Bilingual is Better
Photo by nkymike

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - Photo by nkymike

This is the continuation of yesterday’s post.

We first learned about Susan McKinney de Ortega through a message she sent to let us know about her own blog and how she occasionally writes about raising two bilingual and bicultural teenage girls in San Miguel de Allende, México. The more we read about her and her family the more we wanted details. Luckily, she had written all about it in the short story “Two Red Lines” you’re about to read which was originally published in One Big Happy Family: 18 Writers Talk About Polyamory, Open Adoption, Mixed Marriage, Househusbandry, Single Motherhood and Other Realities of Truly Modern Love, edited and with an introduction by Rebecca Walker. We were thrilled when we found out we could republish it in its entirety and now we share it with you.

Two Red Lines – Part Two

Early on our wedding day, my mother-in-law-to-be Carmen opened nuts with a hammer in her kitchen, preparing chicken mole for the reception, and told me how she had gotten married.  There had been a government campaign on the radio to get people living together to marry, she said.  She worked, cleaning and cooking in the home of a rich Mexican woman who said, “Andale, Doña Carmen.  Why don’t you take the day off and get married?”

“So, I thought, why not?” Carmen told me.  “I went home to Silvano and said, Vamanos, viejo,’ and we went down to the registro and a judge married us.”

She had wiped her hands on her t-shirt, changed her shoes, taken the bus to the centro with her man and signed some papers.   Then they’d come home, where she’d left a pot of frijoles on a low boil, and she’d sent Carlos’ sister Dora up the street for fresh tortillas.

“How long ago was that?” I’d asked.

“Carlos was in secundaria.  Eh, four or five years ago.”

My parents had married at ages 21 and 22, when my father was home in Chester, Pennsylvania from army reserve duty.  The wedding was during the Christmas season.  The bridesmaids wore deep green and the halls were decked with boughs of holly.

Carlos and I planned a small ceremony, something between the styles of our parents.  We contracted a justice of the peace.  A friend lent her spacious garden, populated with fruit trees.

My family flew in from east and west.  Wedding day was a Monday.  My father paced in the garden.

“On time has a different meaning in Mexico,” I soothed.  “The judge will come.”

Upstairs, I kept watch at the window.  Dora, my soon-to-be-sister-in-law, tottered through the gate on high heels carrying a huge pot.  She stood, looking around, until my father appeared and took the pot from her.  My friend Betsy arranged white gladiolas in a ceramic pot.

Cha-Cha, a translator, came upstairs holding a rum and Coke.  “Muchachas, the judge arrived at my wedding at midnight.  All the guests were sloshed by then.  The judge was tanked.  My husband says he’s not sure we got married.”

“Don’t let my father hear you say that.”

Below, guests continued to arrive.  There was my boss at a company that imported medical equipment – a white Mexican who had whispered to my sister how stunned he was that I, a person with education, could have become engaged to someone so morenito, so low class.

In the garden, Carmen arrived, followed by Silvano, tugging a borrowed sports coat around him.

Ven conmigo,” I said to my future in-laws.  I led Carmen and Silvano to where my mother stood in a moss green garden party dress.  “Mom,” I said.  “This is Carlos’s mother, Carmen.”

“Oh,” my mother said with warmth, lowering her wine glass to a stone tree border.  Unable to speak each other’s language, the two mothers hugged.  Then the judge arrived.

Suzanne McKinney de Ortega

I scurried back to the house to make my entrance on the garden path.

My father, dressed in a gray summer wool suit, held out his arm and flashed me a go-get-‘em smile.

Smiling faces lined the flagstone path, my mother, with tears in the corners of her eyes, my friends craning to see me.  I knew some of them still whispered Carlos was too young, unformed, prospectless for me.  I marched on.  I knew our life would not be easy.  I also knew I had found genuine love and this was my path.

My parents managed to get through the wedding with some degree of satisfaction and even joy.  Carlos and I went back to his parents’ house, where we’d built a small apartment, and where we brought Carla Xochítl when she was born.

Carla, a few days old, lay on the bed next to me one day, as I leafed through an American woman’s magazine that addressed new mothers.  “You can’t get enough sleep and don’t have time to buy groceries or pick up the house.  Plus there’s that work deadline you’ll never get to with your newborn demanding all your time!” it screeched.  That’s not me, I thought calmly, as my mother-in-law entered the room with homemade chicken soup on a tray.  The benefits of living with the family, I thought sleepily.  That’s what I should write.

As much as my in-laws helped me through new motherhood, I knew I had to leave the overcrowded house, to allow my husband to grow up, to establish our own bicultural family and to honor the traditions of both heritages.

After the birth of our second child, I found us a ninety dollar a month apartment, and with baby Sean Paula in arms and Carla toddling at our feet, we moved downtown.  The privacy was achingly beautiful.

The first thing I did was to make the rule that everyone sit at the table together to eat.  “Why?” whined Carlos, Carla and Sean.  Carla took her plate, stomped to the patio steps outside, and began eating as she’d always done in my mother-in-law’s house.  I made myself immune to her screams of protest as I brought her back to the table.  Perhaps the hardest part of being in our marriage is that Carlos grew up with little structure, and I firmly believe in it.  I will tell you that eleven years after we had that three-day struggle over how to eat a meal, we sit down together every single night now, and look forward to it.  And that I win most of our how-to-be-a-family discussions, because my father’s disciplined nature was passed firmly to me, and I believe that our way is good.  I believe that regular bedtimes and mandatory school attendance and expectations that children finish their homework arm kids with tools for life.   And because Carlos can see that his routine-less upbringing, in which nobody insisted he go to school or come home at night, has left him unprepared for modern life.  Now that he is in college, and struggling to form study habits, he backs up my rules in a more genuine way than ever.  Many nights the two girls study with their father at the dining table.  Sometimes it chokes me up.

Photo by joseloya

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - Photo by joseloya

I try to make room for the take-every-day-as-it-comes Mexican outlook in our lives, because it helps keep one from early heart attacks.  I also see that its flip side is a staggering inertia.  My father-in-law is a construction maestro, mixing cement and laying brick to build San Miguel’s houses.  Many albaniles, once they earn enough money for frijoles, tortillas and tequila, will take a day off.  No thought of tomorrow.  My father-in-law, with his relaxed attitude about work, will never grasp his chest and keel over.  He will also never do major repairs on his own house nor take his family on a vacation – there is never any extra money.

Carlos and I don’t try too hard to steer our children, now aged 13 and 11, away from inertia and towards hard work and savings.  We let them look around.  At the Ortega’s house, my mother-in-law spends the day at an outdoor gas cook stove, making and serving meals to various extended family members as they drop in.  First comes Silvano, their grandfather, on his lunch break, his hands still dusty from a construction job.  Next, their jobless 20-year old cousin and his pregnant wife.  Then their uncle, Carlos’ brother Hector, after a day of teaching gym classes in San Miguel schools.  In wanders the señora from down the callejon who never has enough cash or food.  Plates of beef and potatoes in chile pasilla sauce are passed around, along with jokes.  Carla and Sean take a plate and sit on a step or a rock or a plastic chair with their food.  The enjoy the chatter and the relaxed afternoon, which might go on for hours.  They see the two or three bent forks, the cracked plates, the crumbling down house.  They don’t ask for napkins because there aren’t any.

At my parents’ house in Naples, Florida at Christmas this year, we sat 21 people at two long tables lit with tapered candles.  A tall tree trimmed in ornaments and white lights blazed behind us.  My father’s trophies sat in the back room.  We said prayers, poured wine, oohed over the roast, kept our elbows off the table.  One of the successes of our marriage is how our girls float effortlessly between the two homes, the two worlds.

The girls look Mexican but not quite, I told my Minnesota friend Mina.  Carlos is dark brown with midnight black hair and I am so fair I’ve had several pre-cancerous spots removed from my face.  The girls are two beautiful shades of café-con-leche.

“The way kids in the States are overscheduled is nuts,” Mina wrote.  “What do your girls do?”

They go to a sweet little Montessori school and they ride horses, I tell Mina.  I will go to the poorhouse to keep them in both.

“Are they truly bilingual?” texts Mina, whose mother is from Spain.

My girls speak both languages perfectly, something they thought every kid did until they entered grade school and realized most of their peers spoke only Spanish.  What they were lacking, I write, was a good English class.  Literature, poetry, writing – the kind of English the nuns taught me.   The classes in their school are for children learning English as a second language.  So, guess what else I’m doing besides writing and running our spa, Mina?  You got it.  Teaching English.

The next worry is where they will go to high school.  Prepatoria El Pipila where Carlos went, and where nobody ever did homework and the teachers weren’t paid, is not an option.  Boarding school in the States is the answer for some American parents in San Miguel, but not for me.  I like my kids!  I want them around.

I want…I want… what I want for my kids is what I had: a large well-established high school, a swim club around the corner, a decent newspaper on the doormat, summers at the Jersey shore, a noisy gang of cousins to man baseball teams and horseshoe tournaments at family picnics.

I want them to inherit the drive and determination and shoot-for-the-stars outlook that made my father a winner.  I want them to get out of bed with purpose and joy, knowing the world holds opportunities for them.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - Photo by jj.figueroa

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico - Photo by jj.figueroa

In San Miguel, my girls go to their Tio Hector’s sports camp, ride with their Pony Club, compete in dressage competitions, watch their father play basketball in the park with a gang of cousins, like in my childhood.  It’s not all the same though.  In their world, Corona, Guadalupe and Rafa Marquez are patriotic words.  Fireworks light up the skies about a hundred nights a year to celebrate the patron saint of a neighborhood, the cigarette sellers, a wedding.  Ladies in stores tell you, if you don’t have enough money, to come back and pay tomorrow.  My girls can count on finding their abuelita next to her stove, their aunts, uncles and cousins gathering at her table any afternoon they care to stop by.  Which brings me to another wish: I want my girls to feel fully entitled to linger for hours over a home-cooked meal.  There is security and challenge to their lives, which is what I truly want, after all.

Silvano, between construction jobs, is working on the house we’ve started with seed money from my parents.  It’s a Mexican style project.  When we have extra money, we buy another load of bricks.  We have a few rooms, some rebar sticking out here and there, stairs to the unfinished second floor, no debt.  Before we finished a bedroom for the girls, we slept all together in one room.  It was normal for my kids, out-of-necessity for me, shocking to American friends.

I wonder if some day being bicultural will have some meaning to the girls.  Perhaps, if they go to the States for college.  Will they feel American enough to not be foreign students?  Will they feel their Mexicanness when they are away from Mexico?

What I understand after all these years of living in Mexico is that my life is not quite the escapist paradise some Americans fantasize it to be, nor is it the directionless poverty road we faced when we started.  It is a life defined by less income than most of my American peers but by family bonds and a cultural richness I wouldn’t trade for a dozen big houses.

We celebrate Halloween and Dia de Los Muertos, Christmas and Dia de Los Santos Reyes.  We have posadas and piñatas, ice cream, cake and Ipods.  Despite all wedding bets, we are still in this life together, teaching each other alternately to succeed and relax, and above all enjoy the gifts we were given.

So, what did you think? Wonderful and inspiring story, no? We’d like to thank Suzanne McKinney de Ortega for sharing this awesome story with all of us. Have a Your Story you’d like to compartir? We’d love to hear from you, so please write as an email or leave us a comment below… Gracias!

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