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

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

Cartoon City, U.S.A.

Once I went to visit some rad friends in Austin, Texas. They lived behind a cupcake shop with a giant rotating cupcake on top. And down the road was a gym with a bulging muscular arm sticking out of it. A further drive away was a food co-op with a dinosaur on its roof. And in the other direction, a restaurant with a giant burger being towed by a car…on its roof. The city was positively teeming with giant things! But all the Austinites I talked to hadn’t really noticed?

It was weird. I mean, if I drew the Austin skyline it would be giant boxes of fries next to a giant zebra dressed as Carmen Miranda next to a huge boot next to a giant cowboy hat next to a huge boot (there are lots of big boots). If the average Austinite drew the skyline, s/he’d probably draw the state capitol and some buildings.

My mission was clear. I had to go to Austin to appreciate all the under-appreciated things on top of buildings. I ended up living there in the summer of 2010. I lived in a cool co-op and did a cool internship. But the rest of my waking hours were spent visiting all the oversized monuments to mundanity and taking one picture of each of them with a disposable camera. So diligent was my quest that I ended up visiting the studio where all these monuments are created. Being eye-level with something intended to be seen from far below is a really cool experience. I hope you get to try it sometime.

And now, pictures (though not all of them because I misplaced half).

The Gym
Oh you know, just a tattoo shop with a skull-head octopus pirate.
I saw so many giant boots that it was hard to decide which one to photograph. I ended up snapping this shot last-minute in bad lighting just before leaving. Oh well.
Some giant things are independent of their buildings, but they still rule.
I’m absolutely certain this thrift store is sponsored by mid-90s Nickelodeon. It is my very favorite.
A streetlight named floor lamp. (That’s my friend Leah pulling the chain.)
Jury’s out on whether these were actual kids in caps and gowns hanging out on top of a building or just replicas.
¡Olé!
The Art Store
The home of all the best giant things. They don’t usually have visitors, but they let me have a look around. I think this place should be on the official tour of Austin.

Thank you, Austin!

Cartoon City, U.S.A.

2011 in review

Hi, everyone! I’m still visiting my family in Mexico. Today is Día de Reyes, the last day of the holiday season here, which means I absolutely have to post my year-in-review post and stop listening to Christmas carols riiiiight now.

January

The year started with my cousin Carol’s wedding!
I got to help teach kindergarteners about Martin Luther King, Jr. and social justice.
Devin and I dressed up as ‘American Gothic’ in sepia for a costume party.

February

My housemates and I took family pictures thanks to our fearless leader Hallie!
We’ve never been a Valentine’s Day couple, but this year Devin surprised me with my favorite cake! Here we are making a toast: Dev is holding my little glass of soymilk, and I’m holding his giant bottle of local organic cow’s milk. (We are a caricature. And how!)
I celebrated my birthday with brunch at The Nines.

 March

March was a hard month because my grandmother passed away. I felt fortunate to be able to fly home and see my family, but it was hard.

When I was little my grandmother would take me to Mass and out for ice cream afterward. I told Devin about our tradition, and he took me to do just that in memory of my Abbita.
I had to spend Spring Break in the library working on my thesis.
…but I did get to go skiing on Mt. Hood!
I almost ruined Anda’s surprise birthday party. Thank goodness I didn’t! It was in our old dorm, and the pizza was delicious, and her sister baked a cake.

April

In April, I finished doing the fieldwork for my thesis. Doing fieldwork was fun and rewarding, but it meant I had to spend a lot of time waiting at bus stops in the rain (totally worth it).
When I wasn’t doing fieldwork, I was in the library. Devin was a dear. He brought me like a million library dinners.
This is my favorite picture from April. Nate’s glasses were foggy.

May

I finally finished my thesis!
My dream of sharing Portland with my mom (again) and my two aunts (for the first time) came true! Here are the mamis and me at my favorite coffee shop! 
Dev & my mom got me a new computer for graduation! 
Before we parted ways, Melissa & Anda & I gathered for one final brunch. It was yummy, but I am still baffled: why didn’t we go to our usual spot?

June

At my first grown-up job in downtown Portland, I discovered the joys of the grown-up lunch break!
The best show I saw all summer was the Rock ‘n Roll Camp For Girls Spring Showcase.
In Wisconsin I discovered a breathtakingly beautiful bakery. The walls were covered with vintage recipe cards! 

July

July was a big month, so brace yourself for lots of pictures!

Fourth of July was so much fun! The weather finally turned summery, and I feel like I hung out with fifty-three friends the whole weekend! Also, my hair looks like Cocker Spaniel ears in this picture.
I got to live with my friend Nora all summer! Her birthday party was Kreayshawn-themed. This is one of my favorite pictures ever for the following reasons: a) Nora rules, b) it showcases our perfectly 90s kitchen, & c) you can see all our spices because the cabinet door fell off its hinges.
Dev & I had a going-away party where everything was local (we even made sure our guests were real-life, actual Portlanders!).
Devin & I gave each other watches to mark our engagement!
I had to say bye to Devin AND the kristy dreambike (they took a train to the East Coast).

August

Before I left Portland, I discovered what an artichoke in bloom looks like.
Then, I went to Texas to do fun Texas things, by which I mean I went to the mall with my mom. A lot.
I bid farewell to my summer hair at Shampoo before moving to New York.

 September

This was our building in Park Slope. It was pretty, but Anda, Marika, & I had to share a one-bedroom with an enormous pitbull who only ate raw chicken.
When my mom made me evacuate New York for September 11th, I found a brunch place that matched my dress.
Seriously, it matched my dress perfectly!

October

I fell head-over-heels in love with my new Subway stop!
Grand Central & I started to feel like pals.
This was my favorite sign at Occupy Wall Street.

November

I spent most of the month taking care of my mom post-surgery. The best part of the day was sharing breakfast in her bed.
I also spent a lot of time with Laisha.
I was going to have to skip Thanksgiving, but thanks to the genius of Dev & the East Coast’s adequate train infrastructure (rest of the States, get with it!), I flew to Baltimore & reached Philadelphia by train just in time for dinner with Devin’s family. Here we are with Grandma Pat!

December

I marched for Voting Rights!
My first Christmastime in the cityyyyy! (You cannot imagine how many times I sang that one. Quietly. To myself. Alone. I’m not that annoying.)
Then, I spent Christmas with my whole family, where I had so much fun that I forgot to take pictures. This one of some wimyn, a girl, & THE baby in the family comes to us courtesy of my cousin.

2011, thank you for the lessons & good times. You are dismissed.

2011 in review

Seventeen, again

For the past two weeks, I have been in Texas helping my mom recover from knee surgery. She’s doing great (hooray!), so I have some free time to tell you about My Life.

I haven’t experienced a  Texas autumn since 2006, and I must declare for all the worldwide web to hear that it is utterly perfect! I was seventeen the last time I felt this room-temperature breeze and gazed at these clear blue skies, so obviously I didn’t appreciate it in the slightest. But now? Now I could write an ode or even a sonnet to this glorious weather if only I weren’t too lazy to look up what makes an ode an ode and a sonnet a sonnet. Rhyme? Meter? ABABABABORING. In lieu of that, here is a kind of weird picture I took of myself yesterday in my backyard.

Maybe instead of a poem, I’ll write a navel-gazing B-movie entitled Sleeveless in November.

Aside from loving the weather, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what it was like to be seventeen and how much I have grown up. Turns out, not that much!

FOR EXAMPLE:

  • In 2006, I loved food and thought cooking for people was such fun!
  •  In 2011, I feel the same way except now I use the Epicurious app (with its shopping list function that makes me giddy every time) instead of Post Punk Kitchen (I don’t think PPK has an app). Also, back then I used Sazón Goya with abandon. It was my secret ingredient! Now I know that it’s mostly MSG, so… (Sorry if I fed you anything back then. I promise I had no idea.)
  • In the fall of 2006 I read Nylon, and now I am reading the same issues of Nylon (October 2006 and November 2006) that I read back then because by some bizarre coincidence I found them in my room. Had not seen them since 2006 and they were just there. On my bookshelf. I mean, what are the chances? Would a cable news outlet be interested in covering this story, I wonder.
  • In 2006, I loved Sixties fashions.
  • In 2011, I love Sixties fashions. Only more. And the universe has rewarded this love with Pan Am and Mad Men episodes on my mother’s DVR.
  • In the fall of 2006, I was diligently working on my college applications.
  • In the fall of 2011, I should be diligently working on job applications.

See? Not so different.

Except now I consider my house to be less of a prison (ugh, curfews!)  and more a softly-lit suburban paradise.

And I can’t think of anything more fun than hanging out with my mom.

And I took inventory of my friends when reading my Senior Scrapbook (2006-2007) yesterday. Do you know how many of my closest friends from high school still live here? ZERO!

If you must know, the first two pages of my scrapbook were as follows:

1. A page dedicated to my favorite coffee shop (R.I.P.).

2. A page about this awful full-body allergic reaction I had. Complete with pictures of me in my disfigured state. (I don’t get it either…)

You should thank your lucky stars for the blurriness of the above picture.

The end.

Seventeen, again

Little miracles

Miracle the First: It’s really hot here, but it’s not too hot to walk places, and there is something so cool (pardon the pun) about being the only person not in a car for miiiiiiiiiiiiiles. I hold my head a little higher as I cross an four-lane street and walk the vast parking lot of my neighborhood grocery store, and would you believe the Texas sun is already giving my Oregon pallor a run for its money? The other day I went grocery shopping and emerged with a Texas watermelon (among other things) wondering how I would make the trek back home, when a womyn approached me and said, ‘Excuse me, I noticed you were wearing a dress.’

I nodded. Seeing that she was wearing a long skirt, I braced myself for a lecture on the evils of short dresses. Instead, she said, ‘I have this dress that’s too small for me, would you like it?’ and held out a pink dress with shoulder pads and a mandarin collar.

‘I-I-I can just have it?’

‘Sure!,’ she smiled and walked back to her car.

That dress doesn’t fit me (not even close), and it’s not at all my style; but it’s my magic dress.* Something about it made my load of food lighter and my walk in the outdoor sauna altogether pleasant. See, what I really loathe about the suburbs is how compartmentalized everything is. You go from your house to your car to school/work/the mall/your favorite mid-level restaurant (Pei Wei Asian Fusion or bust! And don’t even try telling me P.F. Chang’s is better)/Coldstone or Pinkberry and home again. I have a really hard time making friends here, and I think most of it has to do with my attitude. I just don’t expect any spontaneous interaction, but as the Parking Lot Dress Womyn so easily proved, that’s silly. And it brings me to my…

Miracle the Second: This story is about the powers of the most magic person I know. I call her my mother. My mom can make friends with anyone anywhere. She’s had so many friends that I have heard her tell long stories about really good friends she used to have, whose names she no longer remembers!

The other day I got to witness her friend-making powers in action. We were waiting for our table at Cheddar’s when my mom turned to the womyn sitting next to us and said, ‘I think I’ve seen you before,’ which I believed because this was one memorable-looking individual: orange-tan skin, platinum hair, super-round eyes, and the most pursed lips I have ever seen on a human being.  Absolutely purssssssssssssssssssed. This womyn (we’ll call her Cheddar in hommage to our meeting place) gave my mom a you-are-crazy-why-are-you-talking-to-me-stranger-danger-look. Unperturbed (or maybe oblivious), my mom went on to introduce herself and me.

Cheddar: (Sounding very unsure) I have a daughter, too.
Mom: How old is she?
Cheddar: Eight.
Mom: Eight?! How old are you?
Cheddar: Thirty-five.
Mom: You don’t look it! Do you think you’ll have more kids?
Cheddar: No.
Mom: Are you divorced?
Cheddar: Yes.
Mom: I got divorced when she was two, but I guess I was lucky because she (signals to me) never wanted siblings, even after I got remarried.
Cheddar:  (Sighs and stops pursing her lips quite so much) My daughter really wants a  little brother or sister.
Mom: (Encouragingly) Oh, I’m sure you could get remarried and have another. You’re still young.
Cheddar: (Sadly) I don’t know…Sometimes it feels like I’ll never meet anyone again.
Mom: I know what that’s like. Dating can be such a hassle! You’re busy with work, with your daughter, with your family and friends. The last thing you wanna do is put in all that effort just to go on a bad date.
Cheddar: (Smiling) Exactly!
Mom: You know, the best way to meet someone is through a mutual friend because they know you, they know him, they can tell if you’re compatible.
Cheddar: (Unsure) Well, I’ve told my friends…
Mom: Then, don’t worry! As long as you are open to meeting someone, you will. You don’t have to go looking. The other thing that’s important is not having impossible expectations. Make a list of the five things that are most important to you. That way you can meet someone human instead of waiting on Mr. Perfect.
Cheddar: (Cheered up, nodding) Yeah! I can do that.

And then our table was ready, so my mom and Cheddar said, ‘Bye, nice to meet you!’ and that was that. I’ve been witnessing interactions like this all my life, and I’m still awestruck. Have you ever met someone who can so easily connect with a stranger and get her/him to divulge deep insecurities or tell her/his life story on the spot? I totally want to be like my mom when I grow up.

*It remains ‘mine’ though I’ve already donated it to charity ’cause I’m all, ‘Minimalism-Minimalism-Rah-Rah-Rah!’ these days.

Little miracles