Bilingual is Better

Photo by Mario Carbajal

Editor’s note:  Mother’s Day is this Sunday and we decided to celebrate a las madres de las madres–las abuelitas.  This week we have two posts focusing on grandmothers as providers of cultural identity and a link to our heritage language.

Today’s post is by Dominican/American mother of four, Angélica Perez-Litwin, who just launched Modern Familia-an amazing multicultural blog dedicated to cultivating confident and happy families. We invite you to visit our amiga´s site where we can almost guarantee you´ll feel just as home as you do here.

How My Abuela Kept Me Dominican and Bilingual

Between the ages of 5 and 7, my life took a migratory U-turn.

I was born in New York City.  But at the age of 5, my parents decided to return to Dominican Republic to materialize their “Dominican dream,” to settle back in their country of origin after working hard in this country.

However, two years later, and after a few unsuccessful business efforts, my parents were forced to return to the States and start all over again.

Back in New York, they couldn’t afford to rent an apartment.  And while they managed to fit their few belongings in a rented room, the room was not large enough for all of us, including my younger sister and I.   For the next year or two, we were sent to live with Mama Nini, our maternal grandmother, until our parents could settle in financially.

Living with Mama was the best time of my childhood — full of simple but powerful moments.

I used to sleep on a roll-away-bed, right next to Mama’s bed.   At night, she would tell us cuentos from her own childhood.  And as scary as they were, my sister and I would beg for another cuento every night: “Mama, cuentanos otro cuento…!” She would gladly do so, in the silence of the night, until we fell asleep.

During the day, she would tell us about life en el campo with her 11 brothers and sisters.  And tells us about her passion for horses and horse back riding.
We loved hearing those stories while we helped her cook arepas in her old, dark frying pan.  It was in Mama’s kitchen that we learned the art of peeling a platano and cooking mangu with fried red onions, queso frito and salchichon.

Perhaps the most memorable and interesting aspect of growing up with Mama, was witnessing her successful coffee cup (La Taza) reading consultations.  Yes, mama (allegedly) had the ability to read her clients’ short-term future by reading how coffee drops had dried up on a cup of coffee the client had drank from.  I recall the many women (and even some men!) who would regularly visit Mama, sit down with a cup of Bustelo coffee, while they chatted with mama, and then place the cup of coffee up-side-down on the low flame stove burner.

As a child, I would sit by her side, listening to what Mama would tell her clients, as she rotated the cup, while looking closely at it:

“You’ll be getting an important letter soon…”

“I see this tall man who is interested in you, but he’s not sure how you feel about him…”

“There is something you’re afraid of, a decision you need to make…”

And with those words, mama’s clients would leave their consultation session feeling empowered and in control of their fate.  Of course, Mama didn’t charge a fee for such a privileged, God-given sixth sense, but donations were totally accepted.  The more promising the future, the larger the donations appeared to be — or so it seemed to me…  Between you and I — I heard Mama forecast very similar events and outcomes to more than one client.  Years later, I realized that what she said mattered very little.  The therapeutic part of the session was being in mama’s presence, her graciousness, her smile, her soothing disposition, and sharing that cup of black coffee while talking about life with her.

Life with Mama was all in Spanish.  With two rambunctious little girls around, she had no choice but to resort to a very colorful Spanish to get our attention and discipline us.   Whenever we misbehaved, she would threaten us and say “Si sigues haciendo eso, te voy a dar una tabana!” — tabana meant a slap.  But of course, she never, ever did.  My sister and I would secretly smile, and so would she.

My childhood memories with Mama are overflowing right now…there is so much more — the old, classical songs from Roberto Carlos, Danny Rivera, Julio Iglesias, Johnny Ventura and the fast-paced perico ripiao…las fiestas familiares, el sancocho, and her home as a warm, welcoming place to be hang out at.

Mama passed away many years ago.  But like so many abuelas, Mama was and will always be an important matriarchal figure in our family.  Abuelas are the unsung heroines in the passing on of unforgettable and impressionable cultural moments, of music and language, of collective values and moral character.

Mama planted strong cultural seeds in me that have blossomed into the bilingual and bicultural woman that I am today.  I thank her and all the abuelas around the world who foster our cultural heritage and language through their unyielding love and care.

Angelica Perez-Litwin, PhD, is the founder and writer of ModernFamilia, a family well-being blog for parents, with a focus on bicultural living.  It’s like having your comadre online, to give you advice and guidance. The website offers insight, ideas, resources and inspiration on how to create confident and happy families, and it celebrates the strength, power and diversity of families.  Angelica is a practicing psychologist and family life coach.

(Disclaimer: Modern Familia has become a SpanglishBaby sponsor, but our opinion of her and her site is totally our own.)

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