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