During the first five years of my life, I grew up speaking both English and Spanish with my Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Both languages reflected the kaleidoscope of my life at the time: I could switch easily from speaking English while romping around Randalls Island and the Williamsbridge playground to speaking Spanish while dancing salsa and merengue at my grandmother’s house in Parkchester.
Once we moved from the Bronx to Long Island in the early eighties, however, a critical shift happened. I was no longer in a community where Spanish was commonly spoken and on top of that, racist school counselors “advised” my mother not to speak Spanish to my brothers and me, in case it might “confuse” us. Respectful of school authorities, my mother obliged this narrow and misinformed demand.
This shift marked the beginning of being robbed of my mother tongue. I have been on a search to recapture it ever since.
After that, although I still grew up speaking Spanglish within the confines of my home in mostly white suburbia, I never quite sustained the same level of fluency I had when I was five. When I entered junior high and high school, I took Spanish classes, but I never felt connected to conjugating verbs. It seemed mechanical and rote. Looking back now, I think I longed for a much more soulful connection to re-learning the language. Filling out worksheets did not provide me with what I really wanted: the road back to the precocious Spanish-speaking self I lost as a child.
Though I did well in those high school courses, I remember being silently angry at a few white students who completed the homework flawlessly and yet without feeling, without sentimiento. I felt possessive of a language of which I no longer had possession. How could my peers conjugate so easily when I wanted those same verbs to be on the tip of my tongue?
While I heard Spanish spoken in my relatives’ homes, prayed to la Virgen, religiously ate my arroz con pollo y habichuelas and every last bit of sliced aguacate and platanos maduros, I increasingly responded to family members in English, which of course, led them to label me as “white.” Being called “white” by my relatives only exacerbated my alienation from a language I felt was becoming farther from my reach, even though it was literally in my hands and indeed—in my mouth.
As soon as I got to college, I continued taking Spanish classes, but this time with a focus on literature. If it weren’t for those classes, I don’t think I ever could have started my journey back to recovery. I took everything from Spanish Iberian literature to Latin American literature classes. The process didn’t come without detours, though. Sometimes I ran away from the journey, such as when I was selected to act in a college production of a Federico García Lorca play, and then backed out because I was too embarrassed about facing the white women and even other Latinas who knew the language better than I. At times, this happened in my classes as well. I sometimes felt afraid to speak during a discussion because other students—both white and Latina—had a facility with the language that I lacked.
I knew things were getting better when a professor at Smith, Marina Kaplan from Argentina, selected an essay I had written about Elena Poniatowska’s Querido Diego to share on a panel with two other students during a class session. The three of us shared our varying perspectives, and I had to defend my interpretation of the text—all in Spanish.
It was a turning point. I’d been recognized for my writing in Spanish and had been invited to speak in the very language I thought would never be mine again. My presentation wasn’t perfect, but I remember feeling strongly about my interpretation, which differed from those of my peers, as I positioned myself as an outspoken respondent to their claims. My Spanish voice was on its way to coming back.
Another turning point happened in a comparative literature class with Nancy Saporta Sternbach on Latin American and Latina Women Writers. I discovered Gloria Anzaldúa, Ana Castillo, and Cherríe Moraga, all Chicana lesbian feminists who not only wrote about living in two worlds—that of Chicano and white culture—but also wrote about living in two languages. Their works revealed that I was not the only one with an amputated tongue.
It’s no coincidence that I am currently on a Fulbright to México and that the women writers who helped me realize my voice are Mexican (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Poniatowska) and Chicana (Anzaldúa, Castillo, Moraga). So much of my journey to my boricua tongue has happened via the beautiful and fierce writing of my mexicana and Chicana sisters, that to be in their mother country is like being a guest in their home.
Indeed, I’m not only seeking myself but also sisterhood through language. My mexicana sisters are certainly already here for me. During the short time that I have been in Mexico City on my Fulbright, it’s been Mexican women who have provided me with the support I need. As a guest researcher at PUEG (Programa Universitario de Estudios de Género), which is the gender studies department at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), I am challenging myself to face the very women whose work I admire while speaking to them in the language they have all powerfully mastered and subverted in the name of feminism. I recently met the profesora who will be guiding my research process and it made me smile to hear her say that she would not only be my mentor but also my madre.
Other times, the support offered by my mexicana sisters has made me walk away feeling emotional. Recently, a PUEG staff member kindly offered to speak to me in English, but I responded that she should speak to me in Spanish. I received the same offer at the COMEXUS office, which serves Fulbrighters in México. Both times, I teared up a bit upon leaving these generous women, feeling a little that these offers might not have occurred if I were completely their fluent sister.
Yes, I am hard on myself in this process. Perhaps their gentle offers came out of a gesture of convenience. But my journey has never been one of convenience. When I think of my parents moving out to Long Island from the Bronx, they did so not because it would be convenient for my father to drive hours into the city as a police officer in the NYPD, they did so because they thought it might provide their three children with a shot at an education in suburban public schools and perhaps even a shot at college. Convenience has never been a part of our family idiom.
At 35, I’m searching for that five year-old girl who spoke two languages magically. At 35, I’m recovering a tongue that was conveniently erased by racist school authorities. At 35, I’m recapturing not just a tongue but the entire spirit of a language and culture that still lives within me.
The content of this blog post and future ones written during my time in México are wholly my own and the opinions expressed herein do not represent—explicitly or implicitly—those of the Academy for Educational Development (AED), COMEXUS, the Fulbright Commission, or the State Department.