A memory rises from my grandmother’s kitchen. I saw a little bird outside, through the sliding glass door. I pointed and said, “mira, un pájaro.” My grandmother scolded me in the nicest way and even made me laugh. “No! No es pah-ha-doh. Se dice pájaro” (“No! It’s not pah-ha-doh. You say pájaro”), and she would say the word for bird in her perfect Spanish. The j and the d pronounced properly, blending with the other letters to create one beautiful word.
I had no problem with Yo quiero comer, porfavor, I want to eat, please; or Tengo hambre, I’m hungry. As an adult I still say and feel the English versions of these phrases—I’m always eating and I’m hungry often. Some things don’t change. And my grandmother would always have me say aloud a simple prayer in Spanish after I was done with my meal…gracias a Dios que me dio un pan para comer. Amen. Thank you God for giving me this bread to eat. Amen. The sense of thankfulness that my grandmother instilled in me also hasn’t change. There are many beauties in the world that remind me of all there is to be thankful of—even when I forget.
I was first exposed to Spanish as a young girl through my grandparents. My grandmother didn’t speak English, only Spanish; my grandfather spoke both English and Spanish; and my language memories with my mother are fuzzy. I don’t recall her speaking to me in Spanish, but it’s very possible she did.
I wish that I could say that I was bilingual or fluent in Spanish. It used to be one of my life goals to become fluent. I wanted to become fluent before my grandmother passed. I know that I will continue learning at my slow pace.
After my grandmother passed away, I stopped speaking Spanish. Before that I wasn’t always able to understand all of her stories. When I would visit her in her older age, her stories became longer and more detailed, but my comprehension couldn’t keep up. I had to rely on the words I could decipher, filling in the blanks with her expressions and body language. I was only able to communicate simple phrases. By this time I was in my mid-twenties and my comprehension had dwindled.
On a few other occasions I tried speaking Spanish with other Spanish-speaking people, but I became too self-conscious, knowing I didn’t sound like an authentic Mexican. I felt like an imposter.
When I was in my early thirties, I had planned on getting a bachelor’s degree in English. I hadn’t fulfilled the foreign language requirement and had a choice: Take a Spanish class—I didn’t have the patience for five months of textbook Spanish—or take a Spanish translation test. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose in attempting to translate a short excerpt from Spanish to English.
I remember finally finding the small office at the college campus where I would take the test. I was told I could bring a Spanish/English dictionary and something to write with. I had a choice of three different one-page passages. Settling on one that I believe was about history, I had one hour to complete the translation. I was surprised at how much the sentences made sense. I felt giddy at not being completely in the dark. There were several words that I had to look up in my dictionary, but it didn’t slow me down. I felt surprisingly comfortable with grammar for the most part.
When I completed my translation, I felt good, but knew there might be a few small grammar errors. I handed the pages, the original and mine, back to the assistant. I would have to wait a week or so before I knew how I did.
The results came back and I passed. I felt so proud of myself beyond words.
All of my slow progress fed into this one moment. What that experience did for me—even though I didn’t end up pursing an English degree—is that it provided the space for me to reflect on where and how I had learned to read Spanish. I took French and Spanish in high school, but I don’t recall doing well in either because I wasn’t interested in school at the time. There weren’t Spanish books in my childhood home and no one read to me in Spanish or showed me Spanish language books.
The only thing I could connect is that I had remembered what little I soaked in from my grandmother and I was able to recognize the written words by sound. As I read the words, I could hear them and it was then that I realized that though I couldn’t speak Spanish very well, and at times if someone speaks too fast in Spanish I can’t follow, I could actually read it. Of course my reading fluency is not where I’d like it to be. I have two books of fiction in Spanish that sit on my shelf. One day I hope to get through them.
Over the years, I’ve picked up a book here and there to learn more Spanish and to reinforce what I know. I took a class in Asian literature that was taught by a Chinese-Mexican-American professor. This class opened me up to further explore my second language and Mexican-ness. And since then, I’ve continued in small chunks.
Language is fascinating and it still fascinates me. I admire those that can learn several languages fluently or even one language really well. When it comes to certain tasks in life, I simply don’t have the patience unless I’m immersed—Immersion seems the best way to learn a foreign language.
At times I think and write in Spanish, especially if I’m speaking to my grandmother in my mind; occasionally I will write a simple poem in Spanish and then translate it into English. My Spanish writing skills are limited for now, but I do feel as though I have another soul when I write in Spanish—I’m like a different expression of myself when I think and write in my grandmother’s tongue. I cherish that. That is my connection to the Spanish language, to my Mexican heritage, and it begins in my grandmother’s kitchen.