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)

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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)

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

Las Guayabas

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19 July 2016

Sometimes my identity feels like a party trick.

“Oh, you’re from Mek-see-koe!,” a wide-eyed voice exclaims.

I nod eagerly.

And I feel like a poodle on its hind legs.

But sometimes, my identity, which is so often unseen for reasons beyond my control, feels like a superpower.

The power to subvert expectations.

It happened yesterday at a Patel Brothers grocery store in Schaumburg, Illinois where I was helping my friend Ariel fulfill mango orders for the Indian diaspora of Central Wisconsin. (Ariel’s partner Shashank is from India, so they are very connected with Indian families that live near them, and when one of them is near an Indian grocery store, they bring mangos back for the group. I want this system but for Mexican snacks, please and thank you.)

There I am, inspecting boxes of mangos and realizing there aren’t nearly enough when I overhear two employees speaking Spanish. I turn and ask if there are any mangos in the back, and one of them, who seems to be the Chief Mango Stocker––clearly an essential job in a store that specializes in produce from the subcontinent––seems happily surprised to hear me speak Spanish.

“Where are you from?,” he asks.

I tell him I’m from Chihuahua and his look of surprise transforms into a grin that fills his whole face.

He leaves and returns, hidden behind cases and cases of mangos on wheels. And as he gradually reappears, transferring the cartons of mangos from the rolling contraption to our two waiting carts, he starts telling me his story.

“See those guavas?,” he points to a display, “I’m from Aguascalientes. My family grows guavas.”

On his phone, he shows me pictures from his family’s orchard. A close-up of guavas on the tree. The house he built with money he earned stocking the guavas he used to grow. Guavas he left behind because he couldn’t make enough money to live. A house he hardly ever gets to visit.

“I had a son,” he continues.  “He was two. He fell in the pool. I couldn’t even go to the funeral…”

There is a pause, and I think we are both asking ourselves the same questions.

What if he’d never had to leave Aguascalientes? What if the border were just a line on a map that everyone could cross? What if he could have brought his baby here? What if he could have saved his son?

He attempts a look of resignation. “Así es la vida. Difícil…”

I nod.

What I really want to do is yell, “No! Your life shouldn’t be this hard! Nobody’s life should be this hard!”

By then, our carts are full of mangos; customers approach him to ask for help; Ariel and I say goodbye.

Of course, I don’t know that he shared all of this with me because I’m from Mexico. Maybe he is always this vulnerable with strangers. Maybe he tells everyone his story. Maybe this is how he grieves.

But I have this experience often. I say I’m from Mexico or I talk back in Spanish, and I see the other person loosen. It is the shift from “You are different” to “We’re the same,” from distant to close, from gringa to paisana. It is the collapse of a small border.

Driving away from the grocery store, I think about a talk I saw Mia Mingus give in which she talked about the importance of articulating not only what we’re fighting against, but what we’re fighting for and making real plans. She wrote about it on her blog:

“[W]e are good at resisting. We are good at fighting for the world we don’t want. We are good at analysis and analyzing things up and down (and sometimes into oblivion). We are skilled at naming what we don’t want. I think we are less skilled at naming what we do want; our visions for liberation. And not just vague things like, ‘ending white supremacy and heterosexism,’ but how are all the children going to get fed? Who will clean the toilets? Who will take out the trash? Who will cook the food?”

OK, I think, what do I want?

I imagine having to articulate my plans in front of Congress, but all I can picture is me, standing at a podium, looking at the legislators and sharing my new friend’s story. I conclude with my call to action: “If his family grows guavas in Aguascalientes, don’t you think it’s wrong that the only way he can make a living is by stocking guavas in Illinois? I mean, how does that even make sense? If they grow the actual guavas, and the guavas are what’s being sold, why can’t they make a profit?”

Good questions, Kristy, but no plan.

I try again.

I picture myself hitting the podium to emphasize my point that we must repeal NAFTA––which decimated Mexico’s agricultural sector––and punish U.S. companies that conduct unethical business abroad, like Wal-Mart, for example. I picture myself demanding that the U.S. government open the borders because human rights shouldn’t be determined by an accident of birth––especially in a time when photos, words, ideas, and corporations transcend borders every day.

I don’t actually think I’m qualified enough to speak in front of Congress about immigration reform. It’s just… I think the people who hear immigration stories most often are other immigrants. And most of the people who determine border laws are not immigrants. In my daily life, I hear lots of stories like this. When they walk into a grocery store, they just get guavas.

And so the borders stand.

If I could be anything, I would like to be a bridge.



Las Guayabas

Inmigración Ilustrada

INMIGRACION ILUSTRADA

“A pesar de que nuestras experiencias difieren en muchos aspectos, tenemos en común el haber emigrado cuando aún no éramos responsables de nuestras propias vidas. Estas son historias acerca de lo que uno es libre para observar cuando sus preocupaciones principales no son ni el dinero, ni el trabajo, ni las visas, ni la falta de este tipo de necesidades. Estas son historias de ir a un lugar nuevo, pero, más precisamente, son historias de ser llevado allí. Estas son historias sobre los pequeños detalles que pudimos observar.”

Lee el artículo completo en Buzzfeed. Ilustrado por Anja Riebensahm.

Read it in English here.

Inmigración Ilustrada

Illustrating Immigration

little red suitcase by anja riebensahm

Dear friends,

As most of you know, I migrated to the United States from Mexico when I was little.

My friend Anja also moved away from her home in Germany as a child, and she happens to be a great illustrator.

Together we are working on a project about what it’s like to see a new place for the first time.

In the past decade, immigration has become a big topic for politicians who endlessly debate whether it’s right or wrong and what to do about it. But in all the talk about immigration, the issue, I think we forget about immigrants, the individuals.

We’re looking to hear stories from people who migrated from/to any country as children and what caught their attention. Snippets from their stories will be illustrated by Anja.

If you know anyone, please ask them to fill out this short survey.

The point of the project is to illustrate that immigration is natural (people and animals have always migrated) and that immigration can be funny, happy, sad, or just plain weird––like any human experience.

Thanks for your help,
Kristy

Some or all of your response may be used as part of an illustrated project about immigration experiences that will be published on BuzzFeed and shared on social media.

Illustrating Immigration