Skip to Content

Mother Tongue

Jennifer De Leon

"Brown Car" by Layla Cuilan. YoungArts.

Early one morning, a few minutes past six, I stumbled into my two-year-old son’s bedroom and as I lifted him out of his crib he announced, “I want meatballs.” This was just after I had said, “Good morning, mi amor.” Had he not heard me? “You want meatballs?” I asked, just to be sure I heard him right. He was wearing his favorite monkey pajamas. “Sí,” he said. At that moment, like any moment where he speaks Spanish, where a Spanish word instead of an English one escapes his little mouth, I instantly feel a fierce floating happiness, that all is right in the world and in my life and his life or at least in that sentence, Sí. In those moments, he could ask for anything and I would probably give it to him. Meatballs at 6 a.m. Why not?

My first language was Spanish. Or, so I’ve been told. When I was a young child, my family and I only spoke Spanish at home. It was my older sister who brought English to our two-bedroom apartment in Boston. She was the one who diligently did her worksheets and packets of homework while seated on the plastic-covered couch. Once, I asked my mother why she didn’t know the answer to one of the worksheet questions, but my sister did. You’re old, I said, as if old people knew everything there ever was to know, as if learning stopped at a certain point, like growing in height. My mother laughs when she tells this story.

After English invaded our home, displacing Spanish word after Spanish word— first through those photocopied packets and later through television and eventually my own crinkly-covered library books—Spanish became the stepchild language. I didn’t want to play with her anymore. She was weird. Cartoons were in English. Movies too. We heard English at the mall and the doctor’s office. So my sister and I spoke mostly in English. When my parents talked to us, which was always in Spanish, we replied in English. Then, we moved to a town twenty miles west of Boston where my parents bought their first house. My dad built a fence, painted it white. Bit by bit, episode after colorful cartoon episode, grade after grade in my sunny suburban elementary school, where it seemed everyone spoke in English, even the mailman, my world continued to be eclipsed with the sounds and songs and sayings of English.

The summer I was nine years old, my parents took us—by then there were three of us, all girls—to visit Guatemala, their homeland. I can practically sip those sensory details through a straw. Thin cucumber slices sliding in bowls of lime juice and salt. The smoke-filled streets as we squatted in the back of an uncle’s pick-up truck and swished past the city and onto dirt roads bumpy as logs. The sound of iron gates opening and closing, people everywhere, in and out, hola, adiós. Then, a sudden longing on my part: How I wished to move between two languages! But my Spanish was nearly lost by then. So in Guatemala I used English whenever I could and when I was absolutely forced to speak in Spanish—say, to my thousand-year-old tías—I would do so with hunched shoulders, a lowered chin, furrowed brows. Painfully, the words would crumble out and with them, my aunts would giggle like girls. I clumsily chopped verbs, failed to use the subjunctive properly, addressed elders with a casual tú instead of usted. So I began using Spanglish. And I can’t say I ever really stopped.

On that first trip to Guatemala, to the land my father still longs to return to someday, to the home my mother carries in her heart but vows never to inhabit again, I found other ways to communicate. I used gestures or made up words like watchear and la ketchup. Or, I begged my older sister to translate. She had a tighter grip on Spanish, perhaps because she was the first born and had more time to absorb the sounds and rhythms of the language, before I came along. During our visit to Guatemala my parents, it seemed, were around but not available. Either they remained plugged into hushed conversations around the table at night, adults sipping black coffee in which they dipped torn pieces of pan dulce, or they were totally unreachable in the midst of back-slapping laughter with neighbors and relatives they hadn’t seen in over a decade. So I was left to fend for my own words in which to express what it was I wanted.

What I really wanted was to start fresh, to learn a language that was mostly my own, and not to subject myself to the burning humiliation of getting a word wrong in Spanish. So in sixth grade, when students were asked to select one language elective—French or Spanish—I imagined myself grabbing fistfuls of French words like a gambler extending his arms across a felt-covered blackjack table to collect his winning chips. I was greedy. I wanted three languages, I said. I wasn’t yet aware that I would always mourn the days when I only reached for words in Spanish, for the nights when I dreamed effortlessly in Spanish. Back then, though, I rationalized, it wouldn’t matter—I was learning French!

In college, like in high school, I excelled in French and I ended up double majoring in International Relations and French Studies. I could easily write a five-page academic paper in French and pass an oral exam. And during my junior year when I lived with a host family in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, I could argue with my six-year-old host-brother, in French. He liked to jump on the mustard-yellow leather couch in the high-ceiling formal living room. Arrête! Arrête maintenant! I’d say, without trying, without making those mini-bridges of translation in my mind before my lips moved. French came easier to me than Spanish.

Sometime in my twenties I read on a magnet: What would you do if you just gave yourself permission? The question throbbed in my subconscious, or my brain, or my heart, or wherever these questions live and feed and eventually demand your attention. What would I do if I could just give myself permission? I had never gone to Guatemala by myself, alone. So I gave myself permission to learn, or perhaps relearn, Spanish. I read, wrote, listened, spoke, and yes, eventually dreamed in Spanish.

During the immediate years that followed, I would return to Guatemala again and again, even getting married in the old cobblestoned capital of Antigua, surrounded by friends and family, in English and Spanish and of course, those languages that transcend words—food, music, dance. By virtue of being fluent in Spanish, particularly as an adult, I experienced my surroundings differently. No one giggled at me. Instead I found I was able to speak of politics, women’s rights, and the cost of chicken. I held this new relationship to Spanish so tight, gripped it in my palm, my fingers curled around it. I belonged.

Later, back in the States when I was pregnant with my son, like many expectant mothers I read everything I could about the “growing life inside me.” Blogs, websites, articles, books. This was my first pregnancy and I was deeply aware of its biology, and its magic. I had read about the bene ts of expecting mothers singing to their babies in the womb, talking to them, reading to them. My own mother urged me to speak to the baby in Spanish. And I did, but with skepticism that the short phrases and occasional conversations wouldn’t be enough, that eventually, English would swallow any crumbs in Spanish whole, like it did me. I gave up before I had even tried.

Once my son was born, and I mean the second the midwife thrust my son’s slimy body onto my chest, I cried. That was the first language, my animal language. Then I said, “Yo te quiero.” I love you. My first words to him needed to be in Spanish. I didn’t plan this. I didn’t know in advance what I was going to say, not say. But then, after dunking him ever so brie y onto my chest, the midwife passed him like a football to a nurse who whisked him across the room where a team of doctors poked him and tapped him and used a suction thing to eliminate the liquid in his mouth, lungs. I yelled to my husband, who was hunched over our baby, “Talk to him!” I watched all this from my delivery bed in the hospital, never doubting that my baby would live. Instead, what I worried about in those first minutes of his life, had to do with words, sounds. The nurse’s Boston accent, “Come on, honey, you gotta push!” The doctor’s doctory language. The voice on the intercom paging a surgeon. The sound of the air-conditioner buzzing. The early morning birds cawing in the distance before the metal and rubber of traf c were muting the sounds of nature. It was all wrong. My husband needed to speak to our son. My son needed to hear him, us. And he did. And our baby woke up, mad and wet, crying and wailing. Animal sounds.

A few weeks after he was born, after the foggy, hormonal, timeless stretches where I traded the ability to sleep, eat, pee, or shower for those indescribable nose-kisses with my newborn, I could finally think again. One thought: he is growing so fast. The next: he needs to learn Spanish right now, while his brain is a sponge or what not. Hurry, hurry! We have to download nursery rhymes in Spanish, I told my husband. And where are all those picture books in Spanish? The ones we had put on the baby shower registry? I know! I said, remembering a chapter I had read in some baby book. You speak to him in English and I will speak to him in Spanish, okay? Okay!

That didn’t happen.
We played a few songs, though.

During these early months when my son was an infant I attended a group for new mothers inside an old church on a one-way hilly street in Jamaica Plain. The group met once a week. Mothers sat in a circle as we held our babies in our arms or placed these warm cooing bundles onto baby blankets that we had stretched out onto the circle-shaped rug.

One particular Wednesday, I asked the facilitator to hold my son while I ran downstairs to use the bathroom. Sure, this is why I’m here, she said. So I reveled in the weightless journey down the hall and down the stairs, nothing in my hands, no bag digging into my shoulder, no need for a wobbly balancing act over the toilet where I always feared dropping my baby. No. I used the bathroom, took my time. I washed my hands! As I began to make my way back upstairs I noticed a bulletin board—yellow and blue fish, pececitos, painted onto white paper plates. Numbers, letters, shapes, colors, all in Spanish. A Spanish immersion preschool. I took an informational folder with me back upstairs, collected my baby, and hugged him tight the rest of the class.

I didn’t read through the folder immediately. To be honest, at the time I couldn’t imagine leaving my baby with strangers, not then, not in a year, two years, not ever. But even long before my son turned one, I felt the buzz of the preschool waitlist hysteria like an annoying mosquito in my ear. Sign up my son for preschool now? He can’t even keep his own head up. I wasn’t going to be one of those parents.

I filled out the forms. Better to be safe. But then I blinked and it was September. Time to go back to work. My son spent that first year with my cousin and my mother, and yes, she spoke to my son in Spanish and yes, this made me feel less guilty for not speaking consistently to him in Spanish. Soon it was summer again. September. This time my now one-and-a-half-year-old boy would start school. Spanish immersion.

I admit, many days I wonder if he is too young to spend stretches of time away from his mama. The guilt is a cement cloak I wear most mornings when I drop him off and swallow the question: Will he be okay? That he is hearing Spanish all day from his teachers (native Spanish speakers), that the songs they sing and the books they read and the games they play are all in Spanish, this is what soothes me.

Still, there were two things I wasn’t prepared for: the expensive tuition, and the fact that most of the other kids are white.

My family and I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country. I get that. Yet, what I truly didn’t anticipate was that while learning Spanish day after day, my son would do so beside blonde and red-haired children who don’t look like him, whose parents don’t look like me. Does it matter? For me, the experience of speaking Spanish was always grounded in family, place. For my son, it will likely be associated with art, music, early friendships, and discovery. What will this mean for him later? For his identity? Will my son learn the kind of Spanish that sticks close to the bone, his core being? The way it does for me? When I lift him out of his crib and he asks for meatballs, is he coming off of a dream dreamt in Spanish?

I don’t know. The truth is, I want to protect him. Yes, I want to empower him with fluency in Spanish, his mother’s mother tongue. But I want more. I want for him to be able to open and click that gate between languages with total confidence, never hunching his shoulders to embarrassment, shame, for forgetting where he started. I want him to keep this tradition alive for his kids and their kids. For all of us. And yes, I want him to sit between the blonde and red-haired children and feel at home in both languages. He is lucky to be learning in a time and space where Spanish is treated—mostly—like an asset, and not a disability he must conquer, like testing out of an English as a Second Language track at school. For instance.

I want him to understand that Spanish is part of us, our family and our bond. I want him to feel that the words in Spanish are more than just an extra warm blanket piled on him at night, but that they are an extension of my love for him, for who he is and who he will become.

By the time my now two-year-old son and I make it downstairs, into the kitchen on this overcast spring morning, and I prepare to take meatballs out of the freezer, he suddenly announces that he doesn’t want meatballs, he wants yogurt. Okay, I say. Yogurt it is. Then, between yawns, I let the dog out. Fill her silver bowl with food that makes a clang when it hits the bottom of the dish. Reach for a mug. Grind the coffee beans. Above the noise, I hear a small, sugary voice that requests, “Más please.” My son. Mi amor. And I give myself permission to leave words behind momentarily, think not of the day and its many tasks ahead, and instead I listen in the distance for the birds that fly in wind that has no language.

Jennifer De Leon is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on higher Education and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Framingham State University. “Mother Tongue” appears in This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home (Seal Press 2017).