A long story about books and shame and dreams for Latinx babies

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I’ve written about this before, but when I moved to the States, the first thing I learned was that being Mexican and speaking Spanish was not cool (unless you were a talking dog that said “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” That dog was everywhere, and everyone seemed to think it was hilarious).

I’d grown up hearing, “El que sabe dos idiomas, vale por dos,” watching Follow Muzzy to improve my English over the summer, and attending a private school that prided itself on teaching every subject in Spanish and English. Everyone in my family spoke at least two languages, and the grown-ups taught us that being able to communicate with lots of different people was one of the coolest things you could do.

In Texas, the opposite seemed to be true.

The public school I went to was starting an English-Spanish bilingual program, but there were no books or materials. My mom was actually the lone bilingual teacher in charge of implementing this program. Her job was to teach all the kids from kindergarten to sixth grade, and faced with an empty classroom, she did the only thing she could think of. She got on a plane and flew to Chihuahua to buy books.

As I got used to living in Texas, it became harder to feel proud of my culture or to speak Spanish in front of other people. Once, at the grocery store, I noticed a White woman giving us a dirty look while I asked my mom a question in Spanish. My cheeks felt hot, and I stopped talking.

On the walk home, I asked my mom if we could speak Spanish at home and English in public. She said no. I asked if we could try to speak Spanish softly, instead of yelling. Suddenly, we seemed intolerably loud, and I wanted to do anything I could to make ourselves acceptable to the people around us.

I wasn’t the only one. At school, students told my mom they didn’t like their “ugly brown skin.”

“Why would you want to have lighter skin?,” my mom would say. “Our skin is kissed by the sun, our skin is the color of cinnamon. ¡Están hermosos!”

She taught us to sing “Ojos Negros, Piel Canela” and march around the classroom to songs by Cri-Cri.

Soon my classmates (most of whom had not learned to read in any language despite the fact that they were in 2nd grade) were reading and writing in Spanish. Their parents could read what they wrote! And their families looked really happy when they came to parent-teacher night to see my mom.

Against my wishes, I was soon transferred to an English-only classroom because the school said bilingual education was only for kids who didn’t speak English.

In my monolingual classroom, I met Latinx children who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. Many of them had parents who spoke limited English, and they seemed to rely on the older children in the family to interpret between the parents and the little ones.

In the past two decades, I’ve met countless families like this, and I’ve thought about how to prevent intra-familial language barriers.

The two things I believe we have to do if we want Latinx kids to grow up speaking Spanish in the United States are the things my mom has always done for her students and for me:

1. Teach them about their culture. Too often, schools––even schools that serve a majority Latinx population––neglect to teach kids about Latin American and Chican@ cultures, so we have to make up that difference ourselves. I once babysat for a family that only played Spanish-language music, movies, and television in their house. The little girls in that family understood Mexican culture despite never having been to Mexico. They laughed at their tía’s jokes and played “A la vibora, vibora de la mar” with their cousins.

2. Teach them to read and write in Spanish. Even when I wasn’t in a bilingual class, my mom kept buying me books in Spanish; my cousin Caren shared the novels she was assigned in school; and I felt really cool when I got older and could read books like Love in the Time of Cholera in their original form. (My aunt Martha Cecilia still buys me a book in Spanish every time she is in a bookstore because she’s that thoughtful.) Through my books, I learned words that made me gasp “There’s a word for that?!” and were impossible to translate. Thanks to my books, when Texas got to be too much, I had a way to escape to places where I wasn’t weird, and my culture wasn’t considered inferior. 

Now that I’m older, I often meet people who say they want their kids to grow up speaking Spanish. I take that super seriously because I know the difference it has made in my life.

I am not exaggerating when I say that being fluent in Spanish made the difference between having a close relationship with my grandmother and growing apart, between being proud and ashamed of who I am and where I’m from, between being myself and being someone altogether different.

That’s why I will always speak to your babies in Spanish if you want me to, and I will always get them books so that they can learn for themselves. That’s why when my cousin Vanessa told me she was starting Sol Book Box, I was all in.

It might seem strange for a childless person to be so excited about a book subscription service for Spanish-speaking children, but I signed up as soon as I could because it is hard to find books in Spanish at U.S. bookstores, and every time I give a book en español to a Latinx baby, I am praying that they get to grow up in a better world than I did.

A long story about books and shame and dreams for Latinx babies

Changing my name (but not really)

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When people asked me if I would take my spouse’s name after getting married, I would give an emphatic “NEVER!”

But actually, I’d already changed it.

In Mexico, I had two last names––my dad’s and my mom’s, same as everybody else––but on my U.S. documents I only had my dad’s, so when I moved to Texas, I lost my mom’s name.

I grew up thinking that that was the way it was. In Mexico, I had my full name. In the United States, not quite.

Last year when I shared my immigration story publicly, I decided I wanted to use my full name. It felt important to link myself to the people who raised me and love me and give me strength every single day and to the country that has been my home as long as I can remember. I decided I wanted to reclaim my full name in the United States and made that my resolution for 2017.

Then, the election happened.

Now there are many things that feel much more urgent than dealing with the bureaucracy of changing my name, so I’m not doing it yet. However, I have started using my full name everywhere I can.

So this is just a note to say, if you see an extra word hanging off the end of my name, don’t be confused. It’s just my name, and all of it is mine.

Sincerely,
Kristina Marie Fullerton Rico

Changing my name (but not really)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Volunteering at soup kitchens and painting schools is great, but that’s not how Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world.

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The United States declared Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday in 1983. Since then, it has come to be celebrated as a “Day of Service,” which usually translates to volunteering in one’s community doing nice things like painting murals, picking up trash, or donating blood.

These are in themselves good things to do, but to associate MLK with volunteering is to misrepresent his life and his legacy.

Dr. King was not a volunteer. He was a revolutionary.

He did not just “work to make things better in his own community.” He wasn’t a kindly Santa Claus figure who wearily sighed, “Can’t we all just get along?”

He did not just “have a dream.” He acted on his convictions, risking––and ultimately, losing––his life to challenge the status quo of injustice. He led marches and strikes and went to jail for breaking unfair laws.

And we have every reason to believe that, had he been allowed to live, he would have continued protesting racism, war, and economic exploitation.

It’s obviously impossible to expect a country to have a nationally-designated “Day of Revolution,” but what if instead of volunteering, we had a national “Day of Reckoning” on Dr. King’s birthday? What if we read, listened, and reflected on his words and whether we have achieved the future he imagined? (What does it mean, for instance, that some states celebrate segregationist leaders on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr.?) What if we expected the country to live up to what this leader demanded? And we were expected to take action to fix the ways in which it doesn’t?

Some people are doing just that. Three years ago, Black activists called for Americans to #ReclaimMLK––sparking articles, conversations, and protests that connect Dr. King’s vision to the present day.

This year #ReclaimMLK is a week-long call to action, with each day focusing on a different theme.

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These efforts are led by the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 50 racial justice and civil and human rights organizations. However we can, wherever we are, I hope we can heed their call to “embrace all parts of King’s legacy.”

Learn more and find planned actions here.

*About the title of this post: recently, I have been reflecting on how challenging injustice is not “nice” or “polite” behavior. Activism requires confronting injustice and making “good trouble” and challenging “the way things are.” Dr. King was willing to stand up for his beliefs. He angered and inconvenienced both people in power and people who agreed with him but believed we should “wait for things to get better in due time.” That is what I mean when I say he was not a nice guy. In the face of injustice, I don’t believe any of us should be “nice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a nice guy

Carmen Herrera: Prodigiosa y Tenaz

Last spring I did my first translation for a major U.S. museum. I translated an essay by Gerardo Mosquera for the Whitney Musem’s exhibition, Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight. Incidentally, this is Herrera’s first solo exhibition by a major museum, so I felt even more passionate about getting it right.

To prepare, I read everything I could about Carmen Herrera, abstract expressionism, and minimalism in Spanish and English. My initial aim was to familiarize myself with terminology, but even after I got a good sense of the lexicon and determined translations for concepts that were new to me, I kept reading. I was fascinated by the 101-year-old Cuban, American, immigrant artist who received very little recognition before her hundredth birthday but kept painting anyway. I love her. I love everything she symbolizes. Here are some of the coolest things I learned.

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photo via the Whitney Museum of American Art

Carmen Herrera started painting as a child and dedicated her life to making art, despite not selling a single painting until she was 89.

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photo via The 100 Years Show, a documentary film about Herrera

Despite being arthritic and wheelchair-bound, she continues to paint every day.

 

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photo via Lisson Gallery


She explains that her art is driven by the quest for simple geometric abstractions and refutes interpretations of her paintings that contradict her.

 

 

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photo via the Whitney Museum of American Art


Her interviews are incredibly fun to read because she seems to have a witty retort to everything, including art criticism: “‘People see very sexy things — dirty minds! — but to me sex is sex, and triangles are triangles’” (quoted by Deborah Sontag).

 

 

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photo via Gotham Magazine

 

Gallery owners admitted that she was producing better, more innovative work than her male peers and explicitly refused to represent her because she was a woman; the only museums who showed her art were museums dedicated to showing art by marginalized, Latin@ artists; and still, she persevered.

 

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photo via StudioFaculty.com

 

Her success began a few years after her husband died, and people around her asked if maybe her husband––who had been a staunch supporter of her work––was helping her from heaven. In a 2009 interview, she refuted that interpretation: “‘Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud. I worked really hard. Maybe it was me.’”

 

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photo via the Whitney Museum of American Art

 

Her favorite artist is herself.

The Whitney retrospective closes this Monday, but I hope it is the first of many. That may well be the case because, after it closes in New York, the show is headed to Ohio.

Carmen Herrera: Prodigiosa y Tenaz

2016 in review

JANUARY

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In January, Devin and I took a road trip to New York, with a stop in Cleveland on the way. Seeing lots of friends (and one cousin––hi, Bridget!) was the perfect start to the year.

FEBRUARY 

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In February I traveled to Phoenix to celebrate my favorite valentine on her first birthday. I wasn’t sure what my first birthday in Madison would be like, but my friend Makeba came to visit, and it ended up being really fun!

MARCH

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Illustrating Immigration, a collaborative project featuring art by Anja Riebensahm, was published in March. When Anja and I came up with the idea to illustrate true stories about immigration to counter negative stereotypes, we had no idea how much worse anti-immigrant rhetoric would get. 2016 has been a terrifying, tiring year for many immigrants, and 2017 will likely see a deterioration of the few rights undocumented Americans have won in the past eight years. I feel sick when I think about it, and I am even more committed to sharing migration stories and encouraging solidarity in any way I can.

APRIL

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I finally perfected my tacos al pastor recipe, which felt like heaven for this Mexican vegetarian who misses almost all of her favorite foods.

MAY

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In May, I wrote about my grandmother’s feminism (alternate title: basketball, divorce, and secret leave-your-husband funds). 

JUNE

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My five-year college reunion happened this summer. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see most of my friends from college very often, but it was great to live in the dorms for a few days and have everyone in one place. I especially liked photographing people and trying to capture what I love about them. This is Salim, the happiest person I know.

JULY

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In July, I went to Playa del Carmen with my aunt and my mom. Then, I went to Mexico City to see two of my sobrin@s and my cousins before going to Chihuahua to see the rest of my family. I started 2016 thinking I wouldn’t be able to spend much time in Mexico, so I felt extra lucky to spend a month there.

AUGUST

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I got to take a quick trip to New York at the end of the summer. My friends Chris and Dani had extra tickets to Afropunk, where everyone’s style was so good that I got over my fear of asking strangers if I could take their picture. 

SEPTEMBER 

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In September I came back to Wisconsin, in time to get flowers from the farmers’ market and have a surprise party for Devin and his greatest friends.

OCTOBER

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My beautiful, up-for-anything friend Melissa came to visit me in Madison, and I laughed for four days straight. Here we are in miniature as part of an exhibition called Lovey Town.

 NOVEMBER 

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After the election, Devin and I drove to Chicago and went to Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that President Obama and his family attended when they lived there. They post clips of the sermons every week on Instagram––this one is my favorite.

DECEMBER 

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The best part of Christmas was hearing Carlos Manuel ask, “¿Es mío?” before opening each present to make sure he wasn’t opening someone else’s gift.

2016 in review

Rethinking My Thanksgiving

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My favorite thing to do in the whole wide world is to make a big meal and eat with people I love. If I could feed 10 friends every night, I would be very, very happy. So, usually, Thanksgiving (or as my family calls it, Senguiben) is one of my favorite times of the year.

This year is different. Thanks to the water protectors at Standing Rock, I am more aware of Native American suffering and human rights violations than I ever have been. Instead of spending money on fancy ingredients and decorative gourds, I decided to donate that money to Standing Rock. Here is the link to donate.

And in case you haven’t heard about the people who have gathered in prayer to protect the water, sacred grounds, and indigenous sovereignty, here are a few links I used to learn about the water protectors and why they are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.  

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Read about Standing Rock and Native American history.

“[T]he tribes gathered at Standing Rock today are trying to stop a natural gas pipeline operator from bulldozing what they say are sacred sites to construct a 1,172-mile oil pipeline. The tribes also want to protect the Missouri River, the primary water source for the Standing Rock Reservation, from a potential pipeline leak.”

PODCAST
This week’s episode of Another Round is about Standing Rock and the conditions water protectors are currently facing.

Heben talks with Dr. Adrienne Keene about Standing Rock and the #NoDAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline) movement in North Dakota. We hear stories from people on the ground about preparing for winter, police violence, and healing.”

VIDEO
The Standing Rock Sioux recently released an eight-minute documentary about the ongoing struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

“ ‘This film tells the story of our prayerful and peaceful demonstrations by water protectors that have motivated thousands of tribal members and non-Native people around the world to take a stand,’ said the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s Chairman, Dave Archambault II in a release. ‘In it, you hear the voices of people fighting for their lives, because water is life.’ ”

BLOG POST
Dr. Adrienne Keene’s photos and first-person account of being at Standing Rock, reflections on seeing the violence inflicted by police, and how we can help.

“All day I had been—without hyperbole—nearly certain I was going to watch someone die, and the stress weighed heavy. The next morning I tried to work on another piece of writing, and broke down in tears when Word ate it. The tears were not for the lost words, but for the fear and frustration and sadness at what I had watched on the plains. This is hard. With each day I am reminded again and again of how little we as Native peoples matter to US settler society.”

Rethinking My Thanksgiving

I spent Election Night at a Republican Watch Party

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Last night I watched the election results with the Republican Party of Wisconsin.

Devin and I ended up there almost by chance. It was one of the few public parties within walking distance of our house, and I was curious about what it would be like, since so much of the news has focused on the fight about Trump within the Republican Party.

Soon after we arrived, Fox News declared that Trump had won Wisconsin––the first time a Republican presidential candidate has won the state since 1984. The people in the ballroom chanted, “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” I started to panic. Minutes later I lost sight of Devin, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

But then I met a very polite older woman from Dodgeville, whose life revolves around praying and hospice care because after taking care of her mother and husband as they died, she realized she had a calling. Talking to her felt so normal that I almost forgot where I was. She gave Devin and me advice about helping people we love if they ever develop dementia and talked about joining the Republican Party after visiting the Capitol to pray with the priest from her church during the historic Wisconsin protests. It was hard for me to imagine this kindly gray-haired woman voting for Trump, but watching the election results, she seemed genuinely happy.

“Have you ever seen A League of Their Own?,” she asked.

We shook our heads.

“Oh, when you go home you have to look up the scene where Tom Hanks says, ‘We’re gonna win! We’re gonna win!’ I had it playing in my mind all last week, and I didn’t know if it was about Trump or the Cubs,” she puts her hand over her heart, “Who would have thought it would be both!”

It didn’t seem ironic to her that the movie she referenced to celebrate Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was about the triumph of a women’s team.

She gave us her card in case we ever want to talk about caregiving. On the front it has a dove holding an olive branch, the Christian symbol of peace.

The party was in a hotel ballroom, and at midnight they kicked us out. At the beginning of the night, there were approximately 70 people, and about 25 of us ended up watching the elections results in the hotel bar surrounded by hotel guests. The few I talked to explained that they were in town for various professional conferences.

A man who looked very young sat down next to me and asked where all these people had come from. I explained that we’d come from a election watch party upstairs. “For Trump?,” he asked, gesturing to one of the few apparent men of color wearing a “TRUMP” button on his suit jacket. I nodded.

He explained that he had been at a party in the bar on the 12th floor, where everyone was busy placing bets.

I asked him who he’d bet on, and he told me he doesn’t bet, and if he had, it wouldn’t have been for Trump.

“I mean, I voted for him, but I really didn’t think he’d win.”

He explained that he was in town for an electrical engineering training and had not figured out how to cast his ballot before coming to Madison.

“I woke up at 4:45 and drove back to Milwaukee to vote. A lot of people said, ‘Why are you even voting? Hillary’s definitely going to win,’ and I thought that, too, even though I did think there were a lot of people like me. I think there’s some truth to what she was saying––I don’t remember her name,” he looks toward the screen.

“Megyn Keylly?”

“Yeah, what she was saying about the ‘shy Trump voters.’ I think I’m kind of like that. Everyone around me said Trump would never win. Nobody was going to vote for Trump. And I was like, ‘I don’t know…there are a lot of reasonably––reasonable––people who are voting for Trump but not saying it publicly.’ That’s how I was.”

He told me that this was his first election, even though he could have voted in the last presidential election. “I had just finished high school. I didn’t really know anything. I don’t know… to me it’s a privilege––people say it’s a duty, and everyone has to vote, but I think it’s a privilege. If you’re uninformed, you shouldn’t vote.”

In the background a man dressed in sequined Uncle Sam suit yelled, “Let’s change the channel to MSNBC––don’t you wanna see Rachel Maddow cry?”

Most of the gathered Republicans shook their heads. Some gestured, “Oh, be quiet.”

“I can’t wait to see Hillary convulsing when she gives her concession speech!,” yelled the sparkly Uncle Sam.

A few people laughed. One White woman said, “My friend just texted me, ‘I’ve never wanted to see Hillary speak until tonight!’”   

The young man I was talking to furrowed his brow, “People like that give us a bad name.”

At 1:30 a.m. the bar abruptly turned off the television to announce that it was closed.

Again, Uncle Sam tried to get everyone’s attention. This time he tried to start a “Lock her up! Lock her up!” chant. About 10 people joined in, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds. My impression was that they were more excited to see Trump win than to see Clinton lose. The group clapped for a second before leaving the hotel.

On the sidewalk we ran into the older woman from Dodgeville again. Her friend, another older White woman, said, “It’s a great night.”

The woman from Dodgeville nodded solemnly, “It’s a great night.”

Devin and I said good night and started our walk home.

The people I met were not the caricatures of bigotry and misogyny I feared I would meet. But they still voted for someone who is.

I spent Election Night at a Republican Watch Party