Read a book and circle some words on a page. Use those words to craft a poem. Alternatively, you can cut out words and phrases from magazines.
Güela was a teacher and a poet in her village. And the fact that a woman who used to teach others, and who wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever known to men was later on considered illiterate just because she didn’t speak English was among the most unfair things I’d ever witnessed in my life. But it was like that and Güela had gone through life thinking that she was dumb. To a certain extend, her kids thought so, too. Amá among them. She’d always talk about the shame that she felt every time Güela came to pick her up at school, her apron dirty from cleaning after others, her hands hoarse from all those products, all that effort.
“¿Qué tal la escuela hoy?” Güela would ask.
“Mom, I’ve told you,” Amá would reply. “Please don’t speak to me in Spanish. I don’t understand you.”
And Güela would then feel a slight pinch in her heart, but she would keep asking each and every day, and each and every time in Spanish. The response from Amá wouldn’t change, though, but tía Isabel would be a little more receptive, always trying hard to speak Spanish with her mom. Amá would argue later that it was easy for Isabel to speak Spanish. She was born in America, after all, so she had nothing to prove. Amá, on the other hand, was just as mojada as their mother, and in her skin could still be read the marks of their travesty. Speaking Spanish, for her, was admitting that she was still from there, and that, she couldn’t afford.
“Again with those old pictures and those notebooks?” Amá told me, walking into the attic. “I’ve told you already, if you want them, they’re yours. They’re only collecting dust in here.”
“Are you sure you don’t want them?” I asked her then, irrationally dreading she might say yes, however unlikely that was.
“You can have them,” she said. “That way you can read them day in and day out in your dorm. Knock yourself out I’m telling you, even if you don’t understand a word.”
I never quite understood that weird pride in saying that none of her children spoke Spanish. She sounded bitter, whenever she talked about it, about being born Mexican, and it infuriated her whenever someone wanted to guess where she was from by her accent. I don’t have an accent, she’d always say, then lie, I was born here. Amá bore her American citizenship like a medal, something, the only worthy thing she might as well have done in her life.
“You don’t miss her at all?” I asked her, putting the notebooks back in the box and moving it ever so slightly, as an indication that I was taking that with me. “Look, this is a picture of the two of you in Mex—when you were little.”
She looked at me, and all I needed was for her to pretend she hadn’t heard what I almost said. Otherwise, I was sure she’d take that picture and shred it to pieces. She’d done it before. I put it quickly inside the box, without her noticing. But it was in Mexico, there was no doubt, Amá was still too little.
“A ver, let me see,” she said, and we both pretended she hadn’t let those first two words slip.
Instead of the one I’d been looking at, I handed her one of Güela and the two of them, Amá e Isabel, in what seemed like a neighborhood party.
“Oh, yeah, I remember that one. It was Lolita’s quinceañera. Tacky, as usual if you ask me, but oh my god did we have fun.”
It wasn’t common to see Amá smile, much less at her childhood memories.
Stop always being so bitter about it all, I’d heard tía Isabel tell her once, people will think that you had a horrible childhood.
It hadn’t been, though, or at least not the part she had lived here. Truth be told, she had always been a little secretive about what life used to be like, back in Mexico. I’d always attributed it to the fact that she was only seven when they had crossed the border, but come to think about it that was time enough for at least some memories to form. Güela didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Spanish, so, even if this didn’t make our connection less special, it didn’t help me in my quest for answers. That took me to tía Isabel, the only one who had been willingly living between both worlds, the only one who could answer my questions.
“What happened to Amá in Mexico, tía?” I went straight to the point that day as I was helping her peel potatoes for the merienda.
“Ay, mijo, don’t go asking for what you don’t want to know,” she told me.
But that’s where she was wrong. Not only did I want to know, I needed to know, because that might as well have been the only way I could ever understand her.
“Your güela was such a beautiful woman,” she then started. “She was known as one of the most beautiful and smart women in her pueblo. Beautiful teacher, wonderful poet. But then she met this man, Heidy’s dad. He gave her a horrible life, mijo. He would beat her day in and day out.”
“Is that why she decided to come to America?” I asked, naively, and tía Isabel nodded.
“Things weren’t easy for your Güela, you know, and your Amá witnessed a lot of that. She might not tell you, but there was one day when that monster beat your Güela to a pulp, and your Amá had to go around the barrio looking for help.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that.”
“Yes, mijo. Güela was a very beloved teacher, but she had to stop working because her husband wouldn’t allow her to. She never stopped writing, though. If you look in her things, I think she still has all the poems she wrote in those days. They are so sad. I don’t think she ever wrote a happy poem, all the way until you were born.”
“Until I was born? Why me?”
“Because you were a new beginning, mijo, you were the first man to be born in the family in a generation. You were the one who was going to break this curse.”