My parents are from Mexico and when I was little, Spanish was the only language we spoke at home. Before bedtime my mom would read me Spanish picture books. In my favorite story, the main character was a cow who loved pears. The book made us laugh. My mom gave each character a different voice, and she read slowly so I could process the images and narration.
Almost every night we watched telenovelas together, like Atrévete A Soñar (Dare to Dream) and Rebelde (Rebel). I lay on the living room couch while my mom sat at the kitchen table trimming green beans or peeling potatoes as we watched. When kissing scenes came on, I closed my eyes tight and made a disgusted face, and my mom laughed.
“No puedes hacer eso hasta que tengas treinta años,” she would say. (“You’re not allowed to do that until you’re 30 years old.”)
“I would never do that in my life! It’s bad!” I would say back to her in Spanish. That made her laugh even more, and I smiled. It made me happy to make her laugh.
On Sundays, I woke up to the sound of Mexican bands on the radio and found my parents cleaning the house to the rhythm. Our neighbors were mostly Spanish speakers too. My older brothers learned English in school, so they spoke it around the house sometimes, but I didn’t pick much up.
Kindergarten in English
Before long, it was my turn to learn. On the first day of kindergarten I entered the building gripping my mother’s hand. We walked down the hallway to a room with a beige door. I let go of her hand and stepped inside.
Several kids were talking and yelling in English, and I couldn’t understand them. I looked around and saw that most of the other kids had different skin tones than me. I had grown up in a majority-Hispanic neighborhood, so it was the first time I was around people of different backgrounds. I started to tear up. I wanted to go home.
My teacher, Ms. Castillo, was tall and elegant, with a smile that showed all her teeth. Her skin was a darker shade of brown than mine. I couldn’t understand what she was saying until she waved her hand as if to say hi to everyone. She signaled to the class when it was time to sit on the carpet in a circle, so I followed along. Later, another teacher came to take me to an ESL class.
Ms. Lorenzo was short and had a warm smile. Her skin was almost the color of snow. Her room was full of alphabet posters. Ms. Lorenzo only spoke English but she used images and shapes to help us understand.
Learning English was difficult for me and it frustrated my parents that they couldn’t help. But they bought alphabet magnets and stuck them to the refrigerator. They had me sit in a small wooden chair facing the letters and one of my brothers helped me pronounce each letter while my parents stood by my side. Then I had to name a word that started with each letter, saying “C is for cat” or “A is for apple.” After I mastered simple words I moved on to more complex ones.
By 3rd grade, speaking, reading, and writing in English were easier. As I became more fluent, the books, TV shows, and movies I liked changed. At the same time, my mom got a job sewing clothes in a factory and she came home too tired to read me stories in Spanish. Though we kept watching telenovelas together, I also started watching cartoons that were only in English. By 5th grade, I spoke English to everyone except my parents and other relatives. In 6th grade, I stopped having to go to ESL.
In 8th grade, English even became my favorite subject. One day my teacher had our class write a fictional story. I wrote about a girl who lost her mother on 9/11. My classmates complimented my writing, which made me feel proud. When I got home from school, I handed my mom my story. I knew she was going to love it too.
“I wrote a story today in school,” I told my mom in Spanish. “I want you to read it.”
“I don’t understand what you wrote, but can you tell me what the story is about?” She handed me back my paper.
“It’s about a girl who lost her mother during the twin towers tragedy,” I said.
I wasn’t able to explain the rest of it in Spanish. I realized that while the character in my story lost her mom physically, I was losing a deep connection with my mom emotionally. Since she mainly spoke Spanish and I mainly spoke English, I was no longer as open with my mom about a lot of things. For example, I wanted to tell her that I was being bullied at school, but I didn’t have the Spanish words to describe my feelings.
When my mom got home from work she would have dinner with my dad and then go to bed. There were only four words that we always said to each other: buenos dias (good morning) and buenas noches (good night). It felt as if we were becoming strangers.
My dad worked nights driving a taxi, so he slept during the day. We only talked when he picked me up from school and asked me in Spanish how my day was. “Good,” I would respond. When we got home, he asked what I wanted to eat, and I would say pasta or macaroni and cheese. He would make my food and then I would eat with my brothers in the living room while my dad started getting ready for work. He would hug and kiss each of us on the forehead before he left.
Brave Journey from Mexico
In 8th grade I got my first phone, and my communication with my parents started improving thanks to Google Translate. For a homework assignment I had to interview my mom and dad about their immigration stories. When I didn’t know the right words to use, I paused to write my questions on Google Translate and show them.
During the interview I learned that my parents had gone through a lot of hardships to try to achieve the American Dream, which they defined as an opportunity for anyone of any race to fulfill their professional goals and make a good living. My mom wanted to be a special education teacher. My dad wanted a high-paying job so he could support his family.
My parents didn’t think they could achieve these goals in Mexico, where there were mostly factory jobs that didn’t pay well. My mom got pregnant with my oldest brother at 16 and dropped out of high school to take care of him. She thought coming to the United States would give her more opportunities.
So when she was 20, my mom boarded a plane to Tijuana, walked through the desert, crossed the border into southern California, and eventually made her way to Brooklyn. My dad was already in the U.S. looking for a job.
They knew they wouldn’t be able to go back to Mexico because they were here without proper documentation. All they could keep from their home country was the language. My mom even had to leave my oldest brother behind with my grandmother at first, because she thought he was too young to make the difficult journey. My brother later joined them in the U.S. when he was 10. My other brothers and I were born in America.
After hearing their story, I saw them as the two bravest people in the world. They had set off for the U.S. not knowing if they would get caught and deported back to Mexico, or if they would even survive the walk through the desert. But they faced those fears for my brothers and me to have a better life than they did. I vowed to work hard in school to make their sacrifices worth it.
My parents seemed to enjoy telling me their story and to be proud of it. They had opened up to me and I wanted to open up to them too, but I didn’t know where to start.
Love Beyond Words
In 9th grade I took a French class and we used a language learning app called Duolingo. I helped my parents set it up to practice English. I started talking to them more in English too. They were glad to be learning so that we could communicate. I started learning Spanish by watching Spanish shows again.
In my parents’ eyes, I was born American, not Mexican like they are. Still, I don’t think they fully understood that once I started school, I would start moving away from their language and culture. My brothers went through the same thing, but they were fast learners who balanced the two languages better than I did. They spoke Spanish fluently with my parents and English fluently at school.
Lately, I have been working more on my Spanish so I can communicate more easily with my parents. I am trying to talk with my friends in Spanish at school so that I’ll improve my pronunciation.
Now my parents and I mostly speak Spanish together. I still use Google Translate when I write them letters or don’t know how to pronounce certain words. Sometimes we speak Spanglish, since they understand more English now than they did a few years ago.
When the language barrier prevents us from fully expressing ourselves, my parents and I still find ways to grow closer. Recently we’ve been sharing music. My parents use YouTube to play me their favorite songs by Timbiriche, Alejandra Guzmán, and Gloria Trevi. Then I put on Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and Imagine Dragons for them.
Despite their busy schedules, my parents come to support me when we have a showcase at school, which is when we display the work we’ve done over the whole semester. They take pictures of me with my artwork and have big smiles plastered across their faces. They hug me so tight, like I mean the whole world to them. In moments like these I understand that we don’t always need words to show the love and care we have for each other.