I heard Spanish first.
I slipped into the world deafened by my mother’s cries. Her songs were familiar. Her voice was familiar. But her anguish was primordial.
Her anguish didn’t need to be broken into meaning. It lived in the cells of my body and shaped my muscles.
The nurses pumped my nose and cleared my mouth till I could breathe enough to wail. They cooed in their unfamiliar words. They spoke to me—but what were they saying?
I understood English much later. Until I understood linguistic isolation, I couldn’t wrap my head around this break. Why wasn’t I learning English? My family existed kilometers of understanding away from other families in America.
We were geographically present but culturally remote. For all our efforts to have green cards, legal jobs, and be law-abiding, we still didn’t fit.
I picture my Aunt Belia at the hospital. She doesn’t speak English. Her thirteen-year-old daughter is translating. The doctor needs to tell my Aunt that her other daughter is dead.
The doctor is too tired or too stupid or too lazy to get a professional translator. So, the thirteen-year-old does it instead.
But she doesn’t know what terminology to use to get her mother from devastation to understanding.
And she knows.
She knows that the news will create a chasm in her mother. All she can do is say the words correctly from English to Spanish and hope that the words don’t break her.
My thirteen-year-old cousin is so scarred by the memory that she clenches her jaw retelling this story. She wants to talk about unfairness and not dissolve into the pain of that experience. For her, that memory is a wound that doesn’t scab over. All she can do is blur that memory with medication or alcohol or pretend it didn’t happen.
My aunt never understands why her daughter died. That’s what linguistic isolation is like. It’s a sharp bite in the dark by an unnamable animal.
What happens when families don’t understand? When they can’t integrate? When they can’t intellectualize the world around them? When they don’t know the rules of how to fit in? They create myths. They create a collective understanding of the world. We create a collective understanding of the world. We become isolated.
I become the bridge between my family and America. I’m born here. I’m supposed to be integrated. But I feel my brown skin like a dirty mark that sets me apart.
I don’t want to be a bridge. I don’t want that job. At ten, I don’t want to know that much about life. I don’t like calling the telephone company to find out whether they’ve received the payment mom sent. I don’t like making decisions about critical documents. I don’t like translating to teachers as my mother asks embarrassing questions.
I’m too honest to lie.
“Mrs. Bradford,” I say, “My mom wants to know if I’m good. She wants to know if I behave good or bad.”
I already know the answers, but I go through the dance anyway. This feels too intimate. Too much like I’m invading my own privacy.
I’m the bridge.
People believe it’s great to speak another language. But I’m stuck in an in-between place, with one foot on either side. I’m not quite a native Spanish speaker. I’m not quite a native English speaker. Instead, I speak English with a thick accent that I hide. I speak Spanish in an accent I can’t hide. I stumble through Spanish like I’m Velcro on Lycra.
I stutter. I stutter in Spanish. It’s like a performance. I’m bare. Consciously aware that I’m not an equal. When I open my mouth and the words begin to crank out, then stop, then crank.
Am I a fraud? Am I not Mexican enough? Am I too American? I’m too dark skinned to be an American.
When I speak Spanish, I hear, “You’re not white enough to be talking like that. ¿Tan prieta. Quien te crees?”
In English, I hear, “You’re pretty smart for a Mexican. Your English is pretty good.”
I take comfort in English. It’s the language of my intellectual development. I learn poetry and literature in this language.
I develop a passion for Emily Dickinson in high school. I savor her dark tones around my tongue. My Spanish mouth can taste the humid dank of her words.
I want to be alone like her. I want to be trapped in a room where I write on bits of scraps. Instead, I’m in a home constantly filled with people who like to talk. Pencils and pens are constantly misplaced. My mom’s home is always open to family. The house is filled with laughter and gossip and chaos. I’m trapped amongst the group.
I feel Dickinson’s isolation deep like my own. I long for death with her as her fly buzzes. But I’m here, instead.
Spanish is the language of god. I learned religion in Spanish. I took Catechism with twelve other children from a neighbor lady who lives on our street. We sat on the floor in her roach-filled living room, in the stifling heat while the fan blew at our primers made from cheap newsprint.
From the time I was born to the time I prayed in Spanish every night, my mom, a dedicated Catholic, read to us from a yellow bible she’d gotten from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Alone in her room, mom read the New Testament to herself. As soon as she finished, she started again.
Later, as I learned the bible in English, I had to translate it into Spanish before I understood it. At that time, my god spoke Spanish. And because he spoke Spanish, everything he had created was in Spanish.
Miracles were in Spanish. Spirituality was in Spanish. The meaning of life was in Spanish.
My mind is split into languages. Now who’s the bridge? How do I bridge myself into a whole?
Mireya S. Vela is a creative non-fiction writer and researcher in Los Angeles. In her work, Ms. Vela addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the (ongoing) injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse. Ms. Vela received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Whitter College—and received her Master of Fine Arts from Antioch University in 2018. She is also a visual artist.