26 October 2016

Madre del alma or "How did you learn Spanish?"

It's really hard to explain how I learned Spanish without admitting failure.

Oh, I aced all of the college and graduate classes. But a significant factor in my current fluency has always been relationships. The most important relationship in my life that Spanish has made possible is indeed a family relationship, but not in any legal sense. Not anymore.

Mostly I call her Abuela. Sometimes she's my Mexican mother. I still call her suegra occasionally, though I haven't been married to--or even heard from--her son in about seven years.

But explaining what Spanish means to me, how I learned it so well, means at least mentioning my failed marriage, over and over again.

Cooking with Abuela
I once heard Kim Bearden of the Ron Clark Academy speak about her first marriage, and it meant so much to me to hear that an intelligent and inspiring educator like her could survive something like that and speak openly about it. I've also found it's usually easier to be straightforward about my own circumstances. It just takes a while to be clear, as there's no shorthand yet for how my family works.

Armida is not just my friend. She is not just my son's grandmother--though that's how I put it for people who will inevitably wonder why Paolo is brown and Lena is not. Lena could barely understand English, let alone Spanish, when Armida whispered to her that she was the grandmother who loved her most because she had never had a little girl before.

Grandaddy (Charlie's) & Abuela
What's even cooler is neither my mom nor my husband's mom denies her that. In fact, Armida is a beloved guest at my in-laws' house when Paolo requests Granny's spaghetti for his birthday supper. Even Charlie's grandma gets tickled about how Grandaddy blushes when Armida gives him his hug and kiss.

I translate for all of this. And this is how I keep learning Spanish.

I translate when Armida's mother welcomes my family of four into her home and worries that Charlie, AKA "mijo," needs more huevos or chorizo or tortillas de harina every morning for a week. I
Bisabuela y sus bisnietos
translate when Armida's husband wants to tell Lena about the cute pink vest he found for her at Zara for Armida to bring in her annual trip up for Paolo's birthday. I translate my children's reasoning for why they insisted on bringing Abuela and Bisabuela potholders for presents (they like to cook) or when Charlie REALLY wants to express his appreciation for Armida's milanesa or tortas ahogadas.

Paolo is starting to catch on, though. In a few years, I won't be the only one translating.

¡La felicidad de tener una niña por fin!
But how do I explain all of this without straight out saying I'm divorced? How do I explain that we're related but not technically related anymore? There's no title that clarifies that this is the only mother I've had who I could swap clothes with. There's no title, in English or Spanish, for the woman who loves you after all legal bonds are dissolved, who loves your new husband and your new daughter without the slightest reserve.

So when people ask me how I learned Spanish, I can tell them about college classes and grad school. I could tell them about student teaching in Guadalajara and maybe gloss over meeting a guy in Puerto Vallarta over Semana Santa, skip the four years before Paolo was born when I had a Spanish surname.

But when immigration & customs ask where Armida will be staying, she doesn't really have an accurate term to explain who can vouch for her. Neither do I--at least not one that will communicate our connection without telling the whole story.

Until someone comes up with a name for an extra mother who shares blood with your child, who shares love with everyone you love, who always told you how strong and worthy you were through it all--but who didn't raise or give birth to you, your significant other, or even a friend--I don't have a term that will make sense to those who don't already know who she is to me.

For those who do know, though, they know I learned a lot of my Spanish from--and for--my madre del alma.

1 comment:

  1. I loved reading this. I have been following you as a fellow Spanish teacher for a few years, but this post spoke to me on another level. I grew up with one brother. I married a man with three siblings, each of whom has been married more than once. Of all my sister-in-laws, my brother's exwife is my true soulmate. It is complicated explaining our relationship to others, but I am so grateful that I still have her in my life.