Monday, December 05, 2005


Lost and Found Language

It started in 1949, when my oldest brother
came home from school in Racine, Wisconsin
after flunking kindergarten
It said in his report card that he 'spoke no English'
and he declared to my parents
that 'the rest of the kids have to learn to speak English
if we planned on staying here in the United States.'

so my parents lined up
the rest of the seven younger children
had us straighten up our posture
tilt our heads back
reached into our mouths with their hands
and took turns
slicing our tongues in half

making a simple, but unspoken contract that from then on
the parents would speak Spanish and their children would respond
back only in English

How do you lose a native language? does it get misplaced
in the recesses of your brain? or does it never quite stick
to the sides of your mind?

for me, it would always start with the question
from a brown faced stranger 'hables espanol? '
which means 'do you speak spanish? '

which meant if they had to ask me
if I spoke Spanish this was not going to be a good start
at having a conversation...

my face would start to get flushed
with redness and before
I had a chance to stammer the words 'I don't'
I could see it in their eyes looking at my embarrassed face
searching for an answer that they already knew

as I walked away
I knew what they were thinking
'Who is this guy? '
'How can he not speak his mother's tongue? '
'Where did he grow up anyways? Racine?
'Doesn't he have any pride in knowing who he is? 'or 'Where he came from? '
I tried to reply, but as the words in Spanish
floated down from my brain they got caught in my throat,
by the rocks of shame I had piled up in 20 years.
I spoke in half-tongue which was only good enough
to be misunderstood.

my future wife
taught me how
to speak spanish
by being Colombian
and secondly
by being patient
and thirdly
by not speaking english

I had already knew
the language of hands and love
which got me confident enough
to find the beautiful sounds of latin rhythms
that laid deep within me

and although
I still feel my heart jump a beat
when someone asks 'hables espanol? '
now the spanish resonates within me
and echos back 'si, y usted tambien? '

and today as I talk with the spanish speaking students
in my adult education classes
they can not only hear my mind
splash ancient spanish sounds off
my heart
but feel my words

my native tongue
once cut by my parents
out of necessity and survival
my half tongue
has finally grown back making me whole again.

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