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


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

A song for the subway

(To the tune of “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash)

“I hear the 2 a-comin’
It’s comin’ down the tracks
It’s going to run over
Five little rats
I’m waiting on the platform
And it smells so bad
When I hear that train a-comin’
I’ll tell the rats goodbye”

It’s only one verse, but it’s based on a true story.

The true story is that last night we watched a group of little rats play on the tracks while we waited for the 2 train. I don’t know if it really ran them over or not, but while we’re on the subject, have you ever noticed that rats don’t die when they touch the third rail? At least, I have never seen it happen. Do you think New York City rats evolved to withstand electric shock?

Last night Devin and I got to watch the rats play in the company of my little cousin Gaby and her best friend Efren. It was special because this was her first trip to New York, and I thought I might not be able to see her. I was also super excited to meet her bff. They’ve been friends for what seems like an eternity, and now they’re both in their first year of college, away from home, all the way on the East Coast! (They’re both from El Paso.) I think it’s so cool that they get to be close to each other.

We had dinner at Umami Burger and all agreed that it was not delicious. Maybe our palates are not refined enough to taste the fifth taste, but everything tasted overly sweet to us, which is not great where burgers are concerned. However, it is open late and does have a great mirror for group photos.

~Visual Umami~
~Visual Umami~

This morning I rushed to New Jersey as fast as I could to see my cousins Vanessa and Josh. They were in town for Thanksgiving and their first baby shower (Josh is my cousin by marriage). I only got to see them for a couple of hours, but it was really fun. I watched them pack all the books they got as gifts for their baby and took a picture of some cool found art.

One of these dolls is not like the others.
“One of these dolls is not like the others.”

I also bought Vanessa a book to read on the plane because she accidentally packed hers, and it seemed a grave injustice that someone who took such care to ensure her progeny would have books to last a lifetime would be denied the joy of reading herself! (If I’m being completely honest, I have to note that she is the best at letting me borrow her books and it was a book I’ve never read, so really it’s an investment. Sometimes she even sends books to me all the way from Phoenix because she loves me that much.)

After that, I took the PATH train back to New York, walked through the West Village, and hopped back on the 2 train—no rats this time.

A song for the subway

Sixty-second Book Review: ‘The Watch’

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to keep better track of what I read. Another was to blog more often. Combining the two, I decided to write short reviews of books as I read them. This is my first one. I’d love to hear what books you’ve been reading, especially if you’ve read anything you’d like to recommend!

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya
Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch opens with a teenage girl who trespasses onto a military base in contemporary war-torn Afghanistan to bury her brother. The story of her brother’s death and her trespass are recounted by multiple voices, including many from the American military personnel and an Afghani interpreter.

Though the novel borrows it central premise from Antigone, it is about more than the problem of institutional forces infringing on personal rights. The most moving moment is when the American soldiers misunderstand the young girl’s peace offering—a slaughtered lamb—as a threat of violence. The cultural chasm and the losses everyone in the story has weathered leave them unable to comprehend each other, despite the best efforts of the interpreter.

I was intrigued by The Watch because I didn’t get the feeling that its setting was picked as a money-making gimmick. After reading it, I stand by that. It’s a thoughtful novel that grapples with the psychology of war and what it means that the people fighting our wars are very young men, prohibited from questioning the orders they receive and ill-equipped to do so. That said, I didn’t enjoy the book. It would have benefitted from fewer voices and more character development, especially because many of the soldiers’ stories were very similar. But my biggest problem with The Watch was the dialogue. I mean, have you recently encountered nineteen year-old American boys who say things like  ‘I’ve no money in the bank’ or who say ‘Sarn’t’ instead of ‘Sergeant’? The strange diction made the characters seem inauthentic. Trying to imagine them speaking like this distracted me from the story. In the end, all I could imagine was that Roy-Bhattacharya didn’t spend much time talking to the young men on the front lines of the war he wrote about.

Sixty-second Book Review: ‘The Watch’