Leonarda Carranza is co-editor of the new anthology Tongues: On Longing and Belonging through Language. Her children’s book, Abuelita and Me, will be published in 2022.
It’s a cloudy December morning and my son leans forward in his high chair and pushes a slice of tomato in his mouth. “Ma ma ma ma,” he says while savouring his breakfast.
Every day it seems we understand each other a bit more. For now, his only word is ma. Ma while waving his hands side to side dramatically means stop. Ma and pointing means give me that. I don’t want to sit here anymore is Maaa while tugging on my shirt. Get that food away from my face – a slap at the approaching spoon. No words necessary.
This afternoon, I said, “Please get your zapatos.” And he walked toward the front door. He didn’t pick up his shoes, but he understood that it meant we were going outside.
I’m trying to be meticulous about only speaking Spanish to him. But as someone whose second language has become dominant, I’m often failing. I feel the heaviness of this effort as the pandemic chisels away all the birthday parties and gatherings where family and friends would seamlessly help with this work.
I haven’t always been this committed to my mother tongue, but parenting this tiny human during a pandemic has changed that.
I recently read about the alarming loss of Indigenous languages as a result of the death of so many elders from COVID. I imagine this loss like massive glaciers breaking apart and melting. Grief over language loss comes to us slowly, disrupting our sense of self, community and belonging.
I recently asked my sister if she regretted not teaching Spanish to her children.
“Of course, I do,” she said, sounding a little standoffish. “But they can always learn it.”
I understand, I might have done the same thing if I had my son earlier in life. There was a time when I didn’t really think it mattered whether our next generation spoke Spanish or not.
When we came to Canada I was 7. One memory stands out, a group of kids huddled together and laughing at me, a girl’s toothy smile. She asks me to say the word three and no matter how hard I try I keep saying tree. They laugh and laugh so hard. Learning English is associated with feeling ridiculed and ashamed of my tongue and the sound it made. All I wanted was to hurry up and learn English.
In those early years, English felt exciting and brand new. English was school, friends, boys, TV, books and movies. And Spanish became this narrow shrinking enclosure, the language of home, the language I spoke to Mom, Abuelita, my father and during family gatherings to my uncle, aunts and older cousins.
At home, we were forbidden to speak English. I didn’t realize at the time that my mother was doing this to preserve our language. And it worked. Even my youngest brother who was born in Toronto speaks Spanish fluently.
For a while in my early 20s, I started to sprinkle my conversations with my mother first with English words and then with complete English sentences.
If I lost fluency, what was the harm? During that time, I had started to learn more about the brutality of colonization in Central America and the role the Spanish language played in the violence inflicted on the Pipil and Lenca communities. I felt contempt toward my mother tongue. I couldn’t muster any pride in a language that was part of a strategy to eradicate us. It wasn’t as if I was valorizing English over Spanish. By then, I knew the violent colonial role that English played and plays throughout the world. Wasn’t I merely swapping one colonial tongue for another?
I didn’t know that that choice was a privilege. Mom never had the freedom to swap. Spanish was bound to her in ways I couldn’t understand.
When we first arrived, Mom took English classes out of necessity. Not out of some aspiration to one day read English literature or because she was falling in love with a new country. English was a means to access work, and like most working-poor racialized women, Mom’s time for schooling in those early years was cut short. We needed money and it wasn’t long before she was forced to start working. She was offered a job that required very little language competency and where she worked for eight hours a day on an assembly line making antennas.
Today, she tells me she still doesn’t feel confident in English even after all these years. Mom spent her time isolated while the rest of us went to school, made friends and started to plant roots in this country. So while we were busy learning a new language, she was left behind.
One summer, I went back to El Salvador with Mom. I got to see the village where she grew up. I met her cousins and my cousins for the first time. We talked and laughed with each other, and I got to experience Mom at home with community speaking her language. Spanish was more than a colonial tongue. It was also packed tight with our culture and beliefs. Spanish was the door and the bridge to Central America, the culture, the land, the people. And throughout the trip, I experienced something that Canada had always withheld. I felt moments of belonging.
Recently, I asked Mom if she ever worried when she saw us turning rapidly toward English.
“Yes,” she said. “I thought a day would come when we wouldn’t understand each other.”
I want my son to have the language that connects him to our culture, even if, like me, he might not always appreciate this effort.
But the real reason I try to push English away and force myself to speak Spanish to him is because I want him to know his grandmother, her humour, the way she plays with language and makes up new words, her sense of justice, her wit and the sharpness and power of her Spanish tongue.
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