On Recovering My Mother Tongue: Speaking Spanish from the Bronx to México

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.

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18 thoughts on “On Recovering My Mother Tongue: Speaking Spanish from the Bronx to México

  1. I felt possessive of a language of which I no longer had possession.
    Yes, this sentiment exactly. This is a beautiful piece. Our journeys have been somewhat different, but yours resonates with me powerfully. My accent is now more and more formed by the particular area in the southeast of PR where my family is from. When I met and had dinner with Tato Laviera at PRSA this year, he said something I’m still trying to understand fully (after years of being called that same derisive “white” that you note), he said (ironically, in English!) that when I speak Spanish he hears black Spanish in my mouth. I offer this more or less without comment because as moving as it was to me, I still don’t know what to make of it. But I still miss words by the dozen, and trip over simple constructions. And can’t manage the phone successfully more than half the time. But thanks for the reminder that it’s a journey!

    • I’m so glad I have you to connect with on this journey. It sometimes feels embarrassing to share these stories, but it’s time to break the silence, as I find that so many of us feel the same way. I recently went to Guatemala for a feminist lesbian conference and there were several of us from the US who were Latinas from different parts of the country who attended. I was so relieved when several Latinas admitted that they were struggling a bit with communicating queer politics in a way that they wanted to. It made me feel less alone. Thank you for being on this journey with me too!

      • My last trip to PR was very helpful in this regard. My family mostly speaks no English, and several refuse to speak what they know as a point of resistance agains the US English policies on the island. But they were very patient with me, waiting for me to look up words when needed, and many said very kind things to me–admiring my willingness to try and fail and try again to speak. Those with a little more education (wide range!) also took the time to note how much of my life is made of words and how hard it must be not to have them come easily.

        It’s a journey, no lie.

      • Yes, I find my trips to PR to be wonderful as well. Everyone is very patient and helpful. You are completely right about our lives being made up of words. It’s precisely because we love words and surround ourselves with them through texts and interpretation that we get not a little frustrated when we want to say that perfectly smart English sentence in Spanish. Thank you for understanding the journey.

  2. Wonderful post! Reminded me of growing up Portuguese on L.I.(as your neighbor!) My family (including cousins) were told not to speak Portuguese for the same reason. I had to tutor my younger cousins because the schools were not willing to help. Fortunately for me, we used to summer in Portugal, and I was able to strengthen my grasp of the language. Kudos to you for sticking to it, and taking such a wonderful journey to recapture your native tongue!

    • Thank you so much for reading the post Anita! It means so much to me. I didn’t realize you were told the same thing. So much we need to share! I’m glad that we can connect on this!

  3. Yes, apparently we’ve got a lot more in common than we ever knew! I am so proud of you for what you are doing…not just for the language journey, but for speaking for the rest of us “sisters” who don’t have the wherewithall (by that I’m implying we mostly lack the courage) to do the same. I will be following your posts religiously, as I feel that I have much to learn. Better late than never!

  4. Pingback: What We Missed

  5. Ileana, thank you for sharing this with us. Your words are so beautiful, and I’m so honored to know you in however small a capacity. We’re all thinking of you as you continue on this amazing journey. Cuídate!

    • Jessica, what kind and generous words, thank you! I’m so honored to know you as well. Thank you for sending me your support and good energy. I’m sending you my support as well. Many thanks and keep fighting the good fight! Abrazos!

  6. Ileana:) Words cannot express how well you wrote this letter to your fans. Bravo:)
    I’m very proud of you my cousin you have come a long way in life and you still have a journey that the lord wants you to accomplish in your life. Amazing how immature how our school communities was at that time. But you know what it made you stronger and you have become a superstar for your students all over the world.
    Your parents wanted to give you all a better life and they have accomplish that and more for you and your brothers. I am so proud and honored that you are my cousin:) I love you with all my heart. God bless you.

    • Dave, that was a powerful essay by Carlos Fuentes; I am very glad that you shared it with me. I appreciated many lines, especially, “La campaña contra la lengua de Cervantes en los Estados Unidos es un intento fútil de tapar el sol con un dedo. Los hispanoparlantes norteamericanos son ya, según la expresión de Julio Ortega, los ‘primeros ciudadanos del siglo XXI’.” For my English readers: “The campaign against the language of Cervantes in the US is a futile attempt to cover the sun with one’s finger. Spanish-speaking Americans are already, according to Julio Ortega, the ‘the first citizens of the 21st century.'” He could not have been more correct or more prescient in 1998 about where we are in 2011, for indeed, this is very true and has always been true. I encourage Spanish-speaking readers of Feminist Teacher to read Carlos Fuentes’s essay on the US’s futile attempts to erase Spanish from within and even without it’s borders.

  7. I completely understand your sentiment. Your stories about Mexico City are wonderful. I can’t help but remember my own experience in Mexico City, and having a similar experience. I can’t wait to hear more about your adventures. Have a wonderful time…. I love that city!

    • Maya, so wonderful to hear from you! I can’t wait to hear about your time and adventures in South Africa; we are on this Fulbright journey together even though we are on different sides of the earth. I’m sending you an abrazo!

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