I didn’t grow up speaking more than one language. Instead, I grew up listening to more than one.
I have always had an understanding, the ability to compile context clues that involved facial expressions, body language, and certain sounds to decipher what was being communicated. Different words would start to make sense and the capability to comprehend got easier.
The verbal part, however, is another story. I struggled with comfortability, shyness and – ultimately – fear.
I didn’t want to be made fun of for sounding funny. I didn’t want to make a mistake.
I visited Haiti for the first time in 2013, for my birthday, and found myself in an environment where I couldn’t communicate with anyone. I was limited in who I could be because there was no one to share my thoughts with.
I was excluded from the jokes that simply couldn’t be translated.
The more I moved around, I met people who spoke English, Spanish, Creole, and French. There was a child, maybe six years old, who switched between dialects with a fluid ease. In that moment, I felt small. I was proud of her and ashamed of myself. I thought of my father, who was born and raised on the island, and envied his aptitude to do the same.
I thought of my mother, full Boricua, and her skill, too.
I felt empty. The puzzle pieces were right there and, yet, it didn’t quite fit.
I felt cheated by them. Maybe a little dramatic but, honestly, I felt abandoned. I called them crying, asking why. And I wondered if I was having an identity crisis. Is that what this is? Yikes.
In Khaled Hossieni’s novel, And the Mountains Echoed, he writes a beautiful story about siblings – a brother and sister. But we learn, too, of a father. A man who had so much pride in his culture, he ensured his children would be able to speak, write, and understand Farsi.
“He said I would appreciate later the gift he was giving me. He said that if culture was a house, then language was the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it, he said, you ended up wayward, without a proper home or legitimate identity.”
And, indeed, years later when these children were adults, they were confronted with an emotional family experience that needed the connection of language.
Without that understanding, they wouldn’t have been able to evolve together, wholeheartedly. Language provided a bond; it created unity; it became the cloth they were all cut from.
Naturally, I felt smaller.
It instigated more anger and I called my mother. I demanded her to refrain from speaking English to me. Then I called my father and demanded the same.
I was 23 years old. I realized that they seemed to enjoy that time, I think, as older parents themselves. Maybe they, too, began to realize their mistake. I felt their growing desire to still be able to teach me things.
My gesture opened my dad up. Always a quiet, hardworking, homebound man, he suddenly became someone who laughed, told jokes and had an electricity in his accent when talking about his Haitian life.
I started to see him as a human being, someone with his own experiences, desires, dreams.
I asked him how old he was and he said, “How old are you again?”
“27,” I replied.
“Then I’m 27.”
“Huh? How old are you?”
He laughed. “If you’re 27, I’m 27. If you’re 30, I’m 30. If you’re 90, I’m 90!” He laughed some more and I imagined his brown face curled up in wrinkles. “That’s how I stay young!” Then my belly tickled and I laughed, too.
We laughed together. We shared a moment of happiness, with no words except the sound of pleasure.
I learned of my mother’s vulnerabilities. I grew up close to her. Imitating her, wanting to look like her, dance like her, be her.
Although my Spanish isn’t great, I have an accent that differentiates my origins. It makes me stand out and always, always invites questions. What country were you born in? Where are you from? What are you? I know this voice I have is because of her. Who else was I going to copy?
I grew up thinking I knew everything I could know about her. She is who I studied. She is who I trailed after, observing. But she was revealed to me in a haunting way; making me step outside of myself, needing a deeper look.
Who are these people?
The frustrations I felt as a mixed baby led to a lot of questions that needed answers. The scavenger hunt could only be delivered through my parents.
In learning about my culture, I needed to learn about them. The people they were before I came along.
I asked Papi, “What were you doing at 27?”
I could hear his grin. “I was doing good. My dad had just bought me a store -”
“Your dad bought you a store? I wish mine would do that!”
He laughed. “I was doing good.”
Mami told me that she lived in a big house that was always full of people. She comes from a family so large that she has nieces old enough to be her girlfriend. “But the house was always spotless.
Mom didn’t play that. She would make us scrub the walls. And she forbid us from speaking English. She always would tell us that she needed to understand everything that was going on in the house.”
My abuela, despite having left Ponce for New York, never learned English. She was a proud, stubborn Puerto Rican.
There are many mixed babies like me, of many different combinations.
I learned that I can’t control who raised me or how they did it. But, after a certain point, you have to start asking questions about yourself, who you are, where you come from. You have to take control of what you will continue to learn.
You have to take responsibility for changing a habit you were inherited. You have talk to yourself: How do I want my own children to identify?
And watch as the reasons become bigger and bigger, gaining momentum, and discovering more fuel for its purpose. The reasons become hungry, starving even, for more information and details. Things will change, you will change.
The way you think will change.
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