Feliz Moreno | Longreads | May 2019 | 24 minutes (6,008 words)
I am 26 and I haven’t been back to México to visit my dad’s extended family since I was 5 years old, and this isn’t because of financial or legal obstacles. When my youngest sister, Belén, finishes her undergraduate studies and announces that, in celebration, she wants to take a family trip to Michoacán, México, I am not enthusiastic about the idea. When plans for the trip solidify and I request time off from work, my boss asks me if I speak Spanish. “I understand more than I speak,” I tell her, as I fill out the time off request form.
I don’t remember much about the trip we made when I was 5, but I know that my language habits were already solidified at that point, that my understanding of the world had already been shaped by the hard ‘j’ consonant sound found in words like ‘juice’ and ‘jump rope.’ And it is tough for a 5-year-old to rationalize the inability to communicate with other children in a Spanish-speaking country. “Nobody here speaks English,” my 5-year-old self complained to my Dad. This, along with the fact that I got extremely sick from being exposed to México’s tap water, didn’t leave me with any desire to ever return.
The upcoming trip will be 10 days, with time split between the Jacona-Zamora region of Michoacán, where the majority of my dad’s family is based, and la Ciudad de México, México City. My two younger sisters, who took the time to study abroad in Central American countries during their undergraduate careers, are excited about the approaching trip. My dad calls me a few times in the weeks leading up to it to inform me that Michoacán has the highest murder rate in the country right now, and that we need to be vigilant and smart when we travel. I add this to the long list of anxieties I have about the trip, the primary one being my Spanish deficiency.
What is it Edward James Olmos — cast as Selena’s father — says to a young Jennifer Lopez in the 1997 film about the young singers’ life? “You speak it a little funny.” “It” being Spanish. The Quintanillas are in the car discussing the possibility of touring in México when Olmos launches into a frustrated rant.
“Being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly, Mexicans jump all over you if don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else…our family has been here for centuries, and yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. Anglo food is too bland, and yet when we go to México we get the runs. Now that to me is embarrassing… we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans — it’s exhausting!”
In the scene, the Tejano singer laughs and brushes off her father’s frustration with humor. She reassures him that she’s been singing in Spanish for ten years. But the reality Olmos’ character identifies is real, and as we sit in the airport preparing to board the plane to Guadalajara, my anxiety is palpable.
In the states, when Spanish speakers ask me if I speak the language my response varies. I will say “más o menos,” when I am feeling more practiced in my ability to communicate. “Entiendo más que yo hablo” I will say, stumbling over the words, hoping to diffuse any expectations of my responding in Spanish. “Cuando era niña, hablo más Español,” which translates (roughly) to, “When I was a little girl, I spoke more Spanish.” My mother tells me that some of my first words as a baby were “agua” and “leche,” but even so, I’ve always felt apprehensive about my Spanish.
Derek Owusu, a writer and podcaster from Tottenham, London, speaks of the cultural limitations of not speaking Twi after his mother emigrated from Ghana to the United Kingdom. In his article “Mother Tongue: The Lost Inheritance of Diaspora” he writes:
“For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve been asked…whether I can speak Twi or not, my response has always been ‘I can understand it, but I can’t speak it.’ In that moment it’s hard not to feel only half Ghanaian…”
I can relate to this sentiment. In the U.S., I have made myself relatively comfortable with the fact that people see me as an outsider among the middle-class white communities I often find myself in. The discomfort that comes with being an ethnic minority in the U.S. is familiar to me now, even if it remains traumatic. At least I have some language — cold, academic words like “microagression” and “oppression,” — in which to communicate the trauma; I have a wealth of resources I can access that validate my experience in this country. In México, being an outsider hurts more for some reason. Being called a “pocha” by the people that are supposed to be your raza hurts more, or maybe it just hurts in a different way than I am used to.
When we arrive at the airport in Guadalajara, there are slow-moving mosquitos buzzing around everywhere that I find pleasure in swatting. My kill count is at 13 when I look around and see that nobody else in the airport seems to notice these zancudos, and I wonder if this makes me look like a foreigner. In this country it is not my dark eyes, brown skin, and wild hair that give me away as someone who is not from here, it is my actions that will betray me, the words I stumble over.
When my youngest sister, Belén, finishes her undergraduate studies and announces that, in celebration, she wants to take a family trip to Michoacán, México, I am not enthusiastic about the idea.
When we leave the airport, I am surprised by everything: there are no painted lines to delegate the car lanes on the street; there are no seatbelt laws — people ride in the beds of pickup trucks without fear of being pulled over; there are no clearly defined highway shoulders. Dad says that the only rules in México are that there are no rules. Between the desert sun, the evident poverty, and the militarized police, the country feels post-apocalyptic somehow. It’s like the people of México already know what the end of the world will be like: grueling.
We make the two-hour drive to Zamora, the second largest city in Michoacán, on privatized toll roads, and we have no way of knowing if the fee they charge us is standard. Our hotel is in Zamora, but my dad’s family resides in Jacona, a smaller neighboring town. We pass through the state of Jalisco, the tequila capital of the world, and fields of blue agave stretch out on either side of the road as we drive. It is the same blue as the pot I keep my succulents in back home. As I look out over the agaves, whose needle-pointed limbs stretch up towards the desert sun, I think about my succulents and their tendency to stretch towards any sunlight they can find.
As my dad drives, I recall the time when I was young and learning to read English. We took a road trip through the California Central Valley during this time, and for the entire three hours, I read all the street signs out loud. I joke with my parents that this is how I will now learn Spanish, by reading all the signs out loud to them during our two-hour trek. We all laugh, but it isn’t a half bad idea. When we arrive in Zamora I feel completely submerged in México, and I am horrified by how rusty my Spanish has become since college. I become sullen and silent at the realization.
I have a meltdown the first morning at breakfast. Dad rolls his eyes at my request for Mom to repeat what she said so I can understand. When I explain to him, as patiently as I can, that his actions don’t help me feel as if I am in a safe learning environment, he gets defensive.
“Yeah, Dad, it’s hard to learn Spanish with you around,” my sister Quetzal tells him. My youngest sister Belén helps me by ordering tea from the waiter and tells me that I can ask people to speak more slowly — “Más despacio por favor” — or let them know that I am still learning — “Estoy aprendiendo.”
Dad launches into a monologue about how this will be a good experience, a humbling experience. “It will help you imagine how it must feel when immigrants arrive to the U.S. and imagine being from Japan or Vietnam,” he says, “where it’s not just the language you have to learn, but an entirely new alphabet.” I shovel bland hotel chilaquiles into my face as he talks, hoping this will plug up any emotions I am feeling, until I finally burst into tears and run from the breakfast table.
Packed into my tears are frustrations and insecurities from childhood that I had buried deep enough in my psyche that I’d convinced myself they’d been dealt with. I walk out to the hotel parking lot feeling defeated. Belén follows me, and I cover my face as I cry. “Dad doesn’t know about the shame,” I cry, choking on emotion. Belén nods, wraps her arms around me in a hug. “He doesn’t know,” I say again, my sentences have devolved. Even in English I am struggling for words.
“I know,” she says, and I know that she understands. I cry like this in the hotel parking lot and it feels so comforting to have her with me. I remember that this is my family, that this is supposed to feel like home, and I want to cry more because my defective tongue makes me feel like this, displaced amongst my own raza. My mother joins us and reassures me that she too struggles to communicate in Spanish. It’s not her first language either. I regain control of my tears and sniffle my way back to the table feeling childish and pathetic. When we are all seated, my dad apologizes and my sisters share their own stories of being shamed for not being fluent in Spanish when they were in Central America.
Someone who looks the way we do is never allowed the learning period that might be granted to a white person who is trying to learn Spanish. We are not given a grace period of forgiveness where we can admit to forgetting the pretérito conjugations of basic verbs like “ir” and “estar.” I am not given the safe space to fumble and forget things without people laughing at my mistakes and thinking that I am dumb for not having emerged from the womb knowing the language of my ancestors. It is a discouraging thing to arrive in a country where, finally, the features of your face match everybody else’s, but your lengua does not.
As a writer, I think about words a lot. I think about how they do or do not match the object they are describing. For instance, the word “bubble” sounds like an opaque, soapy sphere floating through the air. The Spanish word “burbuja” sounds like a glob of snot blown from an eight-month old baby’s nose. Both words seem appropriate.
Then there is the word “chuparrosa,” the way it feels satisfying on my tongue like the last slurp of a caramel frappuccino on a hot day. The word is both identifying and descriptive at once — rose sucker, the hummingbird, the bird that sucks flowers. The small, fairy-like bird is named based on function: in Spanish the bird is sucking, in English it is humming.
Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.
Then there is the Spanish word “madrugada,” a verb that is beautiful in it’s succinctness. The English equivalent is a seven-word phrase, practically a sentence, in comparison: “To wake up early in the morning.” “Madrugar” is so much more efficient and precise.
Then there are words or concepts that collapse onto themselves when translated from English to Spanish, losing precision. For instance, “amargo” means bitter or unsweetened, but it also is used to describe something tart. Dark, unsweetened cocoa is amargo. Black currant is amargo. In English these are two distinct flavors, in Spanish only one.
I listen to an author interview of Sandra Cisneros where she explains that many of her title ideas come from translating Spanish to English. “Salvador, Late or Early,” was a direct translation from Spanish, “Salvador, Tarde o Temprano.” When a college English teacher tells me, encouragingly, that my writing is good and I could be the next Sandra Cisneros, I nod appreciatively, but I feel like a fraud. Cisneros speaks Spanish fluently. I don’t. How can I ever be as good a writer as she is?
I think about the word “tongue,” with its firm, glottal pronunciation, the way it forces itself from the tip of your tongue all the way back to your throat. The Spanish word “lengua,” feels more appropriate to describe the body part. The way you push your tongue to the roof of your mouth to say it, waggle it down, balance it between top and bottom jaw, then thrust air outward. Like a demonstration of the tongue’s skill, a chance for it to show off what it knows.
The first time Dad brought home a raw beef tongue to cook he pulled it from the package and waved it around in front of his face like it was his own tongue. We were little girls then, and we ran screaming from the kitchen, swearing we would never eat the thing. Root to tip, the muscle was longer than his forearm. It was speckled with taste buds and dripping with blood. After Dad skinned and simmered the meat for five hours on low medium heat, he diced the tongue into chunks and wrapped it in corn tortillas to make tacos. The meat was so tender it seemed to melt when it hit the roof of my mouth. The lengua was perfectly flavored, even without any condiments, just a bit of salt sprinkled over the top.
Lengua tacos became one of our favorite meals after that day, with the sticky cuts of tongue that didn’t need any fancy flourishes or spices, just a warm tortilla to call home.
Every couple of years or so I will get it in my head that I am finally going to become fluent in Spanish, the language of my ancestors. I will research and download the best language learning apps and podcasts. I will rent Spanish-language children’s books from the library and read them out loud to myself over and over. I will wake up early and watch Despierta América! while getting ready for work. I will find a telenovela that I like and watch it without subtitles, even though I can only understand about 50 percent of what is going on, if I’m lucky.
I will copy verb conjugations into my notebook on a weekly basis and practice using the words in sentences. I will do all of this wholeheartedly until I am confident enough to try slipping Español into my daily conversation. And then my tongue will get twisted around the word “folklorico” and someone will laugh at my pocho mistake. I will run out of words to say what I mean — “como se dice…,” I will ask — and the person behind the counter will snicker before asking me why I never learned to speak Spanish.
When we arrive in Zamora I feel completely submerged in México, and I am horrified by how rusty my Spanish has become since college.
With these comments I will retreat back to my comfort zone, take my wounded spirit back to the “English Only” side of the river where people will be surprised when I open my mouth, not for lack of fluency, but for lack of accent. When folks are impressed by my vocabulary range and sentence coherence I know how to handle these kinds of demeaning comments: I can respond in a language I am comfortable in. I am not silenced by my slow search for words.
In a few years, when I regain confidence, I will try again. Maybe I will enroll in a class, Spanish for Beginners, if I’m feeling really rusty. In this class the Colombian teacher will test our fluency and use of the term “vosotros” — a tense Mexicanos do not use — and its conjugations. The teacher will speak Spanish too slowly for me when she is in front of the class, but too quickly for me when I visit her in office hours. I will eventually work my way to Intermediate Spanish where the teacher will tell me that my family has been using the phrase “no te metas asi!” incorrectly. I know she is wrong when she tells me this, but I do not protest. I take the final exam and pass the class with a B. I will not enroll in any more Spanish classes.
“We speak an old-fashioned Spanish,” I tell my dad, “It is the Spanish Abuelita and Abuelito brought over from México when they migrated here almost seventy years ago, still mostly unchanged and outdated.”
“Not only is it outdated, but it is a poor, uneducated Spanish. Your grandparents didn’t go to school past the fifth grade, and their language reflects it. And it is slow Spanish from the countryside, not fast like the México City Spanish,” he tells me. “They will never teach our kind of Spanish in schools.”
My language deficiency is felt most intimately when I am with my family. At Moreno Thanksgiving dinners we practice the tradition of going around the table and expressing what we are each grateful for. My Abuelita and Abuelito, who return to their home country for Christmas every year, speak only Spanish, though they know more English than they let on. They give their prayers and bendiciones, thanking the Lord for all the good grace he has bestowed upon us, and as we move around the table we also move through the generations: to my tíos and tías who speak both English and Español, sometimes translating their grace into both languages; then my cousins, many who speak only English or a Spanish they learned in school that has grown awkward from lack of use. Some years, depending on the sentiments of the thanks being given, if there are tears or hurt feelings involved, the language chasm feels very wide, but mostly we all understand each other. Graciousness, after all, is universal.
When I was young my Tío Ray, the oldest son of the family, used to ask my dad why he did not teach us Spanish. Tio Ray’s Spanish is likely the best in the family after being partially educated in Mexican seminary school as a teenager. After Tío Ray’s probing, my dad would announce at the dinner table the next evening that we, my sisters and I, were going to learn Spanish, and he would proceed to speak to us only in Español. My sisters and I would stare at him dumbfounded, understanding little to nothing he said. We would shake our heads and complain, but eventually resign to Dad’s conviction to teach us Español in one night. We knew that it would pass. In a few hours Dad would return to speaking to us predominantly in English. He always did.
“Spanish is so much easier than English,” my dad would say. “You pronounce everything exactly as it is spelled.” His comment is well-meaning, but it serves to make me feel dumber for not being able to pick up the language easily. I was born with the face, the eyes, the hair of a real Mexican, but not the tongue. In Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” about Chicana language formation, she writes, “Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self…if a person, Chicana or Latina, has a low estimation of my native tongue, she also has a low estimation of me…so if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language.” My dad’s lack of patience with his children’s Spanish deficiency makes me feel like I am the root of the problem, my ineptitude is caused solely by my own inadequacy, not by generations of colonization, political and economic diaspora, and linguistic terrorism.
Unfortunately for my father, sociological studies show that language is predominantly passed on to children by the mother. When Tío Ray eventually settles down with a lovely white lady from Oregon, his children will grow up speaking entirely in English.
In Jacona we go to Matamoros street almost every day to visit my dad’s Tío Augustine. He lives with his wife a few houses down from his sister, Tía Berta, and a few houses away from my Abuelito’s México home.
We join Tío Augustine and Maria for lunch a few times during our stay. Tío Augustine’s wife, María, keeps a tidy, beautiful home with plants lining the walkway to their front door. On the porch where we spend most of our visit, there is a large portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe supervising us. On the brick walls that enforce the perimeter of the home there is a large white, wooden cross with light bulbs drilled into its planks. I become more familiar with these surroundings with every visit, with every conversation that I struggle to keep up with.
My youngest sister Belén spent three months abroad in Nicaragua and Quetzal spent six months in Guatemala, so their Spanish has become far more polished than mine, they understand more of the conversations than I do. They always remember to address María as “Doña María.” Meanwhile I cannot even remember to use the respectful “usted” conjugation when speaking to my own parents, so I try to stay quiet during these visits, lest I accidentally offend someone.
I am eavesdropping on my mom and María in the kitchen, as they peel nopales and prepare the sopa. María asks my mother how old we are, and then she asks why none of us have husbands or children.
“It is more acceptable for women to wait to have families in the U.S.,” my mom explains the best she can in her broken Spanish. This seems to be enough for Doña María, as the conversation changes course. I can only imagine how strange this must seem to her, for a family to have three unwed daughters in their twenties. But she didn’t marry Tío Augustine until she was in her forties and never had children of her own, so she doesn’t press the issue.
By the time we return to the hotel in the evenings I am spent. I had not budgeted for the amount of mental energy it takes to operate in a foreign language all day long.
Time is different in Jacona in a way that I can only begin to grasp during our short stay. Everyone emerges in the mornings when the cicadas start to screech. Young people aren’t afraid to take up space on the streets, to race each other on bikes, or loiter on park benches to kiss. It slows down in the afternoons when the sun reaches its peak and it becomes hard to do much besides rest. It is like the air itself becomes sticky during these hours. The shops lining the plaza start to close up for siesta around 2pm. I remember learning about siestas in high school Spanish class and the students expressing envy that Latin American countries took naps in the middle of the day. But when we find ourselves caught in the afternoon heat wave we realize the midday break is less about leisure and more about survival — it only makes sense to find shade and something cold to drink during the peak hours of the desert sun.
From the city center of Zamora we make our way back to the hotel in the heatwave and stop only to purchase fruit from the vendedor on the corner. He chops a mango faster than anyone I have ever seen, peeling the skin, slicing all the way around the semilla and then dicing the leftover mango meat right in his palm with an 8” knife. We eat this straight from the bag con sal y límon y chile sprinkled over the top. As we walk, the cicadas in the trees above us work their way into a high pitched crescendo, climaxing in a synchronized thrum. Somehow their screams make the day feel even hotter.
Our fingers are sticky with fruit juice, and the hot sun makes it seem as if we are making our way through gelatina, bright and reflective and gooey. The Jacona days pass like this, like they just might stretch on forever.
By the time we return to the hotel in the evenings I am spent. I had not budgeted for the amount of mental energy it takes to operate in a foreign language all day long. The words are new, the customs are new, the bugs are new, and I am exhausted.
My own mother speaks enough Spanish to get by, most of it picked up from her father’s Hondureño side. On her mother’s side, the Castañon’s, you have to trace the family tree back to its roots to find Spanish fluency. This side of my family has been in the U.S. for three generations now and enjoy planning reunions to revel in the sheer number of people in our family. The family reunions are fun in the way watching Bill Nye in high school science class was fun — not the exact thing you want to be doing, but not terrible either.
At my mother’s family reunions the topic of language is never even broached. We are “American,” after all, U.S. citizens, and we speak English. The assumption is so solidified that there is nothing to be said about it, a gaping silence around the discussion of our choice of communal language. English, as a cultural and now familial choice, is not discussed. And neither is Spanish. Español is like an artifact that was left in México, a piece of jewelry that fell from my great-great grandmother’s throat as she crossed the border, lost forever in the dry desert of… Zacatecas? Durango? Some forgotten place with a forgotten name.
La lancha is a small, wooden boat like what we might call ‘a dinghy,’ in English. My dad’s cousin Lalo buys a 40 oz of Corona for the men who rent the boats as payment for la lancha. Lalo points to the shallows of the lake where the water gurgles and it is so clear you can see right through to the bottom where the water is pushing up from below the ground. Natural spring water, Lalo says, smiling disarmingly. Lake Camécuaro (pronounced calm-heck-who-wah-row) always ranks high on Michoacán’s slim list of tourist attractions.
We drink sangria on the boat. We float by families on the shore celebrating quinceañearas, weddings, birthdays. We can smell barbecue and hear the Maríachis. Young couples sneak away from their families to smooch on picnic benches near the shoreline. The patos come right up beside the boat, begging for Doritos.
The waters are peaceful and fresh, and the 300-year-old cypress trees, whose roots stretch into the water like bird claws and branches lilt towards the lake like feathered tendrils, make the whole place feel mystical and sacred. My family takes turns plunging into the clear water once we reach the middle of the lake. Then it begins to rain. It is one of those tropical summer rainstorms that begins when the sun starts to set and the clouds rush in to seize their opportunity. It has rained like this, a brief dusk shower, three of the four days we have been here. At first the rain putters calmly against the clear lake water, a warning we do not heed as my dad snaps fotos to document the rainfall. The patter of raindrops on the lake sounds magical. I sit on the front of the boat and pull a towel up over my head to keep dry. I look up and out at the sky. She is threatening more, and soon the thunder booms and the rain falls heavier as we dock the boat and run for cover. The rainfall has become a full-blown tropical storm. People yell and laugh all around, trying to get their parties packed up before everything is soaked.
When the afternoon storm ends, we head back to Jacona to drop off Tío Augustine and Lalo, but we decide instead to pick up some lengua tacos. Jacona’s marketplace is the length of one block and located in front of the church at the center of town where the cemetery — el panteón — used to be. The man making the tacos has set up right in the middle of the market under the tarp and he grills them up right in front of you as you order. There’s a small table and bench right next to the taco man where we sit and drink agua fresca, scarfing down cow tongue.
Español is like an artifact that was left in México, a piece of jewelry that fell from my great-great grandmother’s throat as she crossed the border, lost forever in the dry desert of… Zacatecas? Durango? Some forgotten place with a forgotten name.
The tacos are delicious with cebolla and cilantro, some homemade salsa verde and límon drizzled over the top. I can tell that the man selling them takes pride in them. He stops cooking only to ask us how they are, if we are enjoying them. “Son muy sabrosos,” we tell him, very delicious. I am reminded of all the times my dad made beef tongue tacos for us when we were young. The lengua here in the city market is fantastic, but the meat is not as tender as when my dad cooks it.
When we arrive in la Ciudad de México we make plans to visit the ruins of Teotihuacán. The pyramids are an hour outside of the city by bus. During the drive I stare out the window, translating graffiti in my head and marveling at the brightly colored homes. Mexicanos are not afraid of color like los Americanos. My people like to splash their home with pinks and blues and oranges because colors are beautiful, and life is hard enough without depriving yourself of beauty. Even the cable television dishes perched on people’s roofs are painted red or turquoise.
By the ninth day in Ciudad de México, I am confident enough in my Spanish to barter for trinkets and souvenirs at la ciudadela. Everything is beautiful in the marketplace, the arretes, cobijas, camisas, bolsas, plumas — everything is vibrating with color. I have enough confidence to venture away from my family and make my way through the market alone. I am feeling bold enough to ask a vendor if I can take a photo of her display. The hand-woven bags and blankets, tortilla warmers and masks are bursting with vibrant pinks and blues and greens.
When we visit El Museo Nacional de Antropología there is an exhibit on the indigenous people of México. One of these groups is the Purépecha, or the Tarascos, as they were once known, who settled in various parts of Michoacán. These native people are my ancestors, my raza. Camécuaro, the name of the lake we swam in, is a Purépecha word for “Place of Bathing.” The Purépecha language and people are still very much alive, some 87,000 people still spoke this native language in 1990, two years before I was born.
The exhibit contains paper maché models of people who look like distant family members. Dad thinks this is funny and sends a picture of the display to his cousin to show him that he found his twin en el Museo ja ja ja. I inhale the exhibit slowly and come to the realization that Spanish, like English, is a colonizing weapon. The native populations of México, my ancestors, were not stripped of their language once, but again and again. La lengua de mi gente has been peeled and cooked and diced into bits until its original form was forgotten, the new palabras now juicy and tender from being pounded into submission.
Anzaldúa writes, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity — I am my language.” But what does this mean if I am a Chicana and my language is English?
A language with Germanic roots, infused with Latin and Greek from the Shakespearean era. It is a mutt language, once considered barbaric and appropriate for use only by the lesser classes, that has now usurped French and Latin to become the dominant lingua franca of the world.
It is a language of colonialism, a language that reeks of privilege and pomp; a language with a questionable past and, as with all idiomas, a questionable future. It is a language I am neither proud nor ashamed to claim as my own, but it is mine. And it is a useful language to speak, in our modern era, almost as useful as possessing a U.S. passport. In the succinct words of a boy I crushed on in my high school Spanish class — whose last name was Amor — “Why would I learn Spanish if everyone in the world speaks English?” I no longer was interested in him after this conversation.
Yet I feel I need a more poetic response to the basic question, Do you speak Spanish? I am tempted to memorize and recite portions of Melissa Lozada-Olivas’ poem “I Know How to Say Arroz Con Pollo But Not What You Are,” so that I may use it whenever the topic of my language arises.
“if you ask me if i am fluent in Spanish i will tell you my Spanish is an itchy phantom / limb — reaching for words & only finding air / my Spanish is my third birthday party: half of it is memory, the other half is that photograph on the fridge / is what my family has told me / if you ask me if i am fluent i will tell you that my Spanish is a puzzle / left in the rain / too soggy to make its parts fit together / so that it can look just like the picture on the box” (Peluda, p. 15).
When I was an undergraduate, the Tibetan poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa came to campus to do a reading for her recently published book, “My Rice Tastes Like the Lake.” Dhompa is fluent in Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi, but her poetry was entirely in English. When the floor was opened for questions, someone inevitably asked why she did not use her other languages in her poems.
As an Asian-American woman who wore the features of her cultural background on her face, to be asked about her language choice, even in a well-meaning way, is really a question of her foreignness: Do you consider “American” your primary identity? Do you think you belong here? Are you white-washed? At its root, this seemingly harmless question is about identity.
“I write in English because I dream in English,” she said simply.
And yet, the English in her poetry did not sound like the English I was accustomed to hearing in academia. It was her own strain of English, infused with Tibetan infused with Hindi and Nepali. She dreamed in English, existed in English, but the rhythms and sounds of her other languages permeated her English, like cicada sounds that could be heard in the background of her poems, like tropical rainstorms that seized their opportunity between sunset and nightfall, to quench the soil between dry Germanic syllables. The words of these other languages might not have been visible on the page, but their cadences were felt in her poetry.
When I return home to California, I am happy to be back in my homeland. I am relieved to be back in a country where I am fluent. But I crave the sweet taste of the mangos and the crisp, fresh jicama in Mexico. I miss being in a place where the aguacates were always perfectly ripe, no matter where you bought them from. I miss having a variety of salsas placed in front of you at every restaurant, regardless of meal or preference. I miss the hot days and the young couples smooching shamelessly in every public place. I miss the slow passing of time, and the screeching sound of the cicadas — los escarabajos de Junio — the green scarabs of June. Do you speak Spanish? No, but I crave the lengua tacos. My heart yearns for these things as I move my desert succulents into a Westward facing window and make sure to water them at dusk so that they will feel like they are finally home.
* * *
Feliz Moreno recently received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco.
Editor: Sari Botton