My spanish sounds like vomit—or so I’m told. There’s no “s,” “j,” or “h,” just random sounds that my Mama taught me. I study really hard so I can pass the Spanish class taught by a white lady in my public school. I try my best to meet everyone else's language standards.
Whenever I work up the courage to speak my native tongue, “What did you say?” and “I think you made that up!” are all I hear. That’s fake Spanish. That’s broken Spanish. That’s English-Spanish. Whatever it is, it’s not my Spanish. Whatever I know is wrong, fake. My accent’s not right either—I sound too white, like a gringa.
I was born and raised in the Bronx. Uptown, misunderstood, boogie-down, broken-down dreams. Dirty. Dangerous. “I’m so sorry…” everyone says when I tell them where I’m from, shaking their heads as if they know something I don’t. But after school I came home to a safe home and a good life. I never truly understood what they meant when they said they were sorry, or when they winced at my words; I didn’t understand what was wrong with my home or with my culture. Sure, my papa never let me ride a bike around the neighborhood. No, I’ve never known what it’s like to pull fruit off of a tree in my front yard like they do on the Island.
I should probably stop trying to speak Spanish. It’s easier to silence my culture, the life my grandparents brought with them to America. The “better life” they planned. But here there was no family, no beautiful crisp air that smelled of masa and carried the sounds of kitchen chatter and cleaning music. They brought with them tradition which was met with skepticism. They abandoned their language to fit in, leaving only recipes to fill our bellies and souls. Only the pastelitos my grandma would make that made us feel at home.
“That’s not a pastelito, that’s an empanada!” Other Spanish-speakers usually say when I tell this story. I never understood this—to my grandmother, they were pastelitos. Was her Spanish wrong? When her husband died and she was left to provide for her family, did she make her language up?
My grandmother was beloved by everyone on our block. She brought the beautiful crisp air that smelled of masa and carried the sounds of kitchen chatter with her from Puerto Rico, all the way to the boogie-down Bronx. My grandmother pronounced pastelitos pa-te-lee-yos and had no problem selling them. Her words were passed down to me, through the food I eat and the words my mother speaks. Her Spanish is my Spanish. My broken-English-speaking grandmother supported her four children selling pa-te-lee-yos, and that’s exactly what I’ll call them. I’ll leave out my “s” and my “h” the same way my mama does.
I’ll speak my Spanish, the same way you speak yours. Families before mine came together in the Bronx, and I’ll love that Bronx because it was their home. The home that created the life I know today. I’ll use my Spanish to change the world, to make a difference for the people in Puerto Rico being forced out of their homes, who have been forgotten about and who are without a home. Who’s to tell me if my history and my culture are right or wrong? This is my story, not anyone else's. This is my Spanish. I am Puerto Rican; this is my culture.