By Nicole Ryan
Growing up I had a Granny Vera and a Doña Chuy. Both incredible for their intelligence, perseverance, and for just being badass women. My Granny and I shared weekends playing cards and, when I was old enough, we’d shoot the shit with tequila in hand. My Doña Chuy and I shared the love of dancing and singing.
Vera grew up in a small rural town in New Mexico. In school, she had to follow the rule that you were only allowed to speak Spanish during certain times of the day. While in the middle of a Spanish conversation with a friend, the bell rung, indicating it was time to switch. Vera was wrapping up her thought and sentence in Spanish when a teacher overheard her. She was beaten and given detention.
Doña Chuy moved her family from San Juan De los Lagos, Jalisco, México to Castroville, CA in the sixties. She had six kids and fit them and herself into a two bedroom home down the street from the strawberry fields where she found work. The area was home to John Steinbeck and rich soil that gifted us delicious fruits and vegetables. It was also home to many Spanish speakers.
“Yea, but you’re not a real Mexican.” A sentence that has followed me through my adult life. Technically, I wasn’t born in Mexico but I was raised with the culture. It was said by a peer in college, a fellow Latina. I was one of 20 students chosen to present their capstone during our department ceremony of 150 graduates. She was hosting the event and wanted to pronounce my name with a nasally ending like “Mar-kes” instead of a seductive roll off the tongue pronunciation of the “r”, Marquez. She argued that I didn’t speak the language so it shouldn’t matter. I argued that I may not speak the language but the people who gave me that name do and they would be sitting in the audience.
Vera travelled with her husband, my “grumpa”, Dave, and they made their way to California after they got married. While visiting friends in Watsonville they both found work. I’ve asked many times but it’s still unclear whether they enjoyed the work or the work just became a habit in their life but they decided to stay. It was there that my mom, aunts, and uncle were born and raised. Vera decided she didn’t want her children to suffer the same discrimination she did as a child and did not teach them Spanish. It would be one less indicator of a culture unwanted.
Doña Chuy started as a worker in the fields but slowly rose to the top in the business. Before she passed away, she owned acres of land and managed the strawberry fields on them. She had two homes- one in California and one in Mexico, and balanced her time between her children, grandchildren, and friends. I once heard that she never spoke English because she didn’t want to lose her culture. She was content just understanding the language and what she didn’t know could be translated by the many bilingual speakers around her.
In my adult life I’ve lived in countless different places,and my parents like to join me and help with the move . My favorite thing to experience is watching my dad find another Spanish speaker and have a conversation with them. He’ll bond with this person like they’re old friends from down the street, tell them that I’ve just moved to this area, and will usually end with him asking them to look out for me. Of course, I never see that person again but I think for him, it’s like leaving me in good hands. In an unfamiliar place, he found comfort and this made it easier for him to say bye to me, again.
In college I would visit Vera and do my laundry. We’d sit around the table and catch up on our weeks. I’d tell her about my classes and about the stories I was writing. She’d tell me about her breakfast and how Dave was bugging her. One day I suggested we try having these conversations in Spanish. It lasted a weekend. She’d laugh at my accent or when I’d forget how to say the word. Our conversations were mostly, “Como se dice…?” “Como se dice…?”
Doña Chuy was visiting us when I was in junior high. My parents and brothers were gone for the evening so it was just the two of us in the house. I suggested we play “Go Fish”. Our conversations were light but it was one of the first times in my life where it was just us. I put on music and our language became dance. I remember listening to Maná, Celia Cruz, and Britney Spears. I get my facial features from my mom’s side, but that night I discovered I got my rhythmic hips from Chuy.
I recently moved to Denver. It’s a nice area filled with Latino culture and history. It’s also a place where I feel little connection to other Latinos. I asked my dad, “why don’t I speak Spanish?” For the first time he didn’t just say “because you were too stubborn to learn it.” He explained that while I was growing up it was important to him that he work hard and that meant he wasn’t home a lot. My mom chimed in to say that when he was home, he wanted to be present with his kids so he spoke their language for an immediate connection.
I still call Vera occasionally, but her hearing is shot, so our conversations still consist of “What did you say?” or Dave will affectionately yell to her what I said. When I visit the town where my Doña Chuy lays to rest, I’ll kneel beside the stone that bears her name and ask, “quieres bailar?” I may never get to experience a fluent conversation in Spanish with them, but it’s time to start speaking.