I am returning to a culture kitty-corner to my own, taking it back one syllable at a time.
Do not mistake me – I am bleached bone white, my own heritage a mess of marinara sauce and good beer, of speaking with gestures and words in equal parts. I have no true claim to Spanish or the brilliant mix of northern Mexican and central Spain culture with which I was dip-dyed as a child. I only have luck and gratitude in spades.
I started studying Spanish at age 5, my teacher a patient but gently feared Mexican woman. She barely stood taller than her charges as we toddled through simple vocabulary. After every test, I would flip the paper over and write out every Spanish word I remembered – just so mi profesora understood that I was learning. I was trying! Some days, if I finished particularly fast, I would draw accompanying pictures. I drew out my whole family on a test about professions, labeling every member, and mi profesora wrote a note to me – ‘Krista, this is very nice but you know you don’t have to do it, right?’
When I was in sixth grade, I had my first dream in Spanish. It was only a moment, just three sentences about the weather or the sky between two old ladies, but I raced to school the next morning with fire in my blood. I told mi profesora and she smiled, clapping me on the arm. To dream in another language is a mark of learning so personal, so deeply rooted in the person, that it leaks through their subconscious. Soon thereafter, we began learning new idioms and I drew an idiom machine. Mi profesora laughed so hard at the dumb little figures, their eyes wide, as they walked into the machine and came out with ties and calculators.
I turned 13 in a junior level Spanish class. The older kids sang to me in Spanish, their voices cracking and hesitant as they moved through the lyrics slowly. I had memories of my fifth grade class singing it the same way, and I smiled. The year before I graduated, I had run out of Spanish classes to take. I had read Spanish novels and written Spanish poems and the school could offer me nothing more.
The winter of my freshman year, a Spanish-speaker stole my tongue. My almost-mother tongue, the language with which I traded jokes in my youth, the language of my favorite poet whose work I read aloud with zest, everything. He stole everything. I left the language that I had so loved, whose heart still beat in my chest, and I crawled away. I couldn’t live with that sound on my tongue, not without picturing his face.
My love is returning to me through careful practice – gentle dips into the vocabulary I first learned to speak through milk teeth. There are splashes of the grammatical structures through which I first understood linguistics and I am so lucky to say that the language never left me. Not completely, not willingly. It lingered below my jaw until I could open my mouth again.
And now, I speak.
“…todo me lleva a ti,
como si todo lo que existe:
aromas, luz, metales,
fueran pequeños barcos que navegan
hacia las islas tuyas que me aguardan.”
-de Pablo Neruda