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.

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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

2015 in Review

In 2015 I got a valentine named Leila (born February 14th)

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…and a little firework named Nolan Antonio (born July 4th).

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Devin and I finally went to Mexico City to visit my cousin Carol’s family. Carlos Manuel and Devin became fast friends and spent hours playing rockets. I wish I had a video!

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Victoria told me her favorite hobby was “helping,” so we spent time folding clothes and writing letters. She also learned to whisper and told me secrets like “I love baby Leila” and “Will you please come visit me again?” (I’m positive this information has been declassified by now.)

 

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All four of my sobrin@s finally got to hang out together in November, and I realized just how little babies care about each other. Victoria was excited, but the rest of them were preoccupied with things like sleep, milk, and their mothers. I suppose the real lesson is that I know almost nothing about babies because I expected them to have so much fun and become BFFs, but I guess those types of interactions don’t happen until after you’ve mastered things like holding your head up and feeding yourself? IDK.

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This summer Devin and I said goodbye to New York and hello to a little city between two lakes. In between, we decided to see as many of our friends and family as possible. Our goal was to attend every wedding we were invited to and meet all the babies we hadn’t yet met, and somehow we were able to do it. Highlights from this summer vacation included

• going to Jill and Eric’s wedding in Portland (the first Portland wedding I went to was my own, and Jill and Eric came to our wedding, so it was like déjà vu + role reversal + our friend Tasha!)

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• sightseeing in San Francisco with my mom

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• sharing Chihuahua with the world via Enormous Eye

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• falling in love with Mexico City

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• packing up our apartment and saying goodbye to our friends in New York (that part was actually so hard and sad and why can’t you make everyone you love go everywhere you go?)

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• being welcomed to our new neighborhood in Madison by this incredible octopus sculpture (it’s gone now, but I will never forget it)

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Sometime in 2015 I decided I’d like to be the Ambassador for Mexican Snacks. I blogged about burritos and junk food, and at Christmas I got my very American suegra hooked on Valentina, Mexico’s top hot sauce. Though I’m not yet receiving a paycheck for my ambassadorial services, I am certain that my career is on track and look forward to living in a mansion with a giant chamoy fountain in the center where I can entertain dignitaries and elevate Mexican snacks to the level of fame they deserve. I expect all of this to happen within the next year, and you are all invited to the housewarming party. ; ) 

2015 in Review

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

Ilustrando la Inmigración

little red suitcase by anja riebensahm

Querid@s amig@s:

Como la mayoría de ustedes saben, yo emigré de México a los Estados Unidos cuando era niña.

Mi amiga Anja también se mudó lejos de su hogar en Alemania de chiquita, y resulta que ella es una ilustradora de gran talento.

Juntas estamos colaborando en un proyecto acerca de la experiencia de ver un lugar nuevo por primera vez.

En la última década la inmigración se ha convertido en un tema favorito de los políticos, quienes debaten sin cesar si es algo bueno o malo y lo que deberían hacer al respecto. Sin embargo, creo que al debatir sobre el tema de la inmigración a veces nos olvidamos de los inmigrantes, las personas realmente impactadas por esas decisiones políticas.

Estamos buscando historias de personas que emigraron cuando eran niños y lo que les llamó la atención. Fragmentos de sus historias serán ilustrados por Anja.

Si conoces a alguien que ha tenido esta experiencia, por favor, comparte esta encuesta con él o ella: Ilustrando la Inmigración (encuesta).

El objetivo de este proyecto es ilustrar que la inmigración es algo natural (las personas y los animales siempre han migrado) y que emigrar puede ser una experiencia divertida, feliz, triste, o realmente extraña — tal como cualquier experiencia humana.

Gracias por su ayuda,
Kristy

Su respuesta, o parte de ella, puede ser utilizada como parte de un proyecto ilustrado acerca de la experiencia de inmigrar, el cual será publicado en BuzzFeed y compartido en las redes sociales.

Ilustrando la Inmigración

Butterfly/Mariposa

A butterfly (a.k.a. mi paisana) in the flowers

My immigration story starts with children’s TV commercials from the ‘90s.

I was a little girl in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, when my mom got cable television for our house. To me, it was pure magic. I would watch Cartoon Network as often and as long as I could. The cartoons were dubbed in Spanish, but all the commercials were in English. And I was hooked.

Before I could speak any English at all, I knew how to say, “Live and learn and then get Luvs,” and I dreamed of going to Long John Silver’s. My favorite commercials were the infomercials for kids’ toys—the ones with bright blue screens and 1-800 numbers at the end. I thought about pretending to be a grown-up so I could order something, but I didn’t know how to make international calls.

As a middle-class kid in Northern Mexico, the United States was where I went shopping. My mom and I would go to El Paso and spend a few days buying the clothes and toys that were ten times as expensive in Chihuahua. The whole country seemed like an amusement park.

In the summer of 1996 my mom asked me if I’d like to live in the States. I jumped at the chance.

I couldn’t wait to live in those perfect commercials, to see movies—like The Hunchback of Notre Dame—as soon as they came out instead of waiting months for movies to come to Mexico, and to eat fast food all day every day. My life was going to change. I was going to be a short drive away from a Toys R Us!

Of course, I quickly learned that life in the States is not all fun and games. Sadly, one of the first things I learned when I moved to the States was to describe myself as “from Mexico” rather than “Mexican” because I heard “Mexican” used as an insult so often. My identity went from being something celebrated to being a bad word.

In Mexico, I’d heard about pochos, people of Mexican ancestry who couldn’t speak Spanish (or spoke it incorrectly). When my mom and I moved to Texas, we met many people who fit that description. The common perception of them in Mexico was that they were ashamed to be Mexican (malinchistas al máximo) and that’s why they didn’t speak Spanish. But soon we learned that Spanish used to be banned in Texas schools. One of my mom’s friends told us about how she would be hit with a ruler if her teachers heard her speaking Spanish. After seeing their daughter come home with red knuckles day after day, her parents encouraged her not to speak Spanish anywhere, not even at home, so she could avoid punishment.

Some of the Mexican-Americans we met might have been ashamed of their roots, but that shame was systematically taught.

I learned that shame, too. Overhearing racist jokes—so many racist jokes—seeing the way people looked at me differently when I spoke Spanish, and being told I was “not really from Mexico” when I defied people’s stereotypes are just a few of the ways my surroundings taught me that being Mexican was categorically A Bad Thing.

Luckily, I had an antidote for this poison. I would learn shame from a culture that positioned itself as the best and deemed my home inferior, but then I got to go home. And I saw how wrong that view was.

My home isn’t a place where chickens run around the yard and people ride donkeys (although now that I’m a grown-up environmentalist, that sounds rad). My home is Chihuahua, Chihuahua, and it’s where I got to go the theater, take painting classes, and learn modern dance from a Cuban teacher (who was visiting Mexico from Cuba for a summer). Chihuahua is the place where my little cousins took Japanese classes just for fun, and I was surrounded by people who prided themselves on speaking at least two languages. The world seemed bigger there.

I worry about the diaspora kids who don’t get to have this, the Mexican families physically torn apart by that arbitrary line called the border/la frontera.

On one of my first days in Madison, I sat in a park watching monarch butterflies and thought about their migration from Madison, Wisconsin to Morelia, Michoacán and back again. Can you imagine how wrong and unnatural it would be to build a wall to keep butterflies out of a country? Is it any less so to do this to human beings?

There are many reasons why I believe having national borders that people cannot cross freely is wrong, but the most personal is that I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t been able to go back to Mexico to relearn how to love myself.

Butterfly/Mariposa