor in New York’s Hudson Valley in the 1600s when it was a Dutch colony. That Spanish guy had a son, also born in Spain, who married a woman of Dutch descent in 1691.
So, I have an ancestor named Ingegorg and my husband has a couple of them named Manuel Gonzalez.
Suddenly, I’m Swedish and my husband is Spanish.
Seriously, I’ve never felt so American.
p.s. on the research: I got lucky on ancestry.com and online. A woman who generously posted a public tree used a researcher in Sweden to photograph ancient documents and Swedish records of my grandmother’s family line. There also are photographs of what is believed to be the old family farm. On the Scottish side, there are several public trees online that detail my Ferguson ancestors, photos and all, like the one above. (I think I have my great-great grandmother’s brow…) Through this, I have happily discovered relatives in the midwest, Canada and Sweden, which reminds me that we’re all just one big, giant human family. All of us.
Click the image to read the conversation, with comments by Cuban-Americans, too.
It is no easy thing to reject the heart of what one’s own family, and people, preaches.
Particularly, perhaps, if you are Cuban-American. (If you know Cubans, this needs no further explanation.)
But, it appears that, at the risk of being called communist, socialist, estúpido and comemierda, an historic percentage of my generation, combined with newer Cuban arrivals to the U.S., voted in a way that had Abuelos spinning in their graves.
The post-election news was all Latino voter that and Latino voter this. And then, the news stories started coming out that focused particularly on the Cuban-American vote, a reliably Republican voting bloc from an understandably conservative community. (Flee communism and you go a little conservative…)
The wheels have come off: 48% of Cuban-Americans in Florida voted for the Democratic President. An historic record. Compare it to the 35% Obama got in 2008 and 25% Al Gore got in 2000.
As I overdosed on online analysis, these are the quotes that stuck with me:
“Exit polls of the Cuban-American community in Florida showed a split between Cuban-Americans who were born in Cuba and those born in the United States. Historically, Cuban-American voters have heavily favored the Republican Party since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Cuban-born voters broke for Mitt Romney by a 55-45 percent margin. However, among Cuban-Americans born in the United States, President Barack Obama carried the group by a 60-40 percent margin.”
That 60-40 margin would be my kind, those of us born here to immigrant and exiled families — not the ones who are recently arrived and considered by hard-line Cubans to be medio socialista, anyway.
And this, from the Daily Beast:
“It is a sign that the younger Cuban-American voters are voting on more than just the Cuban issue,” said Florida GOP operative and Rubio campaign manager Jose Mallea. “There’s just not the affinity for the Republican Party of their parents’ generation.”
Mallea added: “But when the extreme language, some of the ugly rhetoric surrounding it made it seem like an anti-Hispanic law, rather than anti-illegal immigrant, Cuban Americans start to take that personally.”
The shift is a huge, historic one for the Cuban-American community that sends a blaring message to the GOP, and our own people.
I think a previously silent percentage of my generation (many who are closeted Democrats) is tired of the yelling for naught. Of the one-issue chant. And, maybe it isn’t just about tired, but more about voting for concern on a broader range of issues. And a willingness, at last, to question complete fanatical devotion to a party that currently doesn’t offer a welcome mat. (I go back to the anti-Hispanic rhetoric that Cuban-Americans don’t seem to hear, care about or think is about them, too.)
So, what does this all mean? Surely, not that the majority of the American-born Cuban kids are communists and socialists.
To me, it means the old conversation is just that: Old. As the children of exiles, we care deeply about Cuba and we want the downfall of dictatorship and we want freedom for our family’s beloved island and its 11 million souls. We want the magic and glory of a place our grandparents mourned and longed for finally, and forever, democratically restored. Healed.
Pero, the hard-line screaming hasn’t worked. Give me something else to try.
(Side note…A therapist friend once explained: “You know the definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result.”)
My generation of voters also is born and raised American — some of us even live outside the Magic Bubble that is Miami — and we vote on issues that affect our daily lives. We are concerned about the cost of healthcare, the frightening state of the economy and we certainly desire a rational bipartisan conversation about job and wealth creation.
But, we also vote to crush the people who say wretched things about our people and culture, who aim to retard women’s rights, demonise gay friends and relatives and disenfranchise the neediest among us.
So anyway, have you seen the news stories on Republicans and the conservative talking head who just after the election said hey, hey, hey wait, we do need immigration reform! All this suddenly, after 70% of Latinos turned their backs, they’re willing to talk. Whiplash.
And of course, haters and race-baiters grew quickly angry about any potential change in policy toward “illegals.” Go read the love-filled comments about the recent about-face here and here. And if my people think they are an exception to the hate and ignorance of extreme wingnut wackos, well, they need to get out of Miami more often. Dime con quién andas…
I can hear it now: ¡Qué equivocada!
Pero, whatever. Want the majority of the Cuban-American kids back?
Disavow extremist haters and condemn the language of exclusivity or become a political party increasingly irrelevant to once-sure bets who aren’t committed to voting like Mami and Papi.
If not, not even Marco Rubio will save you.
The Jersey Shore, Summer 2012.
I am 900 miles from my brother, aunts, uncles, cousins and dear friends who have survived Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and New York.
Actually, people I love are all up and down the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast — from the Carolinas to New England.
Everyone is physically fine.
To say I feel helpless in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is an understatement, though my gratitude for everyone’s safety cannot be minimized.
So, in an effort to “do something” beyond our donation to the Red Cross, I’ve composed a list based on my experience with a 1998 tornado and a 2010 historic flood of how you can help survivors and your community if you can.
How to Help Hurricane Sandy Survivors
- Put on your work boots and heavy gloves — Clean up. People are going to need everything from houses gutted, to debris cleaned up to personal items sorted and dipped in bleach water.
- Feed the volunteers — Your church or community group can make sack lunches and hot meals for the volunteers who will come to help. You can shop for, make, or deliver the meals. (Bless the volunteers who just walk up to you and offer to clean up or chop a tree. Bless them.)
- Volunteer at a Red Cross Relief Center — Survivors will come to the shelter to eat, sleep, get supplies, fill out forms. You can do everything at a relief center from helping people fill out forms, to cooking a hot meal to helping people load up on provisions like food and cleaning supplies.
- Shop for supplies — Rubber gloves, alcohol wipes, wet wipes, sponges, garbage bags, bleach, cleaning supplies. Our church and church members bought these and distributed them to volunteers and survivors.
- Help spread information — start a Twitter account, a blog, a Facebook page to distribute up-to-date information for your community. Print flyers with the information and social media URLs. Take photographs and video for history and perspective, but only if the homeowner and volunteer is OK with it.
- Hug friends and strangers – These are deep and personal losses. Take the time to listen and empathize with survivors. Allow them the time to process and don’t push them to “move on” just yet. They will. In time.
When my Nashville home was hit by a tornado in 1998 and my community epically flooded in 2010, the kindness of strangers — and my own volunteering — turned grim times into moments to celebrate human kindness. Those disasters changed my life…and for the better, in the end.
The toughest part was still being stuck in the recovery while the world kept on going. It felt never-ending and oppressive sometimes. It felt as if people forgot, or when they asked “Everything alright now?” just a couple weeks later, it was hard not to freak out and scream “NO, it is NOT!”
The tarp stapled to our roof after the tornado was there for weeks while we waited for repairs. The flapping that tarp made in the wind was a horrible sound, and was a constant reminder of the work still ahead.
My heart breaks now for the losses. I lived in New Jersey and have had some of the best moments of my life (including my 45th birthday this year) in the places now so devastated. The amount of work appears to be overwhelming and insurmountable.
But, recovery will come. And, knowing what I know of my tough people up North, it will be alright.
I am Queen. (2007)
Sometimes, I have nothing to say, which is very un-Cuban.
Sometimes, I force myself to say nothing, which is very American.
I have been fighting with the two sides of my brain: Shut up…or just say it?
On what? The Disgusting Nature of this Election. Well, yes. But, I am only 47% ready on that topic.
I speak of the other huge conversation going on online:
Is She or Isn’t She The First Latina Disney Princess?
The excitement, drama, debate, disappointment over whether this huge-eyed, big-headed cartoon is Finally Our Latina Princess.
Oh mama mía.
First she was, then she wasn’t. Then, she could be.
I have read the news stories — like, real news sites giving this space and time – and on blogs and on Facebook pages and Twitter.
Back and forth and back and forth.
“Hurrah!” la gente said. “Al fin!”
“She’s too white,’’ some of our people said. “Not authentic.”
Then, arguments over what an authentic Latina is.
Still, people? Really?
But Disney, after allegedly saying Sofia is Latina, said not really…but she could be.
There you go, have fun with that. Guess it is kind of like how I pretend I look like Sofia Vergara because we both speak Spanish.
“If you wish upon a star…”
What I was most thinking during the drama was this:
Am I so desperate for a Latina role model for my 8-year-old daughter that I would get so over-the-top with joy because the marketing machine at Disney decided to make a kinda-Latin Princess?
The answer: No.
I don’t need no stinking cartoon princess to teach my daughter the power of her people’s mujeres. We have real-life Queens in our lives.
- The young women I work with, a combination of American-born Hispanic-Americans and Latin American-born immigrants, who work tirelessly to improve the lives of recent immigrants in our community.
- Cred, too, to the non-Latina Americans I work with who have learned to speak fluent Spanish and value a culture and people not originally their own. (My daughter may one day identify more with them, than with me…)
- The lady down the hill whose entire family has worked their asses off to make a modest Mexican restaurant into a successful and welcoming community gathering place.
- The friends who have launched successful businesses and online communities that celebrate our culture, our food, our wacky.
- The ball-busting, hard-working women in my family, who are an example of dedication and can-do despite hardship, strife and the occassional hijo de puta. I have decades worth of stories to tell my daughter about the women who share her DNA.
Shall I continue? Because I can. But, you get the point.
My daughter knows these women. And knows their stories because she knows them in real life and because I tell her, and will tell her more as she is able to comprehend.
When Maria was a toddler, I was grateful to characters like Dora, Diego and Maya and Miguel. I told her she could speak Spanish, just like them. I have downloaded Selena Gomez music and shown her photos of the glory that is America Ferrara and Salma Hayek.
I do want my daughter to see positive reflections of herself in the popular culture. I was a child in the 1970s, when beach blonde and Farrah were in, so I get it. I didn’t want to believe that only the bimbo-culture of Sabado Gigante and screaming Telenovela stars reflected me. (I never grew up to look like them, either.)
I am invested in flesh-and-blood heroes, the kind that hug you, set you straight, offer advice and help you make memories you’ll tell your own grandchildren one day.
Not the kind who will end up in the DVD bargain bin.
Favorite post on the whole Latin Disney Princess thing.
Apollo's Daughter at the foot of the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 9 months.
Ah lawdy, lawd, dios mio. Forgive me, but I secretly recorded my daughter and her friend. (There’s an app for that,)
I had to.
The conversation was just too funny and rich and it showed me all too boldly that my daughter is a cubana en la sangre, for she is fascinated by symbols and gods and goddesses.
It comes naturally and it has exploded since she recently read The Lightning Thief (a gift from her amiga, Marta) and then all the other books in the series by Rick Riordan, which describe half-blood children with characteristics of the Greek gods and goddesses who fathered or bore them. She has read and re-read them several times.
As I drove along this week, what I heard between my girl and her friend reminded me of the story my mother tells of being pregnant with me when an espiritista/Santera friend told her the baby girl in her womb was “una hija de La Caridad” or Ochun in the Yoruba religion and Santeria.
I have been reminded many hundreds of times “que le pida a La Caridad,” a mi Santa, a coquettish, moody goddess, ruler of sensuality, refinement and one who rules the rivers. (She’s also the Patron Saint of Cuba.)
When you grow up Cuban, you have, at minimum, working knowledge and understanding of the different characteristics of los hijos de Yemaya, Babablú, Ochun, Chango and the rest of the mighty gods. It happens through osmosis, even if it isn’t practiced in your family.
She used to make altars. I can only imagine what my kid would know, and cling to, if she was growing up in the South Florida soup of spirits and saints…and “trabajos.”
So, the conversation:
Maria to Friend: “When you touch plants, do you feel sort of like the plant is responding to you?”
Friend: “Yeah. Kind of.”
M: “You’re probably a Demeter. They’re not very aggressive, but they have this thing with outdoors and nature.”
M: “Would you sit out in every activity and check your reflection in the lake and do your hair and gossip?”
F: “What kind of a wierdo would do that?”
F: “There is the possibility (of you being a daughter) of Athena.”
M: “Do my eyes look stormy gray to you?”
F: “Ah, good point.”
M: “But, in personality, I am probably most like her.”
While I could see my daughter being a child of the warrior goddess, Athena, Maria believes she is the daughter of Apollo, god of prophecy, healing, music and archery. (She’s really, really good at Wii Archery, it appears.)
I fell last week and badly skinned my knee. She made me a “potion” to help me feel better. It was juice and water in a vial from her chemistry set.
I swear, I think she’s a Santera-in-the-making.
A woman of 45
I don’t go anywhere now without first checking my chin.
There are tweezers everywhere — in my kitchen, in my car, in my makeup bag, in my bathroom drawer.
Ya tu sabes.
Less than a month before 45, I find myself wondering how in the hell this happened. I know it is not an original thought, this whatthehell? And I cannot express my feelings about aging any better than Nora Ephron, ala why didn’t I wear a bikini, as she instructed, everyday between the ages of 26 and 34? And, I suddenly so get the neck thing.
But, allow me time to seek public therapy and do a little soap-boxing.
In my head, the age is around 24. If I were smarter, I’d focus on staying 38 in spirit, an age I believe was my peak for beauty and smarts. But, my waist was much smaller at 24, so there you have it, I guess. And really, 24 was, like, yesterday. Yesterday!
There aren’t many wrinkles on my face (thank you, Cuban DNA), but the fact I feel like napping every afternoon when I get home from work is a bit of a clue that things are changing. That, and my new, scary obsession with juicing and “well-living” documentaries on Netflix.
But the biggest clue: I gladly and greedily took an expensive Swiss neck cream and $99 anti-aging snail slime given to me by a cousin who sells cosmeceuticals. When I got home with my loot, I thought, shit, when did I become the woman who puts $99 snail slime on her face? ( Haven’t used the slime yet, so no testimonial. But the neck cream on the face is el fabuloso.)
I could talk on and on about how I believe my metabolism has betrayed me, how I try not to look at my own behind, and how often I say Amens for brassieres that minimize back fat. And embarrassing confession: I have, indeed, gotten a little wistful glancing at stylish, slender young women. I want a tee shirt: “I was hot once, too.”
But, here’s the thing, the fabulous bitch of it all: I didn’t expect to like 45. Society tells me I am supposed to fight against it, minimize and deny my years. Well, pal’ carajo to that.
There is great freedom and peace in knowing you have walked through rubble toward more stable ground, and survived. And that you can do it again and again should you have to.
There is liberty in knowing that no choice is a wrong choice, just a chance to figure it all out again. Deliverance in knowing that fear is bullshit and limitations are often of your own making. Hallelujah in absolute knowing that everything plays out as it should, and your only responsibility in this divine mess is to take the next right step.
In recent years, too many friends have been ill with life-threatening diseases. My parents have had health scares. Young people in our lives have unexpectedly died. All, experiences that throw your own mortality in your face.
Life is precious and fleeting and not meant to be semi-lived. No $99 cream can deliver that gut-knowing.
45 has taught me life is to be played out big and boldly, and with a sharp pair of tweezers.
It's all good.
The Case for Play
I don’t remember how long ago, maybe a decade, maybe more. A German tourist stopped me on Broadway, just outside the paper and asked for directions.
We got to chatting. I asked her how she liked Nashville.
Loved it, she said. She went on about the country music and how nice everyone was, but then she added:
“Everyone is FAT!”
I was shocked, and insulted on behalf of my fellow Volunteers, that she would say such a thing. But it was a bit like the Emperor and his clothes. I suddenly noticed there were some awfully big bums all around.
Now, Tennessee is officially the 4th Fattest State in the Union. (My own posterior has contributed to the numbers, as I suddenly have no idea where the middle-aged baggage hanging off of me has come from…despite regular exercise.)
And, about our kids: 36.5% of our kids ages 10 to 17 were overweight or obese, according to 2007 figures. In 2011, we had the sixth-highest childhood obesity rate.
Nationally, the obesity rate for kids and adolescents has tripled since 1980. The statistics for Hispanic children and adults are beyond alarming.
Where is the outrage about that?
I come from a culture that celebrates la gordita of all ages, and we live in a time that fetichizes food while getting minimal movement.
Becoming a mother and suddenly being responsible for laying a foundation for someone else’s lifelong well-being forced me to look at my own attitude about exercise and my own food choices. I realized that to beat back diabetes, heart disease and all those other ailments that run in my bloodline and culture, I needed to set an example of good living for my child — and work extra hard at it.
We hiked our way to a waterfall this weekend — up steep slopes and over slippery rocks — and it hit me loudly that I want to stay as fit as possible so I can do these awesome things with my family for many, many years to come.
Now, in the years since that German tourist and I met, Nashville has created new parks and greenways, there are active public service campaigns for healthy living, new farmer’s markets, and even our latest mayor got into promoting regular exercise by publicly walking 100 miles.
So, we’re trying.
But, it all starts at home, doesn’t it?
Promoting Play Giveaway
Today, over on the Tiki Tiki Blog, we’re giving away 3 Play Kits from Let’s Play, an initiative I have written for for more than a year. Let’s Play is partnered with KaBoom! the nonprofit park-builder to promote active play for children and families.
My essays and ideas are on the Let’s Play site, as are those of other writers.
I am posting this here because, while the winners will be selected randomly, I am hoping at least one of the prizes goes to a Tennessean.
We need to spread the message of healthy living and active play at home too.
So, head on over and try for a play kit.
The future is wide open.
Two things have been happening in our lives for several months and I just realized that one has been a metaphor for the other.
It took my dreaming of an overflowing toilet a few days ago to link the two.
So, our toilets started backing up this winter. The plumber told us it was time to clean out the septic.
Same exact time: My husband was told he — and everyone in his department — would have to reapply for their jobs. It was part of a reorganization, yet another attempt for a newspaper to save itself. Some, like him, had been in that newsroom for 30 years.
At home, when the plumber came looking for the septic cap, he couldn’t find it. He dug up the yard. They studied and restudied the map of where the septic is supposed to be. It wasn’t there. After digging and digging, they deduced the septic cap was under our little pond’s waterfall.
Dig up the pond, the plumber said, or try to add more good bacteria and see what happens.
We spent weeks flushing good bacteria down the toilets, and as per the country plumber’s advice, moldy chicken. It wasn’t working.
Meanwhile, we were waiting to see what would happen with my husband’s career.
Just waiting. Weeks and weeks worth of waiting.
What we were going through on the job front was a lot like how we felt every time we flushed the toilet. “Am I going to get crapped on today?”
During this time, we talked a lot about the heart’s desire. About seeing change as an opportunity for something new, something deeper. We both were confident it would all turn out as it should. It always does.
And I, way more than he, was OK with the potential disruption. He loved his job and he is damned good at it. But naive as it may be, given our current economy, a huge part of me didn’t want my good and talented husband working for such a place, and for such a people who would even consider putting out employees in this way. A place in a gasping industry. Pa’ la mierda. Reinvention time.
Finally, after one toilet backup too many I said: “Do you really want to sit here and hope shit doesn’t back up into our house? Let’s dig up the pond.”
And, we did.
And, my husband lost his job.
Just like that.
At the same time.
A few days ago, I dreamt the toilet in our master bath overflowed. I flushed it and it gushed and gushed. The water, though, was like a mineral spring — clear and cool, and I just stood there, watching it as it drenched my floor. In the dream, I was amazed by its cleanliness and the weird sparkle, undisturbed by the eruption.
I looked up the meaning. It appears to be a good sign.
I know it has to be.
There’s a whole lot less mierda in our lives now.
Me. At Work. Latino non-profit. Fabulous.
Am I Really Bilingual?
I think this is an open letter to parents raising bilingual, Spanish-speaking children in America. For parents, like me, whose kids are speaking and reading English at school and hablando un poco de español at home.
I have had a realization. A thunderbolt to the cabeza. A “guau” moment about my own bilingualism and what it may mean for my daughter’s ability to claim the adjective “bilingual.” What it may mean to yours, too.
Are we fooling ourselves that we’re raising truly bilingual kids? Are we, of the Spanglish-speaking generation, truly bilingual?
You see, back in January, I stepped out of my work-at-home-mama chancletas and yoga pants and began to work for a local Latino non-profit. I’ll tell you more about it at some point, but what is relevant here is that I am called upon to write in Spanish. And, I have worried and stumbled.
I can’t remember the accents and the words that flow so easily from me in English sputter out of my head in fits and stalls in Spanish. I worry my words are wrong, maybe they’re Miami cubanisms and not really terms native Spanish-speakers would use? I worry. Thank goodness for great editors and kind proof readers.
Oh, and I won’t even spend much time telling you how I forget words as I am speaking to native Spanish-speakers. Thank goodness for Spanglish, but there’s work to be done in that area for me, too.
I really, really should have paid more attention in Mrs. Arrastia’s class. But anyway.
The Key May Be To Read Spanish Literature
So, the lightbulb moment was this: My written Spanish is that of someone who didn’t read great literature in Spanish, didn’t read the morning newspaper in Spanish. I didn’t read beautiful, descriptive scenes in novels, nor the colorful and dramatic words of journalists.
You see, I can understand most of what I read in Spanish, but I believe the lack of regular and in-depth reading in Spanish has deprived the poetic, lyrical side of my brain from creating its own Spanish dance of words.
My written Spanish is simple. Juvenile. (This despite speaking it all my life and studying the basics all the way to college.)
Que pena, really.
I told my boss about this idea of mine, and she — once a journalism student who was born and raised in Central America — thinks I am onto something. She attended college in the U.S., so she had to read in English, and given that she works and lives here, she has had to immerse herself in the written English language. Her ability to write beautifully and powerfully in two languages is there, for sure. If my theory holds, it is because she has read a lot of English.
So, I am a bilingual woman who cannot claim to write as well in Spanish as she does in English. And honestly, that reality is a blow to my self-identity.
How can I be truly bilingual, if writing in Spanish is a chore? Or, it leaves me — a writer by profession — feeling insecure?
I looked over at Maria the other day as she and I were snuggled in bed reading. She had The Swiss Family Robinson. I had the latest Bon Appetit magazine.
How can I help her have a firmer grip on the beautiful language she understands, but only sort-of-speaks? Will she, in her high school and college years, read Spanish literature? Will it be too late then to ignite a spark, or create real bilingual brain paths, by then?
And how can I help myself — at nearly 45! — expand my brain and achieve greater literacy in Spanish?
Maybe my daughter and I will read Spanish novels together. It will be a thing we can share. Maybe one day, she and I will head to Mexico or Costa Rica or Uruguay and go hang out to immerse ourselves in words, spoken and written.
But, for now, I have promised myself to read en español regularly. So, waiting for me on my Kindle tonight is Ficciones by Jose Luis Borges.
It isn’t an easy read, I understand. But, I want to start with great. If its hard, I’ll move down to the tween literature and go from there.
Vamos a ver.
I have to tell you, I am feeling a little jipped.
What about You?
So, what does this mean for so many of our children, growing up American with barely a toe in Latin culture? With minimal Spanish at home? With basic Spanish at school, if they’re lucky.
If you’re in my boat, raising bicultural kids, what are you doing to ensure their language ability is both spoken and written?
I’d love to know.
Seeing Clearly Now
Our 8-year-old got her first pair of glasses this week.
It was awesome and, for me, a little bit heartbreaking.
She kept telling me all that she can now see — the grass isn’t a fuzzy blanket, there is a girl’s image on the Wendy’s sign, and hey, there are words on that thing hanging over the sink.
My first pair of glasses sat on my nose at the age of 5, and by 8, I was wearing them all the time. Same age as Maria.
Of course, Maria is happy and she looks so cute and so smart in her frames. And, I am elated that such as thing as spectacles exist so that my daughter can see.
But, it is killing me. And, I have to let it go.
You see, I hated wearing glasses. Maybe my daughter won’t. No se.
But, my memories of glasses are these: They bounced on my nose during P.E. and it made me dislike gym class even more. Some of my glasses were so thick and so big (thank you 1980s fashion…) that they cut into my fat cheeks. And oh, how I didn’t like the rain flicking them or the Miami humidity fogging them up.
I got contacts at 12. My mom said that if Amy Carter could wear contacts, so could I. And so, I and easily wore lenses until I was 24, but when I moved to Nashville, allergies killed me and made contacts impossible to withstand. My vanity was sacrificed. I spent the remainder of my 20s in glasses, during a time I was supposed to be all hot and fabulous. Few people can be hot and fabulous in glasses, OK?
LASIK changed my life at 32. A few months after surgery, I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia and in my head, over and over, I chanted “Thank You, God, Thank You, Doctor Ming Wang, Thank You, God, Thank You, Doctor Ming Wang….” over and over and over again. As nearsighted as I had been, I never would have been able to see the miraculous wonder that is that reef. (I was way hotter in my 30s, thankyouverymuch.)
Now, at nearly 45, I have two pairs of glasses again because the vieja eyes are starting. I need them to drive at night and see my computer monitor…and my iPhone and books and magazines.
I imagine my brain, which works in vision, is wondering que carajo is going on with the eyeballs in my head — they’re good, they’re bad, good, badish.
So, I’m keeping my dislike for being a girl in glasses to myself because I have to. My girl doesn’t need my baggage and bottom line, seeing her see clearly is what it’s all about.
But, right now, I’m thinking of shredding that 6th grade picture of me with the huge aviator-shaped glasses with the rose-colored lenses. The pimple on my chin didn’t help, either.