• Jamie Figueroa on the Fraught Process of (Re)Claiming the Spanish Language

    “With this tongue, with this mouth, I speak, I hold, I force out, I take in.”

    Somewhere over Arizona, in the back of a plane, two old women filled the seats beside me. Next to the aisle, I cast my eyes down as if studying the shoes in nearby rows. I had watched the women closely when I’d boarded. They wore bright, billowy cotton sundresses embroidered across the chest. Their black and graying braids swinging across their lower backs. Short sleeves revealed loose skin that hung down from the undersides of their arms despite the colorful shawls they wore.

    Article continues below

    They spoke only in Spanish.

    I had never been to California, nor had I ever been in the company of Spanish-speaking people who did not also speak English. It was only the second time I had ever been on an airplane. I’d just turned fifteen and was traveling to visit my eldest sister, who had been studying Russian at the Monterey Bay Defense Language Institute. A Russian linguist for the United States Army, she loved languages but did not speak our mother’s first language. My mother wanted me out of the house so she could be thoroughly depressed with her new husband—the golf pro with the terrible posture who tried to replicate Kevin Costner’s performance in Dances with Wolves.

    The women unwrapped food—soft yellow corn tortillas that smelled of lard and spices. Broken bits of pork tamales and red chili stained their creased hands. I listened to them speak their language. Seeing them offered comfort and nourishment, the knowledge and familiarity of culture and language evident in their display. I was set apart, and in that distance was a kind of longing, failure, and hollowness. A need for my own stories.

    I viewed the rootedness of these two as a form of protection from a dominant culture that did not privilege them. I imagined the connection to their ancestors whole and intact given their ability to use the same words, the same phrases. They seemed to be undeniably who they were. They stood out against the rest of us, who blended into one another with our monochromatic clothing and language. As they ate, I listened to the soft, warm sounds filling their mouths, a song. The melody of it.

    Article continues below
    It was something I wanted to be included in, claimed by, something I yearned for, in fact, but I gave in to the fear instead.

    The only time I heard my mother speak her language was on the phone, in the privacy of our home, behind locked doors and windows, where she was out of earshot and safe. She did not have the same confidence and ease around her mother tongue that the two women on the plane from Phoenix to San Jose shared. She was not protected by a link to ancestry. Instead, she required bolts and walls to protect her from the shame of disconnectedness, contained by and within the overculture. The legacy of U.S. English-only policies in government institutions landed on my mother as punishment and continued its impact on my own tongue, my own ears.

    I tried to separate myself from the women on the plane, peel myself away as if a husk. I was afraid of the potency of their difference. It was something I wanted to be included in, claimed by, something I yearned for, in fact, but I gave in to the fear instead. A general but pervasive fear instilled in me by my mother’s surrender to assimilation, her belief that to reflect one’s origins, to emphasize oneself as a person of color, as a person from the Caribbean diaspora, was to draw direct public attention, putting oneself in the crosshairs of racism.

    My torso bent into the aisle along with my legs and feet. The flight attendant made her way toward the back of the plane, snapping open cans of ginger ale and Diet Coke. I could see her considering my awkward shape. The baby two rows in front of us popped her head above the seat and jammed her fingers into her rosebud mouth. Black eyes watching.

    At some point, the two women turned to me, their faces welcoming and tender as I watched their wet lips bloom with Spanish words, their tongues speckled with crumbs of tortilla.

    If only I could’ve spoken to them of their beauty, acknowledged their value to me. If only I could’ve laughed with them.

    Article continues below

    “I don’t speak”—my stammering barely audible and filled with shame—“Spanish.”

    They fell silent. The younger of the two said something to her companion. I shifted in my seat, unable to escape their stares. The elder one, seated next to me, placed her warm doughy palm on my forearm. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back. In her nostrils, an abundance of hair that made me think of elusive feral creatures—dark and stubbled in fur. Spanish poured out of her mouth and flowed over me. I’ll never know what it was that she said.

    I did not learn until a decade or so later that there was a phrase, a protocol for the tradition of being blessed by the elders in one’s family. I did not know as a teenager how to say “bendíceme.” But my need to not feel lost, a mystery to others and to myself, was so great that I would have considered asking strangers to bless me, as if that would make them kin, as if that would moor me to their strength.

    What did they see when they looked at me? I wonder if they perceived the shape of my body bent away from them, my posture, as a symbol of an internal distortion. So strange and awkward in my own skin, a stranger to the connection offered by sister cultures sharing the same language, as if I were yet another souvenir of conquest in U.S. history. Still, I received their kindness as a blessing, for this girl becoming woman, unable to stand in the entirety of herself. They shared their wisdom and protection for a moment, skin to skin, spirit to spirit.

    *

    Article continues below

    You filled my mouth with water, my ears with water in my mother’s womb—her thoughts, her dreams, all that she felt swam through me, merged with my cells, mi vida. A consciousness in words, con una palabra y una más. A song sung, a song singing through existence. My mother, her mother, her mother’s mother and on the liquid note goes—carried. My tongue learned to recognize a sound, not the word, not the definition. It was receiving you in private, in secret, intimate as bare feet on the kitchen floor, bewitching hours when sleep and dreams of shores left us. Agua, not water. You were never hard and sharp; you flowed. Open at the beginning and end, you were always in motion. Carried on the currents of my mother’s voice, two words she never submitted to English: agua and mi’jita. A sound, a song, an ache, a place that encircled me, shaping words unknown but accepted. You were my name. You call me when she calls me. Out of all her daughters, I am “mi’jita.”

    For years, I hear this name nowhere beyond the island of our family, from no other mother, for no other daughter. It is ours. Hers and mine. Three syllables braid the pulsing cord we share. My heart understands your meaning, my heart that feels but cannot speak. You call me when she calls me. I belong nowhere but to her and to your soft song. Each time it is sung is a moment of being held, claimed, submerged in what I cannot contain. The life of my mother, the waters of my mother, the mother of oceans, which I receive into my own waters, onto the shores of my own life. I, the daughter beyond any border of language. En español, solamente. Mi’jita.

    *

    Is this how it happened?

    When the Spanish packed for the trip, supplies, changes of wardrobe, and bottles of wine were loaded into carved wooden chests. They neglected to include their women. The women were left in Valencia and Barcelona, bent like paper dolls into seated positions, hinged to the edges of chairs, pressed flat and displayed on beds of silk and lace.

    Article continues below

    The Spanish were not like the English, who wadded up their women, put them under one arm, and went about their colonizing. No, the Spanish men, after months at sea, arrived in rat-infested ships, as horny as the day they entered the gates of puberty, only worse, as they were grown men possessed by the frenzy of conquest, of any kind of control, the sharpest of their swords between their legs, swords that they stabbed deep into the native women—Taínas—who, unlike their Spanish sisters, had bodies that worked of their own volition, legs that could run and leap, hips that twisted and rotated, heads that turned to see things exactly as they were. They were not dolls. They tried their best to fight, but still, their legs and arms were bent into positions unnatural to their joints. If a woman is not a doll, how do you bend her into submission? the Spanish must have wondered (do most men secretly wonder this?), even if only briefly before they forced their weight, popping joints out of sockets, twisting off heads. And one must not forget about those chained and rotting in the belly of Spanish ships for months while the men stood on deck looking out into the distance, making predictions about the future and pissing into the sea. The African natives— Mandingo, Yorba, Bantu—who had been stacked head to toe with great efficiency to accommodate as many as inhumanly possible.

    Any woman not Spanish, not European, a savage.

    Wild and dark.

    They were scantily clad and crouching with their hairy pockets of sex unfolded toward the earth, invoking spirits that need not be named, remembering ancestors, birthing, being birthed/rebirthed. All this while swallowing the milk of the moon, babies real or imagined, offerings of creativity tied to their backs, singing into seeds and gourds and shells.

    The church waved from behind the cross, condoning it all. Conquistadors increased their force, severed voice, severed breath. Their sicknesses spread.

    “Peace be with you.” Clergymen blew kisses at the genocide. Between verses of “Hail! Father, Son and Holy Ghost,” hot irons stamped the foreheads of the enslaved, both African and Indigenous.

    Now, more than five hundred years later, look at my face. What do you see?

    *

    I invite you again, but you refuse to stay. Vuelve. Look at me when I tell you te quiero. Instead, you lean farther away, just out of my reach. I try to hold you in my mouth, but you insist on dissolving too quickly, before I can even shape you into sound. Before I can express myself, before I can be heard, you’re gone again. Stop teasing my ears with this seduction that goes nowhere. You were in me, of me, once. Now look how far you’ve gone. Miles and miles away, beneath other stars, across other oceans, to where millions of other mouths mock me with their ease. Give me one perfect dose that coats my tongue. Everything brightens with your expression, flushes with vitality, blooms into fullness. This is the way it should taste. This is the way it should feel. This is the way it should sound. Every part of my body wants you. And yet here we go, round and round again.

    Como se dice?

    No entiendo.

    Repita, por favor.

    But we are more intimate than the combinations of these consonants, these vowels, than the sound created as it speaks into the void, conjuring. A vibration, a resonance. Curled like a seed in wet darkness as it starts to sprout, another grandmother’s tongue parting lips, and there is me.

    *

    I hold the memory close as if it were this:

    In the ninth grade, in small-town Ohio, Señora Miller taught the Spanish class how to roll their r’s. She was stocky with cropped white hair, a thick jaw, and a short neck. The hems of her shapeless dresses floated around her ankles; her flats were round at the toe like a toddler’s shoes. She had been a tourist in Spanish-speaking countries, and sometimes her accent and her attire reflected this. Something bright, something embroidered.

    “Clase,” she said. “Repitan, por favor: carne, carro…”

    I was the only student in the class whose mother’s first language was Spanish. I was the only student in the class who was not white.

    Señora Miller spoke more Spanish to me in the first nine weeks of that grading period than my mother had in fifteen years. Still, my tongue did not need instruction on how to roll my r’s. When I was called on, they tumbled out perfectly, as if they had been waiting since my birth to show off. They put Señora Miller’s r’s to shame. She stared at me with a tight grin, tugging at her silver clip-on earrings with her manicured fingernails.

    The class was stricken by silence, except for Davey Smith’s perpetually congested breathing, a thick static in my ears. Stephen Johnson, hidden in the corner, bugged his eyes out at me, pulled down his bottom lip, used his tongue to make a top lip—a gross exaggeration meant to mimic my own set. The class erupted in laughter. Fingers pointing, fleshy little knives. I was the odd one who knew how to pronounce words in Spanish but didn’t know what they meant. I was the joke, not unlike my mother, who in 1959, fresh from Borikén, sat in a classroom, puzzling over pages of English text, trying her best to finish first, as she thought that was the point of the game. She’d rush to the teacher’s desk and watch as every answer was circled with red pen. Then she’d strut back to her desk with the carcass of her test, bloodied by red ink in her hands

    “How stupid,” she would comment when telling me the story, laughing. “I mean, I was so stupid.”

    Even though it was more painful than amusing, her giggling was infectious. I would ask her for help with my Spanish homework, quizzing her on vocabulary. Her English was without a hint of an accent, but when she spoke in Spanish, there were beautiful and surprising fits of sound.

    “But how do you spell it?” I’d ask her.

    She’d shrug.

    “What does it mean?” I’d ask her.

    She did not say, I did not go to school until I came to the U.S. She did not say, There are different kinds of Spanish influenced by region and by the people and languages it subsumed. She did not know to say this.

    The sigh, the innocence and desperation distorting her face as if she were nine years old again. For the rest of her life, she would always believe herself to be that stupid little girl who can’t learn what she most needs to know.

    *

    The words I had to learn the English translation for: bobo, caca, carajo, culi.

    *

    There’s another kind of language test with a white man’s mother. The mother of the man I pledged to love at twenty-one, whom I cannot bring myself to call anything other than “his mother” no matter how fond of her I become. The tests are always the same, whether they are from Spanish or English speakers. Prove yourself. One evening, after his mother had made a meatloaf dinner and we’d stuffed ourselves and washed and dried the dishes, we fell into a conversation about food, about the Southwest, about the Spanish language.

    “Do you speak it?” his mother asked me. I cannot describe her look. Was I known or unknown to her?

    “I can, some,” I said, already feeling the hot sting and prick of shame covering my body—the shame of not being fluent and the shame of being different from them. Both were perpetual states of failure.

    “Speak it,” she said. “Say something.”

    Born in 1926 and originally from Missouri, with daily behaviors still impacted by her memories of the Great Depression, she was intensely lacking in exposure to and knowledge of the Spanish language, or of any cultures that spoke it. A kind and generous woman, albeit ignorant of realities beyond her own, she meant no harm.

    I could’ve made a joke, I guess, or given a thoughtful but brief excuse, but I felt so small there, in her kitchen, as if I were looking up at my first husband’s family from the bottoms of their shoes. How do you explain that as the felt experience of oppression? A smear on the bottom of their shoes—how much smaller and more nonthreatening could I have been?

    I had attempted to blend into the family, with charcoal cardigans, casual slacks, modest earrings that didn’t extend beyond my lobes, and my recent haircut—a straightened blunt bob with bangs—desperately trying to emulate my husband’s sister, who was a good twenty years older than me.

    Instead of laughing off the microaggression, I responded in earnest. I pulled out a phrase that I remembered from high school five years before, “Vamos a dar un paseo.”

    “Huh?” she said, snickering.

    “Vamos a dar un paseo.”

    Let’s go for a walk, as in let’s leave this place where we are and find someplace else, as in let’s allow our bodies to move us, to carry us beyond this moment, this room, this house, this neighborhood block, this question, and in our gaits take comfort that there are some things that we simply know how to do. Some things we will never forget.

    She looked at me closely, the corners of her lips still curled, and asked for more. I thought of my sister’s husband, who had learned Spanish in rural Indiana and could produce the following phrase just like the recording that had been played in my school, years and miles away: “Una Coca-Cola, por favor, y un café.” Training for high school students who would become tourists, who would need to be served.

    When my voice seized, my eyes searching the dirty dishwater for soap bubbles, she looked at her husband, then her son, shook her head, and, as if I weren’t there, said, “She doesn’t know how.”

    *

    There comes a time when you are everywhere, with lovers, with friends, on street signs and billboards, beside the English on all packaging and public notifications. In my home, on the radio, in the songs I hum, in the poetry I read, in my prayers in the high desert of the Land of Enchantment, where I live, and on my mother’s island, la Isla del Encanto, where I return. You brush up against me, wrap your tail around me, force my hand to meet you. Insist on being held. Everyone knows someone like me, a fumbler, a wounded tongue, who can understand what’s being said but is quiet, slow to respond. Who tries to hide in plain sight. Who still feels the punishment, the torture, who cringes at the expectations, the anticipation of having to perform. Who can never remember, no matter how many conjugations later—past tense, present tense, future tense; verbs ending in –ir, –er, –ar; regular verbs; irregular verbs. Spanish-speaking families in the U.S. and in the diaspora are full of them.

    Look at us together, a fondness. Intimacy. Underneath everything I thought you were, there are surprises—Arabic words, four thousand accounted for. Not to mention all the Native languages. What else are you concealing? What else has been obscured?

    *

    On the island studying Spanish, I befriend another nontraditional student, una colombiana. We share a dorm suite. During the day we walk through the rain, lose our flip-flops in puddles, and she tells stories of snakes. What to sing, how to move when crossing a river so as not to draw them to you. At night she speaks Spanish to her Puerto Rican husband, who is stateside with their two young children. We start to copy each other. She rolls her pant legs in wide cuffs above her sandals; I slick my hair back. We order the same meal from the same pickup window, echo each other’s laughs and gestures. Then, I abandon her for my notebook, retreat as I struggle with wanting to write about the overwhelming experiences en la tierra madre more than I want to have the experience itself. To be captured by a moment or to capture it. Decades later I’ll understand how they both exist, one inside the other intrinsic as breath—the inhale and the exhale.

    It is my prayer of connection, of resilience, and it is heard deep inside me as the language spirit stirs.

    En la biblioteca de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, not one word of English. The more stories, the more books, the more history, the more resistance. Before cell phones were all-knowing, I thumbed through card catalogs, opened one universe bound in hardcover after another. Lost. Found. Lost. I tried to speak like my mother, phrases meant to command, words half swallowed, broken and remade words, a kind of Spanish creole. I have to keep myself still when I recite “Danza Negra” by Luis Palés Matos. It’s a memorization assignment from my language instructor, a practice of enunciation. The words produce a percussion, activate music. The poem is an instrument that plays my mouth. My face flushes with blood; my tongue remembers how to dance.

    *

    In her 2023 interview with Tom Power of the podcast Q, Cree interdisciplinary artist Christa Couture shared what her language coach, Charlotte Ross, expressed to her. Couture, committed to learning Cree but unable to include it in her life in the ways she would’ve liked, wore headphones in the recording studio as she laid the audio track for the animated series based on her memoir, How to Lose Everything. In her ears, the voice of her language coach feeding her one word at a time. Ross shared with Couture their Indigenous cultural understanding of “a language spirit residing within you, in your blood somewhere—no matter who you are,” and that “any time we spend with that language, either speaking it or listening to it, we feed that spirit, we nurture it, and it strengthens.” Couture spoke about how moved she was to feel the language waking up inside her body, the sensation of it being a profound experience despite her limited ability. There is a joy, there can be a joy, when speaking a simple word or a simple phrase for no other reason, no other purpose or function, than to feel its vibration in your body, to hear its sound in your voice in your own ears.

    It makes me think I’ve had it wrong all along. That my own orientation to speaking the language of my ancestors has been its own ongoing war, another conquest. Is there another way to be with it? Instead of acquiring it and dominating it, could I patiently tolerate an unfolding? Could I guard that tender, unformed space? Bear witness to what rises from beneath the Spanish and shows in the English we use— hammock/hamaca/jamáka, barbecue/barbacoa/barabicu, hurricane/ huracán/huracan, maize/maíz/mahis—voices of the land speaking before the Spanish renamed it? Taíno. Por que dak’toká Taíno, también.

    *

    We fall apart. I fail you. You fail me. I long for you again and have to relearn the most basic words, the most elementary phrases. You refuse to become me. Will this never work out? Will we never work out? I reject you. I reject myself. I crave you again. I embarrass myself trying. I find myself resenting the white women who speak you better than I ever will. Who are praised, who have no scars from you, no lineage of baggage. Who show you off with no understanding of the pain inherent in their privilege.

    Spanish.

    Hispanic.

    Latino/a. X.

    Indígeno/a. X.

    Africano/a. X.

    How do you say x again?

    My sympathetic nervous system is deployed. Fight, flight, or freeze. Wernicke’s language center of the brain is put on lockdown. I am frozen.

    *

    What now? What to do with this thing, this desire, this burden, of my mother’s mother tongue?

    How many of us are there? Children of la isla, Borikén, in the diaspora. Where there is only English. A decoration of Spanish here and there.

    Like an unkept garden in the densely overgrown brush of what has been habituated. There is what will keep growing on its own, an invasive species. Colonization of the tongue, the mouth—the feeding, the being fed, the surviving, the intimate acceptance and holding of pleasure. The naming. With this tongue, with this mouth, I speak, I hold, I force out, I take in. What is the shape of shame, or the temperature, the texture, that always accompanies it when I try to force it down? Always threatening to choke me.

    In moments, there has been more ease and understanding. In most others, confusion, humiliation. The rupture is at its greatest when I try to speak the language of my Native ancestors. There I go, frozen— unable to hear, speak, or see—again.

    You, Spanish, are at once familiar and forever unknown. Still, I call you in, when addressing a class of students or an audience of readers, along with the Taíno you’ve concealed and consumed, only to explain that I don’t speak either with any real ability to communicate successfully. Rather, it’s an invocation to my ancestors that they are welcome and that I acknowledge, appreciate, and include them despite the severance I often feel. Despite the oceans of time and space between us. It is my prayer of connection, of resilience, and it is heard deep inside me as the language spirit stirs.

    __________________________________

    From Mother Island: A Daughter Claims Puerto Rico by Jamie Figueroa. Copyright © 2024. Available from Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

    Jamie Figueroa
    Jamie Figueroa
    Jamie Figueroa is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer (Catapult 2021), which was short-listed for the Reading the West Book Award and long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, was an Indie Next pick, a Good Morning America must-read book of the month, and was named a most anticipated debut of the year by Bustle, Electric Literature, The Millions, and Rumpus. A member of the faculty in the MFA Creative Writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Figueroa has published writing in American Short Fiction, Emergence Magazine, Elle, McSweeney’s, Agni, The New York Times, and the Boston Review, among other publications. A Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) alum, she received a Truman Capote Award and was a Bread Loaf Rona Jaffe Scholar. Boricua (Afro-Taíno) by way of Ohio, Figueroa is a longtime resident of northern New Mexico.





    More Story
    Alan Minskoff on Why He Loves Audiobooks We’re celebrating AudioFile’s Behind the Mic podcast all week with highlights of our contributors. Today host Jo Reed...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

    x