“Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”
‒Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
In the late 1950’s, my grandmother, Juana Maria, emigrated from Cuba to the United States. She was leaving behind a tough life in Cuba, growing up poor as the youngest of 8 children, with only her mother and the older siblings to support them as her father had passed away before she was born. She started working at a very young age in Cuba and finally, after years of trying and applying, was granted a Visa to visit the United States of America, just before the reign of Fidel Castro.
Once here in America, she found a job as a seamstress and met my grandfather through his sister, a friend she was working with. She spoke very little English, he spoke very little Spanish (he was of Spanish descent), but, as their story goes, it was love at first sight and they only needed to speak the language of love. (Later, when we were older, we found out that my grandmother had a very short Visa and had decided she was not going back to Cuba; They met on a Saturday and were married 2 Saturdays later). They were married a very long and happy 50 years, with my grandfather actually passing on their 50th wedding anniversary. Out of their love story came 3 children and then 11 grandchildren (myself included!).
Growing up, we spent a lot of time around my Ta-Ta (we couldn’t say abuelita – “little grandmother” – when we were little so it came out as Ta-Ta) and Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop had learned to speak Spanish and Ta-Ta spoke very broken English, but tended to stick to Spanish. Their children grew up in a bilingual household, being able to fluidly move from English to Spanish to Spanglish conversations… but that’s where the bilingual traits stopped. Spanish was not taught to us, the grandchildren, at an early age as it was for my Mom and her siblings. In fact, we grew up hearing the Spanish language all the time but never learned it ourselves and to be honest, I’m not sure why. This is something that has always questioned me, my siblings and my cousins. Why were we not taught Spanish so that we could communicate better with our grandmother? So, instead of learning Spanish, we became really good at understanding broken English.
Over the years, I’ve learned some Spanish, enough to get me through a small conversation. Spanish classes in middle school and high school helped a little but words were different in “school” Spanish than in “real life” Spanish. I would come home and tell my Mom what I had learned and she would always say, “Yes, they say that in Spain but it should be said this way…” However, those classes were not a total waste; I comprehend more Spanish than I can speak. I am able to understand and answer Ta-Ta back in English when she starts talking to me in English and then suddenly finishes the conversation in Spanish.
Ta-Ta is now 87 years old and currently isn’t in the best of health. She’s been in and out of the hospital and rehab facilities since June and is now living with my aunt. She can’t do much on her own and only wants to sleep all day. She can only speak Spanish now, the English language has escaped her. It’s become extremely difficult for me, or any of the 7 grandchildren living up here, to hold a conversation with her without searching for my aunt or mom to translate. It makes me sad that we’ve lost that connection, that ability to speak without a translator. Mom says it’s ok, that most of the time her Spanish is just gibberish so I wouldn’t be able to understand her anyway even if I could speak Spanish. But it’s still a helpless feeling when Ta-Ta’s speaking directly to you and you can only do one of three things: nod and smile; try and answer with the words you do know how to say; or just blatantly change the subject.
I’ve been trying to brush up on my Spanish speaking skills. Every now and then I’ll pop on to some Spanish learning websites to help me with the basics and form sentences. My sister and I have even talked about taking classes – maybe looking for a Groupon or LivingSocial deal. I guess it’s never to late to start learning something new.
So, ¿Puedo hablar español? ¡Un poco, estoy intentando!
(Do I speak Spanish? A little, I’m trying!)