Raising bilingual children is what brings us together as a community here on SpanglishBaby. The world of language immersion is not win or lose; as parents, we simply strive to expose and enrich the lives of our children. And doing so in a mostly monolingual culture is no easy feat. It takes plenty of motivation, dedication and, sometimes, the willingness to accept a Spanglish result. However, what sets our individual stories apart are the experiences that unearth our motivation to take on such a challenge to begin with.
This is where my personal motivation lays…
When my parents divorced, my grandparents held down the fort and made sure my mother had everything she needed to raise my brother and me. I remember many times my Papi (grandfather)ringing the doorbell, stuffing a bag of groceries in my arms, just to be on his way again. He wasn’t a man of many words, none of which were in English. So apart from all the support my grandfather provided me, he also persistently demanded his language be the only way we communicate. Staying connected to my Papi, as well as the older generation of my extended family, is the only reason I am able to speak Spanish today.
By the time I gave birth to Alina, Papi was mature in age and of poor health, but the excitement to meet his first great grandchild was alive and well. We lived in different states, and it was strange for me to hear of an emotional man awaiting the birth of my child when my whole life he had been the symbol of strength. It was strange to know that within me was something that he yearned for. After so many years of needing him, it felt satisfying to know that I could bring him the joy of a new generation. After her birth, I sent weekly photos of Alina to my grandparents through email and, according to Mami, they made him very happy.
Papi finally met Alina when she was three months old, at my brother’s wedding, and the moment was everything I had dreamed of. As I laid my sleeping angel in his arms, I watched as he gazed down at her in amazement. I worked the camera quickly, but had to stop every so often to let the heaviness of the moment pass me. I think I was holding my breath.
After a few minutes, I noticed his arms begin to shake under the weight of my infant, so I took her. In one sweeping movement, he grabbed my arm and said “Hija, por favor, enséñale español. Prométeme.” Papi wanted to be able to communicate with her, and begged me to expose Alina to his language. As I promised him, a quick prayer crossed my mind that he would live long enough to communicate with her at all.
As he left the reception moments later, I watched as he shook my husband’s hand, looked him straight in the eyes and said “Teach. Her. Spanish. Por favor.” I had never in my entire life seen my Papi ask another man for anything. And in English? Never.
Papi died a few hours later in his home while our family continued to celebrate my brother’s marriage. It was one the most profound moments of my life.
My grandfather was a remarkable man, one capable of conquering the American dream. He was a successful entrepreneur with incredible business savvy and an equally astounding work ethic. He was understated in his brilliance, however, and I was reminded of that when I walked into my grandparents’ home for the first time after his loss. Because despite the large, beautiful home in the Southern California beach town which he owned outright, he spent much of his final days in the garage.
As my Mami explained it, for hours Papi would sit on a folding chair in front of a boom box stereo, listening to classical Cuban music while staring at the pictures of my newborn child that he had taped to the furnace on his left. Every picture I had emailed to my grandparents had been taped to that furnace. In that exact moment, in the depths of my grief, I promised my child she would know Spanish and that she would know her Papi.
Writing this post opens deeply guarded wounds, but remembering the motivation behind my choice of language immersion has been important and has renewed my dedication to the sometimes daunting task. But I promised Papi. I promised Alina. No matter where they may find each other, I want them to hear, share, love and understand. I know we each have our unique reasons to raising bilingual children; Papi is mine.