“You speak like a gringa,” my father sometimes joked when I was younger, and I cringed knowing that it was true. I am a Nuoyrican via Ponce on my dad’s side; my mami came to the U.S. from Havana in 1959. My parents met in a hotel ballroom in Manhattan, married, and had me a year later. We lived in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the small apartment building that my abuelo – LoLo – owned. Most of the tenants were relatives, so as a toddler I was surrounded by a large, bilingual family who lavished attention on me.
When I babbled in both languages -- often starting sentences in one tongue and then switching to the other -- my mami became concerned that I wasn’t learning English. Her English was so proficient when she arrived in New York City that she landed a job as a secretary in a publishing company. It was the 1960s and my mami feared that if I did not speak English, I would be kept out of the mainstream when I started kindergarten. My mami regarded English fluency as the key to success in the United States, so she laid down the law: English only around me. Of course, it is easier for a person to become fluent in multiple languages by speaking as a young child, but that wasn’t well known back then and my mami had my best interest at heart.
When I was five, we moved to Woodside, Queens, a mostly Irish neighborhood with a sprinkling of East European immigrants. I started at the local public school, P.S. 11, where I was one of the first Latinas. I learned Spanish the same way as my grade school friends. My mami roared with laughter when I announced one day that the Spanish teacher, the lovely Mrs. Petrus, had assigned everyone in class a “Spanish name” and mine was Maria. My teachers always struggled with my name, sometimes pronouncing it as one syllable, as they do in France. So I tried to “Americanize” my name, pronouncing it with an emphasis on the second syllable that almost made it sound like a “z” at the end (rhyming with Cortez), instead of saying it as my family did. I took Spanish classes all through high school and into college and graduate school. I excelled in reading and writing and read many of our great authors, such as Jose Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, in the original. But I couldn’t roll my “r”s without feeling a little fake. My inability to speak Spanish with what I thought of as a genuine accent often made me feel as if I was in imposter in my own culture.
I found my sense of belonging in the Hispanic community through books, as our shared literature made me realize the many things that made me a member. When I read Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mamo Kings Play Songs of Love, which brilliantly described the music scene in post-WWII New York City, I recalled the stories my mami mother told of dancing at clubs and ballrooms and then taking the subway to Chinatown for late night meals. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel told the story of a Mexican family through their cherished dishes, reminding me of the powerful role that food plays in our sense of heritage. Let’s face it – not all cultures have fare to rave about. (My husband, for example, was born and raised in The Netherlands, and he never pines for Dutch food.) The cuisine of the Spanish-speaking countries, each unique, is celebrated by “foodies” everywhere. My childhood friend Lisa told stories of how her mother smuggled her beloved chorizo through U.S. Customs when returning from their annual visits home – one time she sewed the links into the lining of a cape; returning from another trip, she stuck them up the voluminous skirts of a Spanish flamenco doll. Different dishes marked the everyday and special occasions in my life. On Saturday nights, I watched my mami make plaintains – the tostones that she fried, then flattened with the end of a Campbell’s soup can, and then fried again to crsipness, and the sweet, plump maduros that accompanied them. Roasted pernil, flan, paella and cakes from Valencia bakery belonged to birthday parties, first communions and graduations. The perennial debate between black beans (of my mother’s Cuba) and pink beans (ubiquitous in Puerto Rican households) finally ended when my father declared that he loved all beans, he does not discriminate.
Most recently, I picked up the memoir by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. As a fellow attorney, I was eager to read her stories and observations about navigating the legal profession as a latina. I was happily surprised to find that My Beloved World recounted in rich detail her childhood in the Bronx. The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, I found many parallels between Justice Sotomayor’s experiences and my own. One passage particularly resonated with me. Justice Sotomayor’s kindergarten teacher sent a note to her mother, gently suggesting that they speak more English at home. Her mother’s devotion to her children’s education motivated her to learn more English. Like my mami, Justice Sotomayor’s mother was determined that her children could take advantage of the many opportunities available here. Our mothers’ foresight and sacrifices, and the guidance of wonderful teachers, helped us find success in our lives.
Maybe it’s just a product of getting older and not being as easily embarrassed anymore, but today when I meet a fellow latino who speaks in Spanish to me I loudly and enthusiastically reply in the same. I still don’t roll my r’s that well, and it doesn’t matter. I know that I am the genuine article.