Hello there. Today I'd like to share a wonderful piece of writing from my friend Claudia Moss. She is a writer, educator, radio show host, and lover of life! Claudia is currently teaching an online Spanish class and in this article, she shares with us the genesis of her love for the language and culture. Enjoy...
The fairer groups tended to nest together, to the north of Waterbury, I soon discovered, when I grew old enough to observe demographics and recall who sat next to me in the southern part of the city, in Walsh Elementary School, and who filled the Kennedy High School halls with me on our way to lunch. In the Bunker Hill area, on manicured streets, the fairer ones must have felt safe living huddled together in thick houses surrounded by fortressed lawns.
At the foot of Long Hill, though, I felt safe in a lattice of black and brown neighborhoods, where the air vibrated with the predictable music of English and the sporadic fire of Spanish tongues. In elementary school, I sat beside classmates from across the water. It was the 60’s. Mysterious new classmates poured in from the island of Puerto Rico. Boricuas, they called themselves. With names like Margarita and Rita and Norma and Otto, they left me sampling last names that tasted like Gonzalez, Arroyo, Rodriguez, Vargas and Lopez. Some were from another island. Cuba.
They were delightful anomalies. Cuban Cintron was one of the most handsome boys my girlfriends and I had ever seen. My two best friends from Walsh Elementary to Kennedy High-- Ada “Edita” Duvallon and Norma Gonzalez—even more gorgeous than Cintron, remain sacred in my childhood memories. Edita was a stout, dark-skinned Cuban, who loved reading and chatting about her native land and customs. Norma, a fair-skinned, raven-haired dynamo, set my blood to racing just staring at her fiery jet eyes and tiny frame and hearing the electric, melodic rhythm of her language whenever she got fired up. That Edie was a silent sort, preferring to hang back and check the other kids out from a distance, her lip healed from a long gash she never wanted to talk about.
They were birds.
But I adored the female birds of paradise of all the birds that flew into the city that year and the years to follow. Yes, some migrated from neighboring cities, their grandparents from Portugal. Noochie and Nico. Cousins, they were jaw-dropping gorgeous, a memorable mixture with African-American fathers to stir the beauty of the races in their faces.
Unforgettable plumed wonders---they fluttered into the classroom and changed my world. I never tried to capture one, encouraging her to perch beside me, in a desk not more than an arm’s length from mine. Simply, I prayed one would wing her way to me so that I could examine her close up. Skin the color of dark caramel to vanilla hues glazed in sepia. Fingers, long and thin, drifting across notebooks and hovering over yellow number-two pencils, fingernails filed to a delicate point and painted a brilliant red. Hair queued in a tail on their backs or streaming across one shoulder, never caught up in the style my mother preferred: bangs to minimize the size of my forehead, my paternal grandmother and the queens of Africa’s legacy; a neatly parted top braid tickling my chin; two side plaits above each un-pierced ear and two stacked back braids with one plait braided into the other.
Rare beauties, these girls mesmerized me, not only with their exotic appearances, but also with the music of another language in their mouths: Spanish.
From its first sound on a native tongue, I was wholly enchanted.
To my ears, the language was musical. Romantic. Enthralling. Soft. Sensual. Like the girls themselves.
After weeks of sitting through their arias and concerts, the day arrived when I decided to master the strange “talk” of their mouths. I wanted its beautiful rhythm at home in my speech, in my ears, in my brain and under my pen. These girls made Spanish sound edible and I was ravenous. I hungered for it, same as I stood salivating in their kitchens, after school, waiting for their madres or hermanas to finish preparing an assortment of dishes de la comida criolla, the cuisine, from what I later learned, that represented Puerto Rican culinary influences of the native Taino Indians, the Spanish conquistadores and the African slaves. Their strange dinner smells serenaded me at the front door. Garlic. Recaito. Achiote. Oregano brujo. Caballero peppers. Culantro. And lerenes. But all I knew then, as a pre-teen with my hands freshly washed and my school books on an end table near the door, was Norma’s sister’s Mofongo (mouth-watering, seasoned mashed plantain filled with vegetarian, pork or seafood) was enough to make me speak in tongues with a Spanish accent! And Margarita’s Mami’s pigeon peas with rice and topped with a sofrito sauce was so delectable it made me want to backhand anybody who even looked like she wanted to take my plate. That was arroz con gandules served with chorizo and red peppers.
I never learned to prepare any of these unheard of dishes in my mama’s kitchen at 13 Wood Street. My family’s ears and tongues and palates weren’t akin to mine in taste, predilection and inclination. Spanish words and expressions baffled them. Not only that, my family never cultivated a desire to sample Puerto Rican cuisine, and they were often perplexed over why I nurtured such a fondness for “those people” and their strange tongue.
Later, when the local girls started coming around with half Puerto Rican babies, my father warned me to never bring one home. I didn’t know if that included girlfriends, too, but it never seemed to matter much, considering I always ended up trekking to their homes whenever I could after school.
Maybe my father and others were influenced by what we often heard in the media. No heartwarming stories came out of the Puerto Rican community. The media only reported Puerto Rican crime. One behind the other were heart-wrenching cases of jealous Puerto Ricans who blew their wives away, most times before the children and other members of the family, and always, it seemed, after they “caught” the wife cheating. I never recalled hearing of a Puerto Rican woman killing her cheating husband in a jealous fit. Those media reports made me feel a peculiar sort of way about Boricua males for a long time, until I was old enough to understand institutional racism.
I learned to speak Spanish without taking a class, which would’ve been a revolutionary idea in elementary school. Sitting next to my girlfriends and listening to them speak Spanish in hushed, intimate conversations on the playground during recess, I picked up the ring of the language, the accent and enough vocabulary to understand and respond when we spoke softly in groups during class.
Whenever my teachers observed me engaged in these conversations, they expressed awe at me having picked up the language so fast, not realizing, I assume, they fully expected my Puerto Rican peers to learn English just as fast, so they could be promoted to the next grade along with the rest of the class.
Before long, my teachers began asking me to sit next to the continuous stream of Puerto Rican or Cuban students, if we didn’t have other Spanish students in the class. I loved befriending the newcomers and doing my best to make them feel welcome. Today, gazing backward, I realize that I have always been a mini ambassador and willing translator.
Sometimes other adults witnessed me speaking Spanish and asked, “Is that little black one speaking Spanish, too?” Their words amazed me, considering I saw Puerto Ricans ranging in variant shades from white to black, and whenever I observed my friends’ families and others I saw downtown, when my family and I travelled there to shop or to eat pizza, the Puerto Ricans were as varied as the Black people in my own family and those who peopled my neighborhood.
From Walsh Elementary, I went on to attend Kennedy High School, where I made friends with other Puerto Rican classmates and my language prowess improved. But not long afterwards, my father began speaking of going South. For good. And before we pulled out of Waterbury to relocate to Tuskegee, Alabama, after doctors informed my father that my mother was dying of cancer, I was well on my way to a life-long love of the Spanish language and the cultures in which the language was spoken in Central America, South America and Mexico.
Weeks after the start of the next school term, a tedious road trip behind us, we settled into my paternal grandparents’ home, and my father enrolled my siblings and me in the Tuskegee Institute Public School System. Since a Spanish-speaking population was virtually nonexistent in my parents’ hometown, I welcomed every opportunity to read, write and speak Spanish, even if that meant practicing on non-Spanish speakers. Most were encouraging, some derogatory.
In 1976, I graduated from Tuskegee Institute High School, where I’d studied Spanish and was voted Miss Spanish Club for the Homecoming festivities. Being my aunt was a teacher, I enrolled at the local college, the famous Tuskegee Institute, where I majored in English Education and minored in Spanish. My passion for the language flared and burned bonfire bright. While there, I garnered the respect of my college peers and Spanish professors, who elected me to receive “Top Honors” in Spanish at the year’s award ceremony.
Today, I yet love learning and speaking Spanish.
I write the language whenever I show up on my virtual websites, from Facebook to Twitter, and to Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers alike. My intent is never arrogance when I do this. I do so to express my unflagging love for the language and to share it with others as a beautiful, romantic and musical gift. Un regalo de la comunicación! And what better gift in a time in which Spanish speakers account for 17 percent of the U.S. population? As these Americans reach 52 million, statistics are revealing the growth of our youngest minority group is from birth, not immigration.
For as much as I have loved learning Spanish, I will be honest and say, I know that it remains my second language, for I have yet to master it, despite stretching to offer an online Spanish class on www.ooVoo.com and recording myself reading Spanish and bilingual books for children on my radio show on http://www.blogtalkradio.com/claudiamossshow. Yes, I realize I could relocate to one of the states the NBC Latino website denotes as the places where “two-thirds of Latinos live…California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.”
Another way to master the language is to possibly follow the advice of a Latina hotel worker, whom I chatted up after one of my College Board workshops during my consultant days. With the sweetest smile, she advised me: “Get yourself a Latino boyfriend, and you will be fluent in no time!” Not an inconceivable notion, except, one, I had to edit her directive to include a Latina lesbiana to lend romance, love, flavor and spice to my language mastery, and two, my beloved cousin, who married a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican, is yet a non-Spanish speaker, so…..
I’m charmed to continue living and relishing life and loving the flavor of Spanish in my mouth and at my fingertips. And who knows? One day I may look up and she’ll be standing there, smiling and singing, “Hola, Claudia! ¿Dónde has estado toda mi vida? ¡Qué guapa eres! Únanse a mí para comida cubana y buena conversación, mi amorcita!”
--- Claudia Moss
Author of IF YOU LOVE ME, COME: a novel
(In the USA: Amazon Paperback and Kindle)
For UK purchases: Amazon Paperback and Kindle
SOFT TSUNAMI: poems
From Amazon Kindle in the USA and the UK
WANDA B. WONDERS: stories
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