I struggle to connect with my family
April 2, 2017
For a long time, my grandmother absolutely terrified me.
It’s not like she’s a particularly terrifying woman; she’s this little old lady living in a retirement home in Jersey City who will feed you until you burst and not let you leave her house without a gift of some sort, but dread piled in the pit of my stomach every time I had to speak to her on the phone during my childhood.
I was scared because I knew the second I said hello to her, she would launch at a breakneck pace into a conversation I had no chance of understanding.
To this day, my grandmother only speaks Spanish despite living in the United States for over 50 years. For the majority of my life, Spanish was a mystery, the mesmerizing words I would catch slipping from the lips of those in conversations on the outskirts of my life; I would listen in, feeling like an invader stepping foot on foreign land.
It was the food we ordered at my favorite Cuban restaurant, Liborio’s, phone calls between family members and the saying about a frog’s butt that would comfort me whenever I scraped a knee (that sounds weird, I know, but I swear it’s the truth).
Spanish is my dad’s first language, the words that introduced him to life. And I had nothing to do with it. My dad was born in Cojimar, Cuba in the 1960s and spent the early years of his life growing up under Fidel Castro’s Communist regime. He came to the United States with his family on the Freedom Flights, the single largest airborne refugee operation in American history, when he was 5.
The family relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey, and my father was plopped into a life as intelligible to him as my grandmother was to me. Meanwhile, my mom hails from the Bronx. All my life, I’ve never felt entirely in tune with either side.
The area I occupy, the strange in-between I build my half-chicken with rice, half-arroz con pollo house in, is nothing close to new territory but still feels singularly lonely.
One thing I’ve learned living in the overlap of two circles is that you never entirely feel a part of either one.
When I was younger, my father made it a mission for me and my brother to be able to speak Spanish. The fi rst challenge was in teaching up how to roll our Rs like the good little Cubans we were. He even had a double R-laden tongue twister for us to practice with: “que rápido corren los carros, cargados de azúcar del ferrocarril.” (How fast the cars run, loaded with sugar from the railroad.) Much to his chagrin, neither of us were ever able to make the right sound, perfect the trademark trill despite how many times he showed us how to do it.
I didn’t take an actual Spanish class until high school aft er spending three years in middle school French. Now, four years into learning enough Spanish to graduate from high school, knowing a little more than I did before does make me feel better, closer to my family history.
One recent challenge to myself in my quest to learn a little Spanish is to consume some entertainment and news entirely en español; I try to listen to Spanish songs from time to time, reading the lyrics in time to the song and trying to test myself for comprehension. I watch movies entirely in Spanish. (Always with the subtitles on, of course, but still.)
But life doesn’t come with subtitles; watching a movie and having a conversation are entirely diff erent worlds. The entire conversations I’ve had in Spanish are few and far between, but with each one I feel a tinge of pride.
My grandmother recently turned 82, and the phone call loomed over me. I know that I am far from fluent; I know I’ll never sound like a native speaker.
Hell, I can’t even roll my Rs.
As I dialed her number, I rushed to construct sentences in my mind: OK, I have to tell her happy birthday, I have to ask her how she is, and I have to tell her I love her. Wait, do I refer to her as tú or usted? She picked up the phone and said hello. Or, rather, hola! And the fear melted away.
To her, it doesn’t matter if I’m half-Cuban or half-anything. I’m just her granddaughter, the one she’ll cook piles of food for when I visit soon. The one she’ll fawn over on her tiny couch, saying ay, que linda (oh, how pretty) as we watch a telenovela that might as well be in gibberish to me.
As for me, I’ll keep trying to make my lopsided abode in the in-between my home.