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

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

NYC Tour

For my birthday, the incredible, wonderful, talented Anja Riebensahm sent me a pop-up model of New York. The best part is that she put little speech and thought bubbles of things I might say or think all around the city (and a sign that says “KRISTY 4EVER” in Midtown). I loved putting it together and remembering all my favorite places.

Lately I’ve been daydreaming about New York more than usual. Aside from missing my friends who live there, I remember how much fun it was to play tour guide in the spring. Last year Devin and I hosted friends from England, Mexico, and South Africa within a few weeks of each other, and we were in tour guide heaven. This spring I am stuck in what feels like tour guide limbo. I’ve written a lot of texts and tweets that say “Go here! Skip this! Do that!” to friends who are visiting the city, but I realized that I almost always give the same advice, and to spare myself from carpal tunnel, I might as well put it all in one place.

Note: I am most familiar with Brooklyn and Manhattan because that’s where I spent most of my time. I am also familiar with restaurants in Queens (the borough with the best food, in my opinion), but I don’t know much about the Bronx or Staten Island.

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GENERAL ADVICE

1. As soon as you arrive, get a copy of New York Magazine, The New Yorker, and Time Out New York. Read them on your first day in town to see if there are any events you want to attend while you’re there. (You can also read their events listings online at the links above.)

2. If you’re going to be in New York longer than one or two days, get a 7-day unlimited MetroCard. You can get almost anywhere by public transit, and aside from saving money and time (because you won’t have to refill your card), the train is one of the best places to people-watch. If you like to tour cities by bus, skip the expensive tour buses, and ride a city bus (also included in your unlimited MetroCard). The buses are empty at prime touring times, and they ride down the same streets. Tip: The option to buy an unlimited card can be hard to find on the MetroCard machines, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

3. Use Google Maps to find your way around. There are New York-specific apps and sites, but you’ve probably used Google Maps before, and its directions are accurate for transit, walking, and biking. I use the app all the time, no matter what city I’m in, and it’s never led me astray.

BROOKLYN

1. IM Pastry Studio (1131 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11225)

IM Pastry Studio is the bakery of my dreams! Perfect cupcakes, savory food, the best
cold brew in the city, super fresh fruit drinks (the mojito mint limeade and the ting ting  
are my favorites), and Dough doughnuts (a.k.a. the only donuts that matter). I’ve been   
known to walk out with a drink and dessert in each hand because the choice was so difficult. Plus, it’s beautiful and close to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which I also highly, highly recommend.

2. M.O.B. (525 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217)

You know how sometimes you put your phone in airplane mode and it charges really fast? That’s how I feel when I walk down Atlantic Avenue. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you about M.O.B (Maimonides of Brooklyn), my favorite restaurant on that energizing street. It’s a vegan restaurant that aims to “seduce carnivores,” and judging by the reaction of the many meat-eaters I’ve taken there, it succeeds. Go there for brunch, lunch, or dinner. Sit inside at the long communal tables or outside in the garden. The whole menu is excellent, but I have a soft spot for the M.O.B. flatbreads served on plates in the shape of the Brooklyn Bridge.

3. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade (at Montague Street and the Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and Brooklyn Bridge Park (starts at 45 Dock Street and wraps around the waterfront)

If you ask most New Yorkers about parks to visit, you’ll likely be told to go to the High Line, but I find it kind of underwhelming. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park, on the other hand, never disappoint. They’re perfect for skyline views and photo ops. Brooklyn Bridge Park is built on a series of piers (each with its own features and activities), making it one of the most creative uses of public space I’ve ever seen. Take a spin on Jane’s Carousel, get pizza and Ample Hills ice cream, ride a bike, watch a soccer game, go for a swim in the (admittedly tiny) pop-up pool, roller-skate, have a perfect sunny day.

4. The Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238)

As far as I know, the Brooklyn Museum is the only museum in the world with a feminist art wing (though I would love to be proven wrong). It is also the home of First Saturdays––my favorite, favorite, favorite free event in New York. Every first Saturday of the month, the museum opens its doors, allowing everyone the opportunity to view its exhibits, make art, and dance to live music for free. Go for the art, and stay for the people-watching. It’s a monthly convention of New York’s most stylish residents, and their outfits regularly left me breathless.

5. Night Train (622 Degraw Street, Brooklyn, NY 11217)

I hear NBC recently filmed Night Train for a TV special, so catch this comedy night ASAP before it blows up and you can no longer get tickets. Wyatt Cenac (of Daily Show fame) hosts and picks an incredible lineup of comedians. For example, in January we saw Erin Jackson, Hari Kondabolu, and Kevin Avery. Bonus: The DJ in residence is Don Will, whose name you might recognize from Another Round!

MANHATTAN

1. Banana Pudding from Magnolia Bakery (various locations)

I don’t have very much wisdom to impart, but there is one thing I know deep down in my bones, and that is “If you go to Magnolia Bakery, get the banana pudding.” You will be tempted by the cupcakes. The cupcakes are beautiful. The cupcakes are famous! But sadly, the cupcakes are dry and boring. Trust me. I have made this mistake many times. However, the banana pudding is worth all the hype and then some. I don’t care if you don’t like banana desserts. I don’t care if you don’t like pudding. Both of these things are true of me, and still, the banana pudding is perfect.

2. Housing Works Bookstore Café (126 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10012)

Housing Works is a superb organization operating the best thrift stores in New York City. I love all of their stores, but my very favorite is the Housing Works Bookstore Café. Located on a cobblestone street in SoHo, it’s everything a bookstore should be, with bookshelves covering every wall on both floors, good lighting, plenty of tables, a grand staircase, and green hanging lamps. It also has free wi-fi, which is important if you’re visiting from abroad or if you don’t have a smartphone. All of that is enough to make it worth a visit, but it also hosts some of the best literary events, including The Moth StorySLAM so be sure to check the calendar.

3. Pippin Vintage Jewelry (112 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011)

Pippin Vintage Jewelry is a luxurious boutique that sells jewelry from seemingly every time period, but the coolest thing about it is that they have pieces at every price point (starting at $5). I bought Devin’s wedding band and my most beautiful pair of earrings at Pippin, and every time I’ve gone in, the staff has answered all my questions and made me feel like a VIP (even when the only thing I could ask was “Um…what’s the cheapest thing you sell?”). Bonus: Chelsea is filled with vintage stores, so be sure and walk around before and after you check out Pippin.

4. Fabulous Fanny’s (335 East 9th Street, New York, 10003)

People often ask me where I got my glasses, and I love answering “Fabulous Fanny’s!” It’s a store that truly lives up to the adjective in its name, with glasses of all kinds, most at much, much lower prices than at other stores. Fabulous Fanny’s stocks vintage frames and new frames made in the U.S.A. They don’t do the lenses in store, but they’ll refer you to a place in Chinatown that does quick work and is also very affordable, making it possible for you to buy a pair as a souvenir!

5. Playing Tourist (various locations)

When I was younger, I thought tourist attractions were for boring uninspired people with no creativity. As a result, I went to Paris and almost missed out on seeing the Eiffel Tower. Thankfully, a nice French family intervened, and now I know the error of my ways. I hope nobody is as silly as I was at 19, but just in case, I want to add this disclaimer. Most tourist attractions are attractions for a reason, and it doesn’t make you any less cool to want to see them. Since there are so many things to see in New York (and you probably want to do some things off the beaten path in addition), I suggest choosing a few rather than trying to see them all. My favorites are Grand Central Terminal (bonus points for all the good dining options, ranging from The Campbell Apartment to Magnolia “Get-the-Banana-Pudding” Bakery), the New York Public Library at 42nd street and the adjacent Bryant Park, Times Square (go late at night for maximum effect and minimal crowds), and the Statue of Liberty. You can see the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry, which is free to ride, and a good option if you don’t have much money or time or if you don’t care about seeing the statue up close. However, in my opinion, going to see it up close is worth it (and before going, I didn’t think I’d like it that much!).

QUEENS

1. Casa Enrique (5-48 49th Ave. Long Island City, NY 11101)

In my experience, most Mexican restaurants in the States are not good––to put it mildly––so I prefer to wait until I go home to Chihuahua where I eat and eat and eat in an attempt to make up for lost time (and tacos). Casa Enrique is the shining exception. I cried when I ate there because I never imagined it was possible to have food that good on this side of the border. Chef Cosme Aguilar is my hero.

2. MoMA PS1 (22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101)

PS1 is MoMA’s cool little sister. Focusing exclusively on contemporary art and housed in a former schoolhouse, it’s ideal for visitors who get overwhelmed by gigantic museums and who want to see experimental art they may not encounter elsewhere. I especially like it in the spring and summer because of the outdoor exhibits and the Warm Up concert series in the courtyard. However, I highly recommend that you check the calendar before going. Since it’s a smaller museum, it has a smaller number of exhibits (sometimes the whole museum is devoted to a single artist). I’ve seen some exhibits that I loved and others I regret seeing (and subjecting my mom to…), so make sure you know what’s showing.

3. SriPraPhai (64-13 39th Avenue, Woodside, NY 11377)

The average price for an entrée is $10. The portions are generous. And it is the best Thai restaurant in New York. I would regularly take hour-long subway rides to eat there with whomever I could convince to join me, and considering how far it was, it didn’t take much cajoling to convince anyone after they’d tried it once. The menu is longer than the Old Testament (with a sizeable vegetarian section!) so if you need recommendations, allow me to suggest the papaya salad, the mock-duck salad, the tom kha soup, and the panang curry.

Do you have any favorite NYC places? I’d love to hear them!

NYC Tour