I am nineteen, and my best friend Franny has dragged me uptown and onto the roof of her boyfriend Oscar’s building. Franny and Oscar met when she caught him stealing jewelry at a store she worked at in SoHo. He’s a tall, skinny, twenty-something Dominican kid with a goatee, who still lives with his grandma and wears big belt buckles and the type of man-jewelry you might expect to find on an 18th-century pirate. I have no idea why Franny is with this kid when we could walk into almost any bar in New York and some fool would scramble up to us, offering to pay for Franny’s drinks – mine too – just for the opportunity to talk to her.
Franny had orchestrated a double date for us. We meet Oscar at this bar uptown that doesn’t ID. My date is one of Oscar’s cousins; let’s call him Damien. He is the type of green-eyed, light-skinned Dominican kid who has been told exactly how handsome he is his whole life. I can tell that Damien isn’t pleased about this match. I am the opposite of Franny – five-feet-two, with a thirteen-year-old’s face. I still have braces and just recently had a hard time getting into an R-rated movie. On this blind date, I am the obvious dud.
We start by playing an hour and a half of unsuccessful pool — unsuccessful mostly because I stop playing. I can’t get past how pool is just an excuse for some guy to creep up behind you, slip his hand along your arm to reposition the cue, and then press his body against yours. I’d seen this same scene play out in real life and in movies a dozen times, and the clichéd gesture is enough to make the whole night feel irredeemable and corny. I drink one cheap beer after another just to forget that I am bored.
Two am, we travel back to Oscar’s building. Damien and I sit, drunk, on the edge of the roof, watching the city tilt and whirl while Franny and Oscar smoke and make out on the stairs. The conversation between us lulls, and we keep looking longingly at our friends, hoping they will stop kissing so we can all crawl back home before dawn breaks. At one point Damien calls out to Oscar, and Oscar turns around, annoyed, and says: “Just kiss her already, man.”
To which Damien whimpers, “I can’t. She wants to go!” Which makes me sort of feel bad for him. Damien is far more handsome than his cousin Captain Hook, but it’s obvious that Oscar is the one calling the shots.
“It’s okay,” I say, then try to commiserate with Damien while looking out at the city. I want to feel inspired at that moment by the landscape, but instead I just feel blah.
Damien starts to speak Spanish, and I don’t understand what he is saying. When he realizes this, he looks at me with surprise and mild disgust. “You don’t speak Spanish?”
“Not too much,” I say. “A little bit.”
“But aren’t you proud of who you are?”
All my sympathy for Damien evaporates at that moment, replaced by something murky and grey.
You can’t understand how much I want the language, I want to tell him, how I love it maybe even more than you do, because you have the words, and I don’t.
Some version of that conversation has played out over and over again in my life.
I can remember being nine years old, wading with my little sister in the water at a beach in Puerto Rico. Our mother had sent us to live with our grandparents for the summer while she underwent surgery. We were obsessed with the water, the way that we could see the sand crumbling around our toes. There was nothing like this water in New York. So clear. So blue.
A group of kids surrounded us, wanting to play. One, with hair curling around her face, figured out quickly that we couldn’t speak Spanish.
¿Pero, de dónde eres tú?
The beach was loud with music and people.
“New York,” my sister and I shouted.
And then the kids surrounded us, splashing water in our faces. “Nueva York,” they shouted back, slapping the water with their tiny hands.
They circled around my sister and tried to dunk her, and I pushed them away. There were too many of them, though, and at one point I found myself pushed underneath the water, where their words were muted, unknowable, warped by the waves.
My mother and I argue over whether I can speak Spanish. It’s a common argument, and it goes something like this:
“Yes, you can,” she says. “You spoke Spanish till you were four.”
And then I say something like, “I’m pretty sure that I can’t.”
In another version of this argument, she says, “I always tried to teach you, but you never wanted to learn.”
Me: “I always wanted to learn.”
Who knows which one of us is telling the truth? Maybe my mother is lying, due to guilt or regret. For years, she was a bilingual special-needs preschool teacher. She loved Spanish – spoke it all day, in the classroom and at home. I know that she wishes I could speak the language as she does. Perhaps she feels guilty because I can’t.
I went away to graduate school. In the South I heard about some Latino immigrant families who intentionally do not teach their kids Spanish, so their children will assimilate more easily. That is an important story to tell, but I want to make it clear that it is not mine. When it comes to language and culture, my family has always been proud.
No, this is more of a story about disappearance.
Once an old boss asked me smugly, “How come all the Puerto Ricans I know can’t speak Spanish?”
I wanted to say, “What language do you speak, asshole?”
But I’ve thought about this question before. I can’t speak for anybody else, and I know quite a few Puerto Ricans fluent in Spanish who’d bristle at his comment. But I also know a lot of Puerto Rican kids like me who can’t speak the language, and I suspect it has something to do with the Island’s long history of being colonized, the sterilization of Puerto Rican women in the mid-twentieth century, the attempted Americanization of its schools, the bombings in Vieques, the way thousands of Puerto Rican men were shipped off to fight during World War I, the disintegration of the island’s economy. Perhaps this disappearance of language is just another fucked-up effect of colonialism. Just one more death.
Maybe my mother is telling the truth. Maybe I did begin with both Spanish and English. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in a shopping cart in Puerto Rico and extending my hand towards a shelf, asking for chocolate in Spanish. And sometimes when I’m forced to speak the language at a party or to a parent, I am surprised at how much I can say. The words float to the surface, weirdly whole, from a deep, dark crevice in my brain.
Sometimes I can feel the language become more accessible to me, like a letter unfolding. I can recognize each syllable. All of a sudden, the meaning has bloomed. Other times, I am aware of exactly how much I do not know: the many mistakes I’ve made trying to speak. Perhaps there are even more mistakes that I haven’t yet noticed. I begin to fear there is this version of myself I’m projecting in Spanish that is all wrong, that is the opposite of how I feel inside. More often than not I am mortified at the stupid things that come out of my mouth.
But, more than shame, I feel an enormous sense of loss.
When I speak on the phone to my great-grandmother, who has dementia and has lost almost all of her English, I repeat the same things in Spanish over and over again: ¿Cómo te vas? Te extraño. ¿Que estas haciendo hoy?
Inside I know that these words are not enough.
I finished graduate school last year, and — like most writers — ended up scrambling for jobs. I tried at one point to get a gig at community center in Nashville that services Latino folks, but I knew I’d have to improve my Spanish.
These days I’ve been trying to become more fluent by talking to my mother and my friends in Spanish. It is humbling, having to stop every few seconds to figure out a word, knowing that I’ve butchered the grammar, asking somebody to repeat something, one more time. Otra vez. Again. Oh, dear, how could I have fucked up the gender? How could I have made such an obvious mistake, one that a native speaker would never make? Obviously I am not at home in the language of my own home. What does that even mean?
In English, I speak fast. I’m loud, perhaps even annoying, depending on who you ask. In Spanish, I feel like I am perpetually blushing: polite, apologetic, and scared.
I explain this to my Honduran buddy Jero on Gchat. He is fluent in Spanish and is learning Chinese. He says that he knows the feeling: “Whenever I have to write or talk in Chinese, I always remember my mother and all of the immigrants who live in this country and can’t speak English.”
Since then I’ve tried to force myself to speak Spanish with Latino folks with limited English, something I’ve always intentionally avoided because I was afraid of what they would think, how they would look at me, once they figured out how badly I spoke the language. But lately I have started to think: Why put the awkwardness on them? To speak English well in this country is its own privilege. Why not shift that discomfort onto myself?
“Solamente, necesitas practicar,”one woman explained to me. “Find as many teachers as you can.”
I have. My friends, my mother, my grandmother…I am grateful for them all.