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I am going to write something false. I don't want to do it, but you leave me no choice.

When I was three I wore ponytails and liked to talk to strangers. My parents tell me I would strike up a conversation with anyone. They say this with such pride. I don't quite know what to do about that, because I'm a quiet person now.

Once, back when I was talkative, we went on vacation to visit relatives in Miami. We sat down at the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and after my mom read me an abbreviated version of the menu (which included only the things she knew I liked), I decided I wanted a spinach omelet and orange juice. When the tall, pimply waiter came, I was allowed to order for myself. I was kneeling on the seat of the booth, both elbows on the table, bouncing brightly.

"Hi, I'm Ana. Can I have the eggs with spinach and orange juice?"

A quick glance at my mother.

"Please? Thank you!" I smiled my brightest smile, counting on him to smile back, to make a joke. In my experience, people liked little kids. He didn't smile back, though. His pale eyes blinked.

"What?" he asked. He looked toward my parents for help. "What did she say?"

He hadn't understood me? I looked incredulously, and a bit scornfully, toward my mother.

"Um, Ana, he doesn't understand Spanish. You have to ask him in English."

My bouncing stopped. My parents nodded encouragingly at me; the waiter tapped his pen against his pad.

"Come on, Ana, you know how to say orange juice in English."

I could only stare in growing horror. Orange juice and jugo de china were two different things?

All of my ideas split in two.

 

OF COURSE, this isn't what really happened, because some of it happened in another language. Nor is this the way I remember it. I remember it without words, because although words from then on were forever divided into languages, in that period when I didn't know the difference, I didn't know which one I spoke. Orange juice and jugo de china were synonyms to me: the orangey liquid with pulp that scratched my throat as I swallowed. Even now I feel false writing this down in English, when half my memory, half the spoken words - half the thoughts - are in a different language.

When people find out I'm from Puerto Rico, they ask which is my native tongue. I never know quite what to say.

"Huh. Well, um, I spoke Spanish with my mom and my friends, English with my dad and at school."

"Yeah, but which one was your first language?"

How can I tell them that I don't know? That both English and Spanish taste foreign on my tongue, that I have to pause to search for the appropriate word in a way a native speaker never does? That for me, coming to college in the States involves having to pause and say, "Oh, Gina, can you hand me the " and my brain says, "Not tijeras! Scissors"? And that at the hospital where I volunteer as a translator, I didn't know how to ask the Spanish-speaking patient if she had cramps because whenever I got my period I just always said, "Ay, Mama, tengo cramps"?

In Miami my mother probably spoke to me in Spanish, because she is from Colombia and didn't learn English until she was in her twenties, and because self-consciousness thickens her tongue. When she visits the States, she makes me ask for directions, and she takes a deep breath to steady herself before ordering a meal.

But on this page, the language of the writing took control of her speech so that on a first reading she probably spoke to you with the clear, rounded tones of a native speaker instead of the flat vowels of Spanish intonation on English words. She speaks in perfect English - the thickness of her accent doesn't show up on paper this thin. The page reveals the words I forced into my mother's mouth, the accent I gave her no choice but to adopt. I forced a foreign syntax and alien rhythm on my memories, so that the end result is a dubbed version of events, where lips and voices clash - my life, badly dubbed. And the voice coming from my mother's mouth? It's yours.


Ana Amiguet-Lievano is an English concentrator.




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