My English 

by: Julia Alvarez

Mami and Papi used to speak it when they had a secret they wanted to keep from us children. We lived then in the Dominican Republic, and the family as a whole spoke only Spanish at home, until my sisters and I started attending the Carol Morgan School, and we became a bilingual family. Spanish had its many tongues as well. There was the castellano of Padre Joaquín from Spain, whose lisp we all loved to imitate. Then the educated español my parents’ families spoke, aunts and uncles who were always correcting us children, for we spent most of the day with the maids and so had picked up their “bad Spanish.” Campesinas they spoke a lilting, animated campuno, ss swallowed, endings chopped off, funny turns of phrases. This campuno was my true mother tongue, not the Spanish of Calderón de la Barca or Cervantes or even Neruda, but of Chucha and Iluminada and Gladys and Ursulina from Juncalito and Licey and Boca de Yuma and San Juan de la Maguana. Those women yakked as they cooked, they storytold, they gossiped, they sang--boleros, merengues, canciones, salves. Theirs were the voices that belonged to the rain and the wind and the teeny, teeny starts even a small child could blot out with her thumb.


Besides all these versions of Spanish, every once in awhile another strange tongue emerges from my papi’s mouth or my mami’s lips. What I first recognized what not a language, but a tone of voice, serious, urgent, something important and topic secret being said, some uncle in trouble, someone divorcing, someone dead. Say it in English so the children won’t understand. I would listen, straining to understand, thinking that this was not a different language, but just another and harder version of Spanish. Say it in English so the children won’t understand. From the beginning, English was the sound of worry and secrets, the sound of being left out.

I could make no sense of this “harder Spanish,” and so I tried by other means to find out what was going on. I knew my mother’s face by heart. When the little lines on the corners of her eyes crinkled, she was amused. When her nostrils flared and she bit her lips, she was trying hard not to laugh. She held her head down, eyes glancing up, when the thought I was lying. Whenever she spoke that gibberish English, I translated the general content by watching the spanish expressions on her face.

Soon, I began to learn more English, at the Carol Morgan School. That is, when I had stopped gawking. The teacher and some of the American children had the strangest coloration: light hair, light eyes, light skin, as if Ursulina had soaked them in bleach too long to’ deteñío. I did have some blond cousins, but they had deeply tanned skin, and as they grew older, their hair darkened, so their earlier paleness seemed a phases of their acquiring normal color. Just as strange was the little girl in my reader who had a cat and a dog, that just looked like un gatitio y un perrito. Her mami was Mother and her papi Father. Why have a whole new language for school and for books with a teacher who could speak it teaching you double the amount of words you really needed?

Butter, butter, butter, butter. All day, one English word that had particularly struck me would go around and round in my mouth and weave through all the Spanish in my head until by the end of the day, the word did sound like just another Spanish word. And som I would say, “Mami, please pass la mantequilla.” She would scowl and say in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. But would you be needing some butter on your bread?”