When I was young, I used to try to come up with the most ridiculous, untranslatable words in English and ask my mom what they would mean in Spanish. She would give her best guess, and I’d say, “No, that’s not it. Try again.” Then, inevitably, she would roll her eyes, scrunch up her face, repeat the same word with a Spanish accent, “búger” (No, not moco!) or “esquísh,” and go back to frying potato pancakes or grading papers. Despite the performance of irritation, her eyes always revealed a pool of laughter and, somewhere just beyond that, the faintest trace of pure sadness. It was well hidden, that sadness, but somehow still palpable to little me, and still, after all these years, clear through the foggy lens of memory.
The reason for the sadness was that these occasional moments of mischief were the only times in my childhood when I showed any interest in my mom’s native language. From some early moment, I simply decided, without question, not to waste valuable playing time trying to learn Spanish. My parents would gently coax me toward it, include it in our daily household banter, and I always sailed through middle-school courses, but that’s as far as I would let it go. Until I was twenty-one, I refused to actually commit to the language in any way beyond filling in textbook blanks and awkward telephone calls to Miami relatives. I remember staring blankly at my own middle name, unsure where the accent went.
But there is more to this story.
A multicultural child is born in the United States, and beneath all the warm smiles and congratulations, a gladiator arena unfolds itself within which the wider world will watch the epic blood sport of identity play out. Sometimes there are winners and losers; no one ever gets out unscathed. To which side will the child tend? What negative and positive attributes will manifest across this clean slate? Xenophobia, however deeply buried in promises of One Happy World and One Happy Family, begins to churn. The fear can be expressed subtly, in hints and allusions, in bad jokes at gatherings, facial expressions. Or it can be outright: “Don’t speak that Spanish here.”
As I write this, thousands of kids are being ripped away from their parents in the hypermilitarized U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Hate crimes surge as America’s long-running white supremacist wet dream comes even more brutally to life each passing day. The institutional annihilation of voting rights, cultural studies, and any semblance of racial justice has become the norm once again. Deportation squads target innocent passersby for the simple act of speaking Spanish.
This sudden upswing is of course only a symptom. The underlying illness that state-sanctioned hate crimes spring from has always been there, stretches back through our history in the form of violent cultural erasure. The abject, petulant refusal by those responsible to confront the ragged legacy they still benefit from has allowed it to fester so long and explode into what it is today.
The United States has no official language, but over and over, language plays a central role in discussions about our national cultural identity. With words, laws, and petty insults, the various encampments struggle over language like missionaries and martyrs at the gates of a holy city.
This country holds the second-largest Spanish speaking population in the world. Not all Latinx people in the U.S. speak Spanish. Some speak only English, some Portuguese, and plenty speak one of the thousands of Latin American indigenous languages. For many of us, though, even those of us who tried to reject it as kids, Spanish forms a key part of our memories and identities. Whether as a language of oppression or resistance, it has formed a part of how we understand the world.
And when in our young lives do we begin to internalize what the whole world is yelling at the top of its lungs? When do those messages creep past our parents’ cautious encouragement and seep into some part deep inside? When did I give up on Spanish? At some point, very early on, I must’ve looked out at the world, looked into my television set, looked to the non-Spanish-speaking people around me with the question: Is Spanish something I need in life—is it a necessary part of me? And the answer came back a resounding no, tempered only by plain indifference.
It was almost two decades before I was able to look back and hear the quiet yeses that had been whispered in my ear all along. To her credit, my mom knew enough not to try to force it on me, that if I was going to come around at all, I would have to do it by myself. I dug into my memories, catalogued the disapproving stares, the subtle hints, the blatant threats. Then I stepped back to take it all in. And because the fallout from the language wars reaches far deeper than the headlines, burrows like a parasite through the branches of our family trees and into our very hearts, what I looked back on was a lifetime spent allowing one part of myself to devour another. I had internalized the same bigotry I cringed at in the newspapers, and I had turned it against myself.
When I did realize that Spanish was a part of me, it didn’t strike me like a thunderbolt from heaven. The truth didn’t come in one definitive stormy moment on a mountaintop but over the course of many, many nights, in the slowly gathering clouds. Simply put: I got sick of simplify- ing myself. After one too many bad jokes about being half this and half that, one too many little boxes to shade in with number-two pencils, one too many half hearted shrugs and mumbled explanations, I slowly, finally decided to put my foot down and make some sense of myself.
For the first 20 years of my life, Spanish had always crept around the outer borders of my world. I couldn’t take back all the years of miscommunication with my own family members, but I could make sure that it would never happen again.
I went home. Took a summer and spoke only Spanish with my mom. Hammered down the nuances of grammar that I’d fought off years earlier. Discovered the joyful poetry of the subjunctive, that strange future-maybe tense that doesn’t quite have an English equivalent. Where once I had cringed, I found a long-lost home hearing the extra e native Spanish speakers toss lovingly in front of words that begin with an s.
When you translate, something is always lost and something else gained. These are the immeasurable units of language, the tumbling impossibility of meaning stretched over the equally impossible borderlines of culture and perception. In English, we are born, passively. It happens to us. In Spanish, nacemos: we actively enter into this world. “Consúltalo con la almohada,” the Argentine journalist Marcos says to his bullfighter girlfriend in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film Hable con Ella. Talk it over with your pillow. “Sleep on it,” the subtitle lazily translates, and I think: I guess…
Of course, we are always translating. Expression in any form becomes a clumsy kind of grasping—and it’s only heightened when the options increase, as with the great tapestry of words and expressions that Spanglish has become. Perhaps that’s why we talk so much with our hands. Squeezing reality into the box of language becomes an ongoing wrestling match with a laughing, unquantifiable angel. And, as with Jacob, it is the struggle that forges us into who we are; it is where we learn our own name.
Nowadays, whenever I ask my mom about a tricky word in Spanish, she lugs out her great big Diccionario Etimológico and reads to me, as from a storybook, the long path of the word through history. The ancient Indo-Aryans divided their armies into four divisions: the foot soldiers, horsemen, elephant riders, and war carriages. They carved representations of each into figurines they dispatched across a game board, and so a combination of the Sanskrit words meaning “four” and “bodies” came down through Arabic to become the Spanish word for chess, “ajedrez.” “Sarcófago,” from the Greek words for “flesh” and “eat,” refers to the stone used to build the ancient coffins, which the Greeks believed would devour the corpses inside.
Jorge Luis Borges said that language is an aesthetic medium, just like painting or writing, that each word is a poem. And since each word arrives with its bags packed full of several centuries of secrets and insinuations, we see that the poem is an epic one, the story of a journey. The story tumbles on like The Arabian Nights, a living mythology, revealing and concealing itself endlessly and always growing. Here and now are only temporary resting places in the life of any word, which will inevitably continue its path long after we’re dust, telling our stories alongside all the stories before ours. With each new meaning, each tiny tinkering and misplaced letter, another moment of humanity becomes etched into our daily lives.
Take the Latin word “pupa,” meaning a “doll” or “young girl.” From this one word, from the tender concept of a small child, grows a whole library of meanings. Botanist Carl Linnaeus used the word to describe one period in the life of a butterfly or a moth, when it’s wrapped in the chrysalis. “Pupilla,” the diminutive form of “pupa,” came to mean “student,” which went on, via Old French, to become the English “pupil.” And because when we look into each other’s eyes we see tiny, flickering images of ourselves, the ancient Romans also used the word to refer to those dark pools within the iris. Another morphology of “pupa” wandered down through the ages to make the word “puppet.” So the eyes become small stages across which we watch our own image dance, and so the children of a community became, as the old saying goes, reflections of their elders.
Through translation and its accompanying deep dive into the roots of words, we arrive at a deeper understanding of our own language. Just as the story of Persephone’s abduction explains why spring turns to fall, as the expulsion from Eden describes the birth of shame, and the theory of evolution traces the origins of humanity, so the history of words illuminates the long saga of our perception of reality. How close any of these stories comes to really explaining what they speak of is irrelevant. The truth is in the telling. Today’s Big Bang Theory will be tomorrow’s Creation Myth. What matters is what the stories tell us about ourselves, the makers of myth, the translators of reality.
And what the epic myth of language tells me is that the United States has never been a monolingual country and it never will be. The ghosts of a thousand other languages haunt the houses of each word we speak. Forged in the fires of oppression and resistance, we are and always have been a nation of complex identities, slowly gathering clouds, epic poems, and power plays, and so the question of national identity isn’t up for debate. It was answered many, many years ago, and the answer continues to echo down, day after day, across the entire country. The echo will never stop ringing, not because of high fertility rates or illegal entries but because no Act of Congress, no state of heightened alert, no amount of border control or bigotry, will ever be able to stop our children from recognizing the faint traces of pure sadness that linger in our eyes when we try to describe the meaning of a word that has no translation.
Excerpted from The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America. Copyright © 2019 edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.