Breathe in, breathe out. It is all I can do to subdue the quivering in my hands and churning in my stomach. I don’t know where to rest my gaze so my eyes dart from person to person, down at my lap, and at the layers of decor hung up on the walls as if my retinas will burn if I look in one spot too long. Framed photos of a smiling family, colorful crosses, and a few hanging canvases with sayings like “Family is Everything” fill my view. My boyfriend, Rafa, is chatting casually with his siblings and parents, catching up after months of being away from his hometown, El Paso. The lightness in his voice and ease in his stature contrasts sharply with my palpable anxiety. He’s so happy to be home.
“Como estan ustedes?”
“Como te va en la escuela?”
Their words are smooth and swift, like hummingbirds zooming by. Some register in my mind, but most slip from my understanding, leaving me with bits and pieces to string together.
Does Rafa sense how uncomfortable I am? I feel as if I’m flowing in and out of consciousness as my comprehension ebbs and flows.
This is my first time meeting Rafa’s family. As the last one to wake that morning, I walked into a kitchen full of expectant eyes. I usually don’t wake up late, I was just indulging in my solitude before facing the intensely vulnerable experience of introducing myself to Rafa’s parents and 3 siblings as Becca Rodriguez, the dark haired, brown skinned, catholic girl, who cannot speak Spanish.
Feeling as if I was a newborn entering a never-before-seen world, I introduced myself. Buenos dias. Soy Becca. Mucho gusto. The words pushed their way past my lips, feeling so foriegn in my mouth.
Rafa’s family received me warmly, asking questions in Spanish that I struggled to answer but did my best. When they noticed me at a standstill, they switched to English to accommodate me. Oh, how I wish I didn’t need it. Although they each knew English well, Spanish was their family language. The code in which they connected with and loved. My heart yearned to fit in with them. I wanted to understand the witty jokes and sarcastic banter they bounced amongst themselves. I wished I could chime in, revealing a bit of my own edgy humor but it was all just too fast so I remained hidden. I did not grow up speaking Spanish in my home. I scavenged the depths of my knowledge to conjure up simple and broken sentences in Spanish, but my limited experience with this language made keeping up difficult, creating awkward silences as I scrambled my brain for the correct words. Everything I shared was choppy, making conversation painful. I wondered if they could feel the warmth of shame wash over me every time I had to ask “I’m sorry, I don’t understand..can you repeat that in English?” If they couldn’t sense my tension, I’m sure they could see it in my flushed cheeks and rigid shoulders.
Now that we were past the introductions and pleasantries, I sat stiffly, wondering how I could possibly partake in this conversation with my insecurities in a full on frenzie. I prayed no one would ask something I couldn’t understand. A swarm of insults raided my mind. I beat myself up mercilessly.
“How do I not know Spanish?”
“How can I be brown but be so American at the same time?”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Am I just dumb?’
My inner critic was on a rampage, leaving a wake of destruction that ravaged through my body. Hold it together, Becca. Don’t let them see your struggle.
My focus wearied as my mind attempted to sustain the intense focus necessary to hear sentences in spoken Spanish, mentally translate them to English, think of how I would respond, then translate my responses back to Spanish. The pounding I was taking from my inner critic amplified the mental fatigue. Even when I had something to contribute in Spanish, my window to speak up would pass and I was left having to undergo the process all over again. After a while, my brain needed a break and began to wander. My mind drifted to the simple days of my childhood, back when I didn’t question the validity of the color of my skin and the language I spoke.
Growing up in a small conservative Texas town, I was faced with the question “How Mexican are you really?” from time to time. For the most part, my English speaking, Catholic, tight knit family was “Mexican enough” for everyone. I’m a third-generation Mexican. My grandparents grew up in Texas, with the exception of my father’s dad, but we do not have any connection with the family he left behind in Mexico. I’ve never even been able to get a clear answer of what part of the country he’s from. My grandparents, all Mexican, encouraged a more “American” way of life for my parents, which inturn trickled down to my brother and I. I’ve heard various accounts of my grandparents facing hostility and discrimination based on the color of their skin and the language they spoke, but the story of their lives fragmented into a million pieces, each family member having their own version, the day their souls blew away with the wind. Like a sieve, we’ve held onto certain Mexican traditions and let go of others throughout the generations. I’ll never know the true reasoning behind their decisions, but I trust that their choices resonated with the rhythm of their values and love for their children.
I shake myself out of my thoughts and mentally return to the dining table with Rafa’s family. Their hearty laughs and light hearted bickering reminds me of my own family. The love is tangible in this kitchen. My eye catches a chore chart hanging on the wall, each of the 4 siblings’ names scribbled on the white board. Lavar los platos. Sacar la basura. Bañar los perros.
“¿Ustedes todavía usan esto?” Do you all still use this? I ask, pointing to the chore chart meekly. God I hope I said it right.
“Not anymore.” Rafa’s dad replies in English. He smiles and adds, “It reminds us of when we all lived under this roof, so we leave it.” My heart melts. The love. A grin is plastered across his cheeks and his gaze lingers on his childrens’ faces even after they’re done speaking. He studies his children, almost unconvinced that they have grown into adults so quickly. This tenderness adds another dimension to my preconceived ideas of him, constructed from Rafa’s depiction of his father as a serious, by-the-book, disciplined man with the highest standards of his kids. His tough exterior but sweet, caring interior reminds me of my own dad. Oh, how I want them to see me for who I am. I want to belong.
They go back to their conversation and I look up, noticing Rafa’s mom tending to scrambled eggs at the stove. She’s small and delicate, but is quick to crack a joke or offer her opinion, just like my mom. Before I have time to question my decision, my feet are walking over to her side. She peeks over at me hesitantly , a little unsure of what I’m doing or what to say.
“Can I help you cook?” I almost pleaded… craving connection, eager to feel the love that I grew up with and that I now see in front of me. The first thing my mom ever taught me to cook was scrambled eggs. She was patient and kind, sharing her love of cooking with 4 year old me. Now here I am, with the woman who would one day become a mother figure in my life as well, sharing this experience.
Rafa’s mother’s expression softened . “Por supuesto” Of course. We chit chatted, going in between English and Spanish, learning about each other as we cracked the fragile shells, seasoned the yellow goopy mixtures, and waited for the goo to turn to puffy clouds. “My grandma taught me to add milk to the eggs, it makes them fluffier.” I offer, unsure if that was a “family secret”. With a skeptical look that transformed into a smile, Rafa’s mom retrieved the milk from the fridge and added a bit to the pan.
The distance I feel from my Mexican culture slowly dissipates as I’m taken back to the fond memories of creating meals in the kitchen with my own family. Although not being able to speak Spanish made me feel like I “came up short” as a Mexican, my one true connection that I have with my Mexican culture is the food. In my family, we live to cook. Noone can take away the hours of sitting next to my grandma, molding the masa into little circles, spooning creamy camote onto the center, then pinching the edges to create pockets that would soon bake into golden empanadas. I can still feel the salty steam warming my face from the pan of fideo simmering on high as my aunt walked me through each step of the process. The ingredients my grandma threw into the blender to create her fiery yet sweet chile would light up your mouth like fireworks on New Years. My dad’s arroz con pollo could make anyone feel at home. My Sunday mornings spent in my grandma’s house are eternal, cemented into history. Sipping on ice cold Big Red and slurping bowlfuls of homemade menudo. A heaping pile of greasy barbacoa sitting in the middle of the table, ready to be scooped into crunchy corn tortillas.
When the eggs were done, Rafa’s mom and I both carried them on a platter along with bowlfuls of menudo to the table, serving Rafa’s siblings and father. We each sprinkled in cilantro and oregano over the soup and finished off the top with a squirt of tangy lime. The chunk of hearty bread soaked in the spicy juice, becoming soggier by the second. The tension in my stomach has drifted away.
We were just a group of people, enjoying a meal made with love. My insecurities didn’t have a spot at the table. A warm sensation, quite different from the shame that had lit me up earlier, rushed through my body… a sensation I had felt many times sharing a meal with my own family. Home.
I caught Rafa watching me from across the table. My eyes fluttered down instinctually, thinking I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I put too much oregano in the menudo. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to dip the bread in the juice, rather let it soak. But I met Rafa’s eyes again and I didn’t see critique. Just content. He smiled and mouthed “I’m glad you’re here.” 100 pounds of weight I had been hauling on my shoulders turned to powder. Suddenly the pigmentation of my skin or the tongue I spoke didn’t hold so much weight.
I would see that smile over and over again the next 6 years. I’m glad you’re here. Each time I sit at that oval dining table in El Paso, surrounded by framed photos of a smiling family, colorful crosses, and a few hanging canvases with sayings like “Family is Everything”, Spanish glides from my lips easier and easier. Funny thing is, Rafa’s love for me has never increased or wavered depending on how much Spanish I speak. The craving for connection to my ancestral roots remains, but it is no longer at the expense of the validity of my own upbringing.
I stand in my own kitchen, whipping up quesadillas, tacos, flautas, you name it, so I can feel closer to home. I burn the tips of my fingers flipping tortillas, so I can feel the memory of cooking alongside my grandma in her toasty kitchen. I toss fluffy eggs with a touch of milk so I can transport back to 4 year old me, just happy to be in the presence of my mom, not preoccupied with if the color of my skin matches the language I speak. My belonging isn’t tied to a place, but to people. People who speak Spanish. People who don’t speak Spanish. Most importantly, people who are just happy I’m here.