Mi Abuelita: Who was your Tita?

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Photo courtesy: Elsie Rivas Gomez

Tita was mi Abuelita.  She was a vivacious, loud, loving bull of a woman.  She lived with my family since before I was born, and until she died when I was 16 and she was 83.  We slept in side-by-side twin beds until my brother moved out when I started high school.  Late at night, we would talk about nothing and everything–she would teach me Spanish prayers and make the silliest jokes that made us both giggle.  When my father lay dying of cancer down the hall, she was my refuge.  Despite the decades between Tita and me, I always felt understood by her and I like to think that I understood her in return.

I don’t think I ever spoke to her in English. I can’t be sure– memory is a delicate thing–but all my memories of her are in Spanish. Even the memories of her talking to my Anglo friends are in Spanish, with me translating.  Wait, there is an exception–at the grocery store, Tita would speak in English. She carried a little Spanish-English dictionary and would make herself understood.  Even though I could have translated for her, like so many children of Spanish-speakers do, she did this for herself. Tita was indomitable.

Tita listened to Julio Iglesias love songs, spoke her mind, and always found a reason to laugh.  I can still feel the thick veins on the back of her hands under my fingertips as we had long talks. I remember her driving slowly, but safely, on the way home from my school just days before she died.  Every morning, Tita made my mom (her daughter) breakfast and brought it upstairs on a blue tray while mom got ready for the long days of work.  It was on the way downstairs from giving her daughter breakfast that Tita suffered a sudden brain aneurysm.  She died as she had lived–in the middle of loving.

Tita lived much of her life in El Salvador, but raised her kids in San Francisco, where she washed the windows of my mom’s private school in order to pay the tuition.  She was a traditional woman–prayerful and domestic, but not domesticated.  She loved to travel and went with girlfriends to Europe. My grandfather had to stay home and work, so she wrote him beautiful love letters.  Although I never met him, I grew up loving him too, for the way he treated her (like gold) and the way she loved him (with her whole heart).  She was a powerful matriarch–a fierce caretaker, a nurturer, the ultimate abuelita.

It is largely because of her voice in my head that I speak Spanish to my daughter.  I am one of six children, and out of the dozen kids between my siblings and I, only half speak Spanish.  Ironically, I am the worst Spanish-speaker of us all, yet I am determined to give her this language.  Spanish for me is the language of my grandmother’s hands, of her steel blue gaze. Español is the thread of memories she crocheted around my childhood. It is her nuegados on a Sunday morning, the smooth stones of her rosary in my palm, the faint scent of her I found in her nightgown years after she had passed.

For so many of us, Spanish is the language of love and nostalgia. So I want to know, who is your Tita?

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