“You don’t need to speak Spanish. You must know English.” I was seven years old when my grandma first told me that. I didn’t understand. If she could speak it then why couldn’t I? Little did I know that it was a question that I would ask for a long time until it eventually pushed us further away from each other than I had ever imagined.
She’d come to visit us in Oakland every winter and every winter we would wonder what sorts of “things” she had up her sleeve this time around. The truth is that my grandma, named Virginia but better known as grandma “Virgie,” is what some might call a “kook.” She’s an eccentric woman: crazy hair, lipstick usually on her teeth, big jewelry, and a frequent dancer and even singer-songwriter at the dinner table when we were lucky. She always stormed into town with life insights, personal truths to declare, and an actual bag full of things
. The “things” bag was always one of my most anticipated events of the year. She would come into the house, greet everyone, put her luggage away, and then out would come the bag, bursting full of things
. Since it was always December when she came, I always secretly imagined her as the Mexican, female version of Santa Claus. The “things,” you see, were random gifts that she had picked up throughout the year, each one intended especially
for each one of us: me, my two brothers, mom, and dad. The best part about them was that they were the most random
treasures you could probably ever receive: silk pouches, rock collections, various trophies, hats of all sorts, tins, crocheted flowers, ornate frames with random photos in them, silverware, the list goes on and on. They were incredibly simple things but she saw so much beauty in every single gift she gave and there would always be a passionate explanation that went with each one. As a child, I was inspired by her creativity and the uniqueness that ran from the pink curlers she left in her hair to the sparkly gold pants she wore one Christmas.
Another truth I’ll tell you is that I was basically a mirror image of my grandma when I was little, which is why we got along so well. I was quite the eccentric child. I dressed myself, did my own hair, and ran my own ‘entertainment’ business by the time I was 5. What I mean to say is that along with my messy side-ponytail and mismatched, “making-a-statement” outfits, I created my own shows in which I would “perform” original acts for my parents and friends. About what, I’m not sure, I guess just whatever my 5-year-old mind was conjuring up as creativity at the time. The point is that my grandma and I were inseparable when she was in town. I was her mini-me and she my idol. This was the case until I got a bit older and wanted to know about our family history and specifically the Spanish language, at which point things became a little less magical between us.
I am half Mexican from my mom’s side of the family, which includes my grandma. It is something that I have always been aware of, not only because my skin is a different color than my mother and grandmother’s, but also because I felt especially connected with the culture somehow. I would catch my grandma singing songs in Spanish and on occasion she would keep singing them to me if I begged. But when I asked what the words meant and if she would teach me, she would become distant and tell me that I don’t need to know because only English matters. “You’re American,” she would say to me, “you don’t need to know Spanish.” She had no idea how much those words meant to me at such a young age. It was a concept I couldn’t seem to grasp. I remember asking my mom about Spanish and why she didn’t sing like grandma does. Turns out, she and her siblings were only allowed to speak English as children so she never learned it. How could my own Mexican mother not know Spanish?!
It seemed outrageous to me and I was only 7 or 8 at this point. My mother was sympathetic to my concerns and responsive to what I wanted to do: learn Spanish. So in second grade I was enrolled in my first Spanish class.
My passion for the language and Latin American culture only rose from that point on. Fast forward 10 years and I was a natural at speaking Spanish, passionate about everything from the political revolutions in Latin America to Día de los Muertos
. However, as I grew closer to my roots I grew away from my grandmother. She didn’t want to hear anything about Spanish or especially about the fact that I was flying to Georgia to protest the School of the Americas, a corrupt US military training camp for Latin American soldiers. My “liberal leanings” upset her, a conservative Catholic. I called her abuela
; she told me to never say it again. I asked her if she could tell me about our Mexican family history; she told me it didn’t matter to me to since I was American. I shouldn’t care. I couldn’t even tell her that I was studying abroad in Argentina until I had already been living there for three months. She, of course, overreacted, reminding me of the “kinds of people who are down there.” “Okay
, grandma,” is all I said.
As a Spanish and English double major, it’s always fun to respond to her comments that I need to speak English perfectly and not worry about studying Spanish. “I study English too, grandma, I think I’ll be able to get by.” As a senior about to leave Undergrad life and pursue a Graduate education in language, specifically indigenous Latin American linguistics and bilingual education, I can’t help but hold my grandma largely responsible for the person I am today. I love what I love in large part because she told me that I shouldn’t speak Spanish or consider myself Mexican. In a weird way it was a gift, I guess. Just another “thing” that came out of her bag one Christmas.