Las Manos, Brazos, Pies, y Piernas

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Finally coming to terms with my Spanish heritage this year has made the world suddenly sound completely different. As I shared in my Hispanic ethnicity post, my mother taught me to discount my Spanish heritage, although the Hispanic heritage of my family is a long one—and although I’m almost completely Latino by blood. But I bought into the delegitimization from very young, so I went through most of my life experiencing my birthright language merely as background noise.

Yes, hearing it always reminded me of the private conversations my mother and grandmother would carry on between themselves in Venezuelan Spanish. But no, the sound of it never impacted me emotionally enough to be interested in making it my own, much less to realize that it had really been mine all along. Spanish songs? Spanish television? The news in Spanish? Curiosity about Spanish-speaking countries? The idea of visiting Spain? Or Puerto Rico? Or Venezuela? Or really anyplace in North, Central, or South America where collectively more than 400 million people speak the language of my family’s private conversations? I easily went that far for years in Italian, French, and Portuguese. But for Spanish, I wouldn’t budge.

It’s funny, too. Because growing up in New York City, there are a few pairs of seeming opposites, dichotomies of daily life that you experience when you’re a native New Yorker as fundamental constants about people. Like everpresent, overly simplistic opposite sides of the same coin. Christian or Jewish. White or Black. Manhattan or the Outer Boroughs. Thin crust or Sicilian. And especially for me growing up, English or Spanish. So in a curiously New York way of seeing things, I was taught to cut out what seemed like half of the world in which I grew up–and half of the people in it.

It’s not like I didn’t want to make that connection. You have no idea how many Spanish dictionaries, Spanish grammars, Spanish websites I’ve dived into over the years, only to dive right back out. Always remembering my mother’s admonition that her children didn’t need to know Spanish. As well as her warning that some of the most common Spanish speakers in New York, Puerto Ricans–as I would later learn, like my real father–were “dirty.” (Just read that blog post linked above.)

Not to beat a dead horse–well really, to beat a dead horse but you’re reading my blog so you know what to expect, right?–the biggest part of the blessing of finally uncovering my full Hispanic heritage this year, in all its pan-Hispanohablante world glory–has been understanding what I’d spent so many years looking for in all those other languages. No surprise–except it really was one to me–I was looking for Spanish.

Finally seeing how directly I fit into the story of such a deeply Hispanic family like mine, finally getting how I echo so many people who came before, the former language of my family’s secrets suddenly felt powerfully, emotionally mine–as it always should have. As I picked up my Spanish dictionaries, grammars, websites, and TV newscasts once again over the summer, for the first time in my life I didn’t find myself yearning for the musicality of Italian, the romance of French, the earthiness of European Portuguese.

Instead, I finally connected with all of that in Spanish. The the delicate staccato musicality. The deeply Latin rhythm. The beauty. The feeling of actually being at home in a language because it had always been a part of my heritage in a way that I could finally feel.

Unexpectedly, Spanish also got much easier for me. Finally falling in love with language, I started to feel myself pay attention to Spanish for the pure joy of it. And that’s how I got the shock of my life while watching WAPA-TV’s Noticentro from Puerto Rico on Sling TV and realizing after several minutes of rapid fire Caribbean-inflected Spanish had gone by that I’d understood every word. Sometimes now I find myself watching Mexican TV and hearing that little-boy Miguel Oropesa inside of me silently screaming, “¡Más rápido!” Because unless I’m hearing Spanish spoken at a million miles an hour, the letters S and D falling by the wayside, the letter R doubling over into an L, it doesn’t quite sound like home. Whether the Venezuelan Spanish of my mother or the Puerto Rican Spanish of my father, they’re both similar Caribbean ways of speaking the language that sound like my heritage–and you better be seat-belted in.

As with so much else in my life, you won’t be surprised that I can celebrate my re-connection with Spanish in a Disney way, too. One of the highlights for me of any American Disney trip, whether to Anaheim or Orlando, has always been the signage and spiels in Spanish. Even when I was apathetic about my ethnic heritage, those signs and spiels still felt like home, in away. For years I have been able to recite by heart the classic Spanish safety spiel:

“PARA SU SEGURIDAD, POR FAVOR PERMANEZCA SENTADO, Y MANTENGA LAS MANOS, BRAZOS, PIES Y PIERNAS DENTRO DEL VEHICULO. Y CUIDE A SUS PEQUEÑITOS. MUCHAS GRACIAS.”

But now I can finally understand it word for word–and make it sound like it’s supposed to when it comes out of my mouth. Which, being a committed and irreverent Disney fan, happens more than you might think.

I also may have just made it my voicemail greeting.

But I want more than just to be able to watch the news, recite a spiel, or make myself understood while traveling. I want eventually to be able to work with in Spanish as well. I want my Spanish to be not just something that gives me warm fuzzies when I hear a Juanes song. I want those warm fuzzies from the ability to do work in the language of my heritage that helps heal the world in some way. There’s a post coming about what I want to do with the rest of my life. But you know that, because they’re kind of all like that anyway, right?

It’s a good thing that Ryan has a high tolerance for Spanish. More often than not, it’s become the new TV background language in our home this year. He’s even starting to listen to Spanish pop, little by little, along with me. That I’ve gone from total apathy about Spanish music to now being a carrier of it, much in the same viral way that I tend to be a carrier of Disney fandom for others, is something I’m proud of.

I have a way to go to fluency, so we’ll see how high his tolerance remains. But my Spanish is already more than good enough to cook directly out of Carmen Valldejuli’s Cocina Criolla. And if I can easily find my way through the masterwork of the woman who was essentially Puerto Rico’s Julia Child, let me tell you, my platanos fritos are more than encouragement enough.

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