Recently I had to substitute in a Pre-Kinder classroom. The bell sounded, and I escorted these 5 and 6 year-olds to the lunchroom. I followed the children as they filed into their not-so-straight lines. I patrolled the tables, where my assigned students were strategically positioned. It felt a bit like war soldiers lining up for grub. Finally, I relaxed and joined my Pre-Kinder students at the table. As I helped the children open their pre-packaged plastic forks, spoons, pint size milk and juices, I started to casually converse with them.
The bashful child sitting next to me, Emilia smiled as she batted her big brown eyelashes. She was so shy. In contrast, Maricela who sat across from me wouldn’t be quiet for a single minute. Motor mouth Maricela, a truly bilingual child, knew everyone’s name, language preference, how smart they were, and who everyone’s parents were too. Since it was a half-day program, Maricela would scream out each child’s name as the parents approached our table to pick up each child.
Busy body Maricela noticed that I was speaking in English to Emilia and quickly corrected me—about my use of “incorrect language.”
“Mam, don’t you know? Emilia was ‘born in Spanish’” she yelled.
“Don’t talk to her in English; you must talk to her in Spanish if you want her to understand you, miss.”
“But I was ‘born in English’” Maricela proudly proclaimed. She proceeded to “educate me” regarding what birth language each of her 19 classmates belonged to.
I came away from school that day reflecting on Maricela’s remark about being “born in Spanish.” I was “born in Spanish” too, but I had never quite thought about it that way—this 5 year- old child had taught me–a 25-year veteran high school and university professor something new! I had been given a new lens through which I could view my future students. Maricela was referring to mother tongue and native language. From the mouth of a baby, I had been baptized to a fresh new look at language, students and at myself that day!
What did it mean to be “born in Spanish” I asked myself? My inward question took me back to my own firsts in education and literacy—my first cuentos (childhood stories) had been told “in Spanish.” I had sung my first canciones (songs), tongue twisters and nursery rhymes “in Spanish.” The ghost stories I had first witnessed from our Mexican housekeepers were also “in Spanish.” My brother, Baltazar and I even eavesdropped, hiding behind the kitchen door, as my parents and the compadres (male friends) and comadres (female friends) told animated nasty jokes full of bad words “in Spanish.” I recall the Spanish laughter spilling into and echoing throughout our casita (small house). My dad sang along to Tex-Mex Spanish corridos (music) as he shaved every morning before going to work. When Dad barbecued in our back yard, our comida (food) flavor was also “in Spanish”—frijoles a la charra (spicy beans), menudo (cow stomach soup), fajitas (beef skirts), arroz (rice) and pico de gallo (onion, lime juice, chiles, coriander and fresh tomatoes).
My first Mexican birthday parties, also “in Spanish” featured piñatas shaped like Topo Gigio, a Spanish speaking cartoon mouse, filled with goodies Mom purchased in Mexico like: Chicle Totito (gum), colaciones (candy), galletas Marias (sugar cookies), tamarindos en jarritos (tamarind candy in tiny clay pots), paletas de cajeta (carmel lollipops) and cacajuates con palitos (peanuts with sticks). When we got sick, Abuelita (Grandma) and Mom healed us with lots of prayers, Vicks Vaporub, manzanilla (chamomile tea), sacate de limon (lemon grass tea), and ojo (evil eye) healing, using a fresh raw egg to rub up and down my limbs, as she made little crosses on my entire body. As a familia (family), we worshipped, believed, prayed and recited our rosarios (rosaries) for our dead relatives “in Spanish.” I realized that I was most passionate, cursed, loved, cried and made love “in Spanish” first.
“Andale pronto, Maricela que ya es tarde!” (Hurry up, Maricela it is already late!)
“Tu papa va llegar tarde a el trabajo.” (Your father is going to be late for work.) scolded Maricela’s mom.
“Okay, mother I’ll hurry and get my backpack from my teacher,” responded Maricela.
“Ya te e dicho que nunca me hables en ingles,” (I’ve already told you never to speak in English to me.) Maricela’s mom angrily answered back.
“Goodbye teacher and thank you for reading your pop-up books to my class today,” acknowledged Maricela as she waved good-bye.
Maricela, that loud mouth Pre-Kinder 5 year old, who I’ll probably never see again, unlocked my buried Spanish treasure chest full of memories of being “born in Spanish.”