(Carla and her parents. Photo courtesy of the author.)
One of my favorite childhood memories is of me sitting with my mother on her bed, recording ourselves reading articles to one another. She would look at me and slowly say, acutely aware of her Argentine accent, “I am prac-tis-sing my ello-cue-shon en Eng-lish,” and I would fall into a peal of giggles. I didn’t know my mother thought she needed to change her accent until that moment. I don’t know that I was even aware she had an accent until I was around that age. To me, my mother’s accent was just my mother’s voice.
My family moved to New York City from Buenos Aires on the winter solstice of 1975. It was one of the two coldest winters of the century; my father and mother were 26 and 25. I was 16 months old and my twin brothers just 4 months.
I imagine my parents shivering in their light wool coats and thin leather gloves meant for a mild Argentininean winter as we were ushered into two cars driven by my mother’s aunt and uncle and my godparents. They had moved to the States a few years earlier, pioneers who paved the way for our new lives.
My mother rode with my brothers. Her face must have carried a heavy raised brow and wide eyes as she watched with a mix of fear and curiosity as Orthodox Jews crossed the highway in their heavy coats. I rode with my father. I imagine us sitting in the back of the car—his blond hair and warm blue eyes, my dark hair and expressive round eyes—watching the scenes of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway stream by with uneasy puzzlement— all the planes landing and taking off, the pulsing energy of starts and finishes.
We moved to Park Slope, where my father worked as a building superintendent and my mother cared for us at home. He barely spoke English and would just smile and nod while working. My mother says the neighborhood’s largely Jewish community eventually knew we were “gentiles from Argentina,” a place where some of their family wound up after the war, just as my family did post-Franco and Mussolini. The “Paris of South America,” they may have imagined. A palatable South America. If my father didn’t speak they sometimes mistook him for Eastern European, maybe one of them. He was passable and my parents were happy for it.
Things were different when we moved to New Jersey about a year later. The women in our apartment complex regularly mistook my dark-haired and olive-skinned mother for a nanny when she was on walks with my brothers, with their long blond curls.
“Whose children are those?” they asked.
Later, a friendly neighbor could not fathom that we had gone to visit friends in Montauk one summer. My mother told him about our weekend one morning and when she said we’d visited Long Island, he corrected her.
“You mean Long Island City,” he said.
“Oh, yes, yes,” she said, not understanding his implication that our Latino family could have friends only in the inner city, not a well-off area on Long Island.
To me, being “Spanish” felt like both an asset and a burden. On one side of the house where I eventually spent my childhood, my best friend’s grandparents were thrilled when we moved in. We were an exotic reprieve from the dull Americans on the block.
She had learned English while in school in Argentina, and my father taught himself while watching “Sesame Street” at his second job at a nearby 7-Eleven.
On the other side of our house, a childhood friendship ended. The girl I had played with for years bullied me from the dividing line of our property, towering over me and cursing my family.
“You’re a spic,” she said, spitting with anger a word she couldn’t have possibly fully understood.
My eyes swelled with hot tears. I knew she meant we were ugly, bad in some way and different. I just wanted to be the same.
My parents tried to assimilate. They wanted to be part of this country, although they could see its flaws. My father wore American clothing: cowboy boots, ironed jeans, and a bald eagle necklace. He volunteered at the local fire department. My mother wore bright coats with thick shoulder pads and blue eyeshadow. We largely stopped speaking Spanish at home before I began kindergarten. My mother says they wanted us to know English as a first language, to lessen our accents and make sure our schooling went smoothly. She had learned English while in school in Argentina, and my father taught himself while watching “Sesame Street” at his second job at a nearby 7-Eleven.
But my memories of our early years are highlighted with Spanish nonetheless. I can hear the sound of me and my brothers’ little voices recorded on a cassette asking for pollo. When we celebrated Thanksgiving, my mother would make an “American” turkey and a “Spanish” one. Everyone ate the Spanish bird while the American one dried out, untouched. And when my grandfather came home from work he’d give me candies from a tin he kept in his car if I would say the word caramello. But those experiences always felt tucked away, out of public sight.
For most of my life I was told explicitly or implicitly that it was best to assimilate, to make use of my pale skin and light eyes. Is your last name Italian? Yes, yes it is. Nevermind the Lopez, Rodriguez, Rafart and Bouzas who came before. They have all disappeared.
Years later, I am now back in New York City and live in a neighborhood where more than half of its residents are from the Dominican Republic. When I walk into the stores that are alive with the sounds of Spanish music, conversations and energy, I find myself nostalgic, longing to be part of their world of sticky sweet cafe con leche, swooning love songs playing so loudly on the speaker nobody can hear each other, and the little abuelitas picking out root vegetables I wish they would teach me how to cook at home. I want to connect our worlds back through a common source, reach back into my childhood cocoon.
But that connection is mostly out of reach. Almost weekly, I have to explain to someone that I am a “real” Latina and did not “just study” Spanish in school. They cock their heads and wrinkle their foreheads when they hear my “funny” Spanish. I confuse them and it stings. My American accent is a dividing line, a clear demarcation of whether I belong, the side I’ve chosen.
Those people think I “pass,” whether I want to or not.