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

solbookbox.jpg

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)

kristina-marie-fullerton-rico
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)

Carolina

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“I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, but since women couldn’t do that, I went to secretary school,” Abbita (short for abuelita) explained, when I called to interview her for a homework assignment about feminism. I’d been nervous to call, afraid she’d say feminism was a crazy American import or that it was un-Christian and ruining “the family” or that she was disappointed in me. Instead she told me about how she had worked for Licenciado Müller, a lawyer who helped women get divorced in Chihuahua. Abbita, whose real name was Carolina, said she loved her job because she cared about helping those women and because her boss trusted her judgment.

I never knew about any of this because she stopped working after she and my grandfather got married, but hearing this story illuminated the parts of her life I did know in a new way. It was the light turning on in a room I’d only explored with a flashlight.

All my life I’d heard about how she had been on her school’s basketball team. The girls wore long skirts as part of their uniform, but she joined the team in secret and had to hide it from her family because playing sports––even in giant skirts––was not ladylike. It was a quiet act of resistance. Like most of what she did.

My grandmother would often tell me the story of a woman who got married in the city and was soon forced by her husband to move to a little house with a dirt floor in the mountains, completely isolated from her friends and family. She would get angry telling this story and say that she supported the woman leaving her husband because the way he treated her was wrong. When I was little, I thought this was just one of those stories that grandmas tell (“This one again?”). I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to her. Now I can imagine how desperate I would feel if I lost control of my life from one day to the next, can imagine how many women my grandmother knew who never regained it.

Whenever a woman she knew got married, Abbita would give her a little bit of money in secret because she believed it was essential that women have a way to escape bad marriages. This too seemed melodramatic to me (“Por si el marido le sale malo” sounded like something from a novela, and when I heard about my grandmother’s bridal safety-net tactics, I laughed and thought, “Too much Televisa.”)

In my own life, I’ve noticed that it is very taboo to talk about divorce if you’re married, but I don’t think I could be married if divorce weren’t legal and accessible to women. I don’t mean to imply that I take my relationship with Devin lightly, but I think marriage fundamentally changes when it is not an obligation. When I decided to get married, I didn’t have to give up my name or my rights. I didn’t have to give up my job or my dreams. I didn’t become someone’s property. I believe that Devin and I choose to be together even though we are free to leave. I believe we have the kind of marriage women like my grandmother fought for.

On the day of my cousin Vanessa’s wedding, Abbita told me a story. “I was never interested in cooking, but when I married your grandfather, I thought I should learn. He said, ‘No! Don’t take a cooking class. You should learn to play the piano,’ and he got me a piano. In the end, I didn’t learn to cook or play the piano. All I did was have babies. What kind of a life is that?”

Of course, that isn’t all she did. She did lots of things, like finding a way to own and manage properties and teaching me how to read and write and becoming so well-known for her wit that people would ask her to write their greeting cards and building relationships so strong that her children and grandchildren would fight over who got to sleep in the extra twin bed she kept in her room.

Still, I know she would have liked to do other things, too. It’s no coincidence that all of her daughters have Master’s degrees or that she gave each of her grandchildren a small sum of money when we turned 18 and said, “This is your money. You can do whatever you want with it.” She believed fiercely in independence. She took as much of it as she could and made sure we were free to have more.

Abbita didn’t go around exclaiming “I’m a feminist!,” but when I asked her to explain if she was, she had a quick answer: “Machismo means men are in charge, but feminism doesn’t mean women should be in charge. Do you know the saying ‘Behind every great man is a great woman’? Well, I don’t think anyone should be behind anyone. To me, feminism means that we all walk together, hand-in-hand.”

I think about myself at 21, nervous to call her, worried that I would have to defend feminism to my grandmother, wondering if there were any books I could give her to explain it in a way she could understand. I was so silly, thinking I’d discovered feminism when she had taught it to me all along.

Carolina

Valentines

The first order of Valentine’s Day business is a realization: I’ve had some really unexpected Valentine’s Days.

There was the one that started with a photo shoot for a whiskey ad and ended at a Harlem Globetrotters game, with a bizarre pseudo-romantic (not at all romantic) run-in in between.

There was the one that started with hundreds of dogs and ended with free ice cream, with a cinematic random act of kindness in between.

There was the one that started with surprising Devin with a bottle of milk and ended with him surprising me with a carton of soymilk. (I didn’t blog about that one because it’s as straightforward as it sounds. Technically, it happened simultaneously, but you know, poetic license…)

This year I spent Valentine’s Day with my niece Leila on her first birthday, and it was wonderful.

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I love visiting my cousin Vanessa (a.k.a. Leila’s mom) because we have similar tastes and interests, but she’s one million times cooler and more collected than I am. Visiting her is like glimpsing an alternate reality where I spend less time asking “What if?” and more time asking “Who cares?” That sounds funny to say because Vanessa’s very responsible, but she’s super carefree about it (and she literally smiles and says “Who cares?” in response to all my worries, which is exactly what I need to hear). Josh, my cousin-in-law, is a master of deadpan pranks, so their house is always full of laughter, albeit at my expense!

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This weekend I got to assist them in throwing a party featuring pink and hearts and the most ridiculous piñata I’ve ever seen. 

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The party was on Saturday (the 13th), and Leila partied so hard that she slept in on her birthday the next day. Vanessa asked me to watch her while she took a shower because Leila was sleeping in her parents’ bed. I was only with her for a few minutes before she woke up. She looked scared, but somehow I calmed her down before she cried. We looked at each other for a little bit, and then she reached out to hold my index finger and smiled and laughed and talked to me in baby babble.

When I got to Vanessa’s house on Thursday, the first thing I noticed was a print of three sisters hanging in Leila’s room. I knew immediately that she’d bought it to symbolize my mom and her two sisters (sometimes we call our aunts the tías-mamás because we are so close to all of them). I love knowing that Vanessa loves my aunts and mom like I love them. I love thinking about Leila growing up with so many abuelitas, but thinking about this, and remembering that I live far away from all my sobrin@s, hurts.

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I don’t know if I’ll ever get to live close to Leila. I don’t know if she’ll ever rely on me the way I do on my aunts. I don’t know if I’ll ever earn a place on her wall.

But I think I was the first person she saw on her first birthday. And she smiled and held my hand.

Valentines

Some things worth sharing

I. I walked into a dining room full of tables with people sitting and talking and asking others to pass the salt. The whole scene reminded me of the fancy restaurant I used to work at on Sundays during the brunch rush, only the people at the soup kitchen actually seemed to be enjoying their food. It was my job to help serve in a buffet line. That’s where I met an older gentleman who said to me, “Hello, I’ve come for my lobster” and smiled. I asked him if he wanted a whole one, and he said, “Oh, yes, of course.” After he’d gone through the whole line and gotten beef, potatoes, salad, and fruit, he turned back to me and said, “Merci beaucoup” with a wink.

 Part of a mural near the soup kitchen.
Part of a mural near the soup kitchen.

It reminded me so much of Abbita, my grandmother. When she had to get a walker to help her get around, she called it her Rolls-Royce with a smile. She lived in a comfortable little apartment, and I never heard her ask for anything, not a new TV or a fancy anything. Like the man I met last week, she seemed to know that you don’t have to have the best, biggest, or newest fill-in-the-blank to be happy, and it doesn’t matter what’s on your plate as long as you have enough to eat and good people to share it with.

Part of a mural near the soup kitchen.
Part of a mural near the soup kitchen.

Right now, as I write this in a coffee shop, I am listening to a couple talk about how they are going to get a $6,700 couch because it is the absolute best. The world is fascinating.

II. This morning I was having a terrible day. I set an alarm, but it didn’t go off, and it seemed like all my plans were ruined, and I might as well go live off the land all by myself because there was no way I would ever be a productive member of society. I decided I might as well go eat a bagel on the promenade because it was sunny, and I might as well say goodbye to the skyline before running away to live in the forest. I was walking there, wishing I’d been smart enough to buy something to drink with my bagel, when I heard, “Cupcakes and hot cocoa for sale! All proceeds benefitting the Malala Foundation!” The two little girls were about seven years old, and I could tell it had all been their idea, everything from the sign to the cupcakes was clearly made by them, and they smiled really big when they talked about Malala. The hot cocoa wasn’t really hot anymore, but it’s the best thing I’ve had all week. When I paid the market-rate price ($5) instead of their ridiculously low asking price ($1)––didn’t their parents teach them to do market research?––their jaws dropped, and I realized all my missed plans had been worth it.

New York, today.
New York, today.

P.S. I worked at the soup kitchen for a couple of hours last week. I say “work” instead of “volunteer” because there was something in it for me (who do you think I am, some kind of altruistic chump?). Devin and I shop at a food coöp, where our groceries are very, very cheap. In return, we have to volunteer once a month. There are lots of jobs you can do in-store, like being a cashier (the prices are low because most of the labor is done by members), but there are also jobs you can do outside the store, like volunteering at the soup kitchen.

Some things worth sharing

A Really White Christmas

I spent Christmas in a gingerbread house. For real. Devin’s parents’ house is a little wooden cabin in the middle of the snowy woods, and as soon as you walk in, you are absolutely surrounded by sugar. Would you like a Christmas cookie with sprinkles? Maybe chocolate chip is more your style. Or perhaps you prefer cookies dipped in chocolate. No matter, they have it all. Candy bars and candy canes galore. If you like cold sweets, there’s ice cream. And if you like warm sweets, there are cinnamon buns, pancakes, and blueberry muffins covered in sugar crystals. Maybe you’d rather have sugar in liquid form. For that there are dozens of jars of maple syrup (from the trees outside) and a jar of honey (from the neighbor’s bees). It’s like being a kid in a candy store, only all the candy is free.

A mitten made of mini cupcakes
A mitten made of mini cupcakes

This is my first Christmas away from my family, and I joke with Devin that it’s my first White Christmas because it’s the first* Christmas I spend in the States, with White Americans. Of course, “White American” is an ethnicity with many subcultures, just like “Mexican” is. Devin comes from a community that grows food, buys gifts at L.L. Bean, and has thoughtful discussions about politics and climate change. They also go out of their way to make me feel welcome. On Christmas Eve, the family friends who invited us over for dinner made lots of mini food because they heard I liked little things (seriously)! On Christmas morning we ate beans for breakfast (because Devin told his parents that beans are my favorite food). And Devin’s family has included me in their own traditions. We cut down a Christmas tree the day after I got here, and there’s a fire burning all day long. It’s been magical to sit by its glow and listen to carols. Once I was singing, “Frosted wiiiindow panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the treeeeeeeee” and realized we were surrounded by all those things! Well, okay, replace “candles gleaming” with “LED’s glowing” (they are environmentalists, after all).

The town closest to this little farm reminds me of Casas Grandes, the town closest to my aunt Menry’s house, where my family usually spends Christmas, only all the restaurants here are sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer instead of Coca-Cola. (You could argue that Mexico sponsors Coca-Cola and not the other way around because Mexico drinks more soda per capita than any other country.)

Of course, nothing makes up for missing your family, especially when you’ve never had to be apart this time of year before. My cousin Vanessa knows this firsthand, and she sent me the best box ever to open on Christmas. It was called the “First Christmas Away From Your Family Survival Kit” and contained a funny book, the best Mexican candy (including mazapanes for those who prefer sweet to spicy) and chocolate Abuelita. She also sent me some earrings because she is the greatest.

By far the biggest difference between U.S. Christmas and Mexican Christmas is bedtime. When Devin’s parents were going to sleep on Christmas Eve, my family in Chihuahua was just sitting down to dinner. Devin and I managed to stay up to Skype with them, which was awesome. My niece Victoria rushed to the screen and said, “¡Estoy comiendo zanahorias como tú!” (I’m eating carrots like you!). I always worry that she’ll forget about me because I don’t get to see her as much as I wish, so it was really special to know that she thinks about her weird vegetarian aunt.

Otherwise, Christmas here is pretty similar to Christmas there. A big part of that is due to globalization and how effectively U.S. corporations export American cultural traditions, but another big reason is that I’ve always been surrounded by a loving family at Christmastime, and this year was no different.

Tree cutting 2014 3

*It’s not my first Christmas in the U.S.A. if you count the very first Christmas of my life, which was spent in the States, but I don’t because I was nine months old and had to fact-check where I spent it before writing this.

A Really White Christmas

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