My father calls me the child of a Mexican with an accent. Sometimes he wonders aloud, asks me how I made it this far, still alive, still myself. Everything about me is an otherness, from my name to my skin to my hair that has always had its own will, has become the sole wind it bends to. Everything except the English I speak with certainty and fluency and no trace of another tongue from a past life. My father may have given me a name best pronounced in Spanish, a face so different from a white girl’s, but he taught me just one language, one road to self-expression. So that no one would mistake me for an immigrant, only an immigrant’s daughter.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, my father abandoning our family’s tradition so early in my life. We envisioned him filling up my ears with English, softening the clipped tones with Spanish, the language of our ancestors and all the great romantics—Márquez, Allende, Esquivel. Braiding them both into my tongue like lineage. Instead, I grew up with half fluency, half shaky understanding of the language of our motherland and a father who still blames my mother for his failure. Even though we know she’s less fluent than he.
Like other languages still spoken aloud, so much of Spanish is borrowed. From Greek and from French, from Italian and Portuguese and Arabic. Formed into something new by Quechua and Nahuatl from Colombia down to Chile and back up to Mexico. When we speak Spanish, we are speaking with the whole world in our mouths.
See: avocado, aguacate, āhuacatl. See: tomato, tomate, tomatl, a swelling fruit. See: a history repeating, a circling back, a return to our roots without our knowing.
My abuela, Mamá Alicia, mourns my monolingual state. She demands to know why I don’t speak Spanish to her, why I insist on an English that goes over her head, why I only use my second language in its present tense and not what once was or what could be.
Or why I only know how to begin conversations—Hola, ¿cómo estás?—how to say how I feel— Estoy bien, gracias even how to offer up my heart like a promise or a love letter—Te quiero mucho, te quiero tanto, dame un beso. But ask me about my work or my loves or what truly matters to me, the questions demanding full sentences, and suddenly, speaking Spanish is like pulling out teeth. Childish. Elementary.
I have never known complete freedom in more than one tongue.
The older generation, the people of my family who were born and raised in Texas or Mexico, are the ones who can follow conversations in my abuela’s house. Switching from English into Spanish mid-sentence and reading books in their original form, forgoing subtitles on Mexican films. Who brand us American children with nicknames made for lovers and Spanish seekers without sounding all that strange—mi cielo, mi corazón, mi alma.
More than once, my Abue Paz has said to me, Sofí, tu eres mi vida.
Yet Spanish is the language of Cortés and his conquest, the shedding of Indigenous blood. Of whiteness as the purest thing. Turning the Nahua empire into New Spain into Mexico in the name of a god that only the conquistadors believed in.
Yet it’s spoken by 469 million people living between the Pacific and the North Atlantic. Yet some still fear to use it in public, in white spaces, in case they become vilified by the descendants of missionaries and colonizers, told to return to the country they came from, without irony.
Yet it settles itself in binaries, in two-gendered tradition, in gringo or mestizo, one in each palm, perhaps because the conquistadors only ever had both hands and a mind where Indigeneity and Blackness did not exist.
Yet it’s my abuela’s house, my family and our people, the tongue tying us to history and to motherland, to life and to each other. That takes as much as it gives as much as it steals as much as it provides as much as it eradicates. A tangle, a mess of things, and still the language of my longing. In Spanish, we call this añoranza, a nostalgia, a yearning for the road of return, for home and for fathers unafraid to teach their daughters a second speech. Everyday a language I’m still learning to deserve, to claim it as my own.
Sofía Aguilar is a Latina writer, editor, and fourth-year student at Sarah Lawrence College and originally from Los Angeles. Most recently, her work has appeared in Latina Media, Melanin. Magazine, and The Westchester Review, among other publications. An alum of WriteGirl, she has received the 2018 Nancy Lynn Schwartz Prize for Fiction and is a three-time recipient of the Jean Goldschmidt Kempton Scholarship for Young Writers for her outstanding contributions to her college community. You can find her at sofiaaguilar.com.