That blow in the night, which gave me concussion, scarred me, I think, forever–put a stain of darkness upon my brow and opened a sinister door in my brain, a door though which I am regularly visited by messengers whose words just escape me, by glimpses of worlds I can never quite grasp, by grief, exultation, and panic…
In the very early 1970’s I headed off to kindergarten in a suburban public school. As a first generation American child I knew almost no English, save the few words I had learned on The Electric Company and Sesame Street. While my fellow classmates sported ripped jeans and moccasins or sneakers and vests, I resembled a living-breathing time capsule from 1952. Donned in a very short, ruffled lace dress with black patent leather shoes (that my grandmother would shine each morning) I embarked in a haze of complete ignorance which in this particular case bore no resemblance to bliss.
That school, in that dry Ohio landscape, had a few African American students (who sat together at lunch and in classes and played exclusively together at recess). For the most part, the homogeneous fabric of the population was white, Anglo American. And then there was me–a chubby Euro-Latina with blue eyes.
The world was vast and it did not, at that time, include Chipotle or the Internet or hummus sold at the A&P. We bought our cheeses and meats at a tiny import store where Greek yogurt and olives were scooped up from big wooden barrels and sold by the pound. Spanish families made chorizo and blood sausages and salted hams together in a big community effort. This was the food we ate at home and this was the food that I took to school.
Imagine if you will, a lunchroom of fifty kindergarten kids with peanut butter and jelly-filled Partridge Family lunch boxes and Evel Knievel thermoses full of Kool-Aid. Now imagine me sitting down to lunch with aromatic imported goat cheese and anise-flavored cookies dipped in drizzling, sticky honey. I can almost see the smells in comic-book form wafting from my brown bag like the dust on Pig-Pen from Peanuts.
This is the basic scene when my friend Jennifer P. (differentiated by the last initial because there were no less than four Jennifers in my class that year) told a lunch lady that I could speak Spanish. The hair-netted lady looked down (literally and figuratively) upon my tightly braided head and said, “Oh yea, what can she say?” There was a hush, everyone at our long table looked at me. My little encouraging friend said, “Go on, say something!” This was my opportunity to impress….
“Me llamo Sylvia, encantada de conocerla.” I responded.
To which she replied, “Ha! If that’s Spanish then I’m a monkey’s patooti!” and proceeded to shout gibberish in imitation of my previous sentence.
Amidst arguments from Jennifer P. (whose IQ at five was considerably higher than the lunch lady’s cognitive scores at forty), the rest of the kids laughed and hollered, called me monkey, grabbed my lunch and threw it in the garbage. They told me to go back to the zoo I came from and if I would have known the way, I surely would have gone.
All these years later, I am struck by how much the world has changed and at the same time, how little it has changed. I’m amazed at how many bridges have been crossed and yet, how humans continue to disrespect and disregard one another with vehement voices and violence. There are of course, instances of great compassion and kindness, but I wonder if it will ever be possible to bring all people of all colors and theologies together? Is this a possibility for the human race? Will there ever be peace and understanding among the modern-day monkey’s patooties?
The other day someone asked me how old my children are,
I answered 17 and nearly 15.
“You’re almost done,” he remarked.
“I’ll never be done,” I answered.
Later, when I thought about this conversation the truth
struck me in a fierce way. I will never, ever be done.
I will always be their mama to infinity and beyond.
We always had to talk in hushed whispers. Occasionally my grandmother would forget, her voice raising, her r’s rolling. We were strange, we were strangers.
Those old farmers, in those old Ohio fields tilled my native state’s soil and yet, I was a foreigner.
To be a first generation American is always an experience in divided loyalties. To be a first generation Latina in the 1970’s in the rural, flat expanses of mid-west corn rows, was a lesson in split personality disorder.
In the summer of 1974 we visited my cousins in Spain. We walked along cobbled-stone, narrow roads while the neighbors shouted, “The Americans are here!” to one another.
Earlier in that very year, I had started school. Dressed in a pristine, pressed dress with patent leather shoes and tightly braided hair, my casual t-shirt and jeans-clad classmates had sarcastically asked me, “What planet are you from?”
These memories float around in my mind 40 years later as I ride along Route 376 in my adopted industrial city of adulthood.
I’m riding behind a shiny red pick-up truck. A bumper sticker reads, “You’re in America now, speak English!”.
I hear my grandmother’s voice, her laugh, her forceful cadence. I see her in my mind’s eye, asking for the heads to be left on the fish at the market. And I recall the horrified looks on the faces of those meat-counter ladies at the downtown Kresge’s.
“You want the head left on the fish?”
“Si, si la cabeza, thank you!”
They would exchange a look of disgust.
But these native Americans were not Native American. Their story wasn’t so different from mine, the main difference is that it had been played out a couple generations before me. They had forgotten their own history, their customs, their language, the stories of