My daughters are humming and making hand motions, singing “Way up in the sky, the little birds fly,” a folk song my husband grew up with, while I get them ready for bed. I don’t know the lyrics well, and I hum as they make bird wings with their hands. My 6-year-old asks, “Mama, did you sing this song when you were a little girl?” I shake my head, thinking of how small moments like this expose the breaches between my childhood and that of my daughters, the gaps between memories and places.
I did not grow up with the same lullabies as my husband, whose first language is English. I moved to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico in early elementary school and worked hard to learn English, an incomprehensibly nonintuitive language to someone whose first language is phonetic. My childhood memories are etched in Spanish, inflected with phrases and colloquialisms difficult to anchor outside of a small Caribbean island. The words of my early childhood drip with sun and warmth, fast waves emanating easily from my lips like the salsa music on my mother’s car radio. While now fluent and nearly devoid of any accent, in English, it flows through my lips distinctly and always more slowly. The pacing is simply different to my ear. My voice is lower in English, more severe. In Spanish, it is higher, nuanced and flowing. I am undoubtedly a different iteration of myself in each language.
Despite many trips to see relatives, the world of my daughters has been shaped primarily in English, absent the trilling “r” and the swoop of the “ñ.” For me, there is a sadness at the lack of continuity, at the idea that the sweetness of my grandmother’s stories, told as she told them while sipping her café con leche, could end with me. I make an effort to speak to my daughters in Spanish, but it hasn’t yet been enough to achieve fluency. I grieve for an intangible something I want to retain. As my girls get older, there is an increasing sense of urgency to explain, teach and reclaim Spanish, with its irreverence and layered history. As family lore echoes farther back in my memory, the retelling of stories falls short without the same words and rhythm familiar to me. The tongue is the conduit for another person within, its cadence a keeper of memory. If I do not teach my daughters, they will not know me, their mother, fully.
Perhaps it is because I am now close to the age my mother was when we came to the United States that I have a new appreciation for holding onto my mother tongue and passing it down, making my daughters the custodians of a lineage and language that is also theirs. My daughter knows her Baba, as she calls my mother, speaks with an accent, but what does that accent mean to her? Will she understand that an accent is a living thing, the guardian of another language and the cultural history it underlies? Will she intuit that behind the cadence of her grandmother’s words – even behind my own speech – are lifetimes shaped by words and sounds so different from the ones she learns in school? Will she grasp the challenge it is to create a whole life in a language other than the one that lives inside of your head?
I think of how common this curious kind of grief must be to any parent who has emigrated. You want your children to bloom where they are planted and firmly be of a place. Yet you want them to know and honor their origins because that is what made you as their parent who you are, and is therefore a piece of who they are.
As a scholar and language educator, the irony of struggling to teach my children my native language, when teaching others comes easily, strikes me as tragicomic. Yet it makes sense that what is intimate is harder to undertake, more difficult to feel you are doing right. Thus far I have been frozen by the specter of failure, and likely creating anxiety about the very thing I want my children to attain. I look at my girls, so young and open, and it strikes me that I need to begin to meet them where they are, to see the gaps in shared experience as a space of possibility. Rather than a wedge, language can be a path that leads you to your roots while stepping out on your own.
Before bedtime, I sing them “Pollito, chicken, gallina, hen, lápiz, pencil…” a bilingual preschool song I learned in Puerto Rico. We made up hand motions and danced around the couch, stepping between languages. My mother tongue is Spanish. Their mother tongue will be English and Spanish, maybe Spanglish. I will work harder to give them the vocabulary and the tools to find themselves in translation. Language is heavy with histories and lineages, but I want my children to be light in spirit, to carry the weight of what they have been gifted however they so choose.
Dotson-Renta is a scholar of romance languages and postcolonial literature. She writes, edits and Tweets.
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