A veces pienso en español primero,
y después me acuerdo que no es mi idioma.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking in Spanish,
and then I remember it’s not my language.
The first time I had a tooth pulled out, at the age of 12, I walked through a mud-orange road in México. I moved along this road through the eyes of a darker and fuller bodied woman who was not myself, and together she and I walked down the center of the road toward a blazing yellow sun, the blues and pinks of painted houses passing along her sides. On the top of her head she balanced a clay bowl full of ripe, nearly black bananas; and though I could not see the fruit through her gaze, I knew they were there—they were something I felt.
The back right molar in my mouth had been infected for weeks and was bleeding out. I could push my tongue against the inflamed gum and a spew of black, thick blood would spill into my mouth like debris, ashes from a fire. I did this often as I liked the way the blood’s knotted clots would melt on the roof of my mouth and along the grooves of my tongue, staining both my tongue and teeth the color of beets. The blood was salty and sweet, like a candy; and moments after swallowing, the sack-like lesion would be full again.
Once the dentist, a flushed-faced man dressed in a long white uniform, had decided the infection would not heal and that the gummed wound would only continue to bleed, therefore threatening to infect one tooth after another, he recommended to my mother that anesthesia be used during the operation. The pain, he told her, would likely be too severe for a young girl my age. But with anesthesia, I remember him saying through the office door, I would not remember the moment when they tore the tooth by its roots, severing it from the flesh and cells housed inside my mouth.
My mother listened and nodded her permission. The dentist nodded back and adjusted his glasses before placing the mouthpiece above my nose and mouth. “Count down from ten,” he instructed, before he winked at me.
Under the breath of the drug, I dreamt of a sunset road as it passed beneath the feet of a dark woman whose gaze I’m not sure I will ever know again. The sun waited at the tip of the street. It was a hot day and we were warm. We walked for what seemed like a long time, and at moments it felt like she and I would burn.
We did not; but the bananas did, the caramelized sugar turning the bowl a beet red.
At the funeral of my mother’s mother in Calexico, California, I did not cry. But an older girl I did not know with blond bangs sat on the ground of the cemetery next to me, sobbing profusely. Her tears tangled in her grown-out bangs and strings of her long hair kept getting trapped in her mouth and in between her teeth. She cried, wiping the water against her face repeatedly, and I did not understand why.
When I finally asked for her name she replied, hurriedly, “Season,” followed by an even more hurried, “¿No me conoces? ¿No sabes que somos primas?” I shrugged and shook my head, confused by the speed of her words. “¿Qué edad tienes?” she asked, slower this time as she rubbed her eyes to push away more tears. I stared back at her. “How old are you?” she translated. “Four,” I told her. “Oh,” she replied, furrowing her dark and funny eyebrows shaped like a sparrow in flight.
Season said nothing more to me then, and instead her body continued to shake and her mouth to eat more hair. She spoke to hooded figures in the not so far distance, her lips moving to the sounds of tears through a language I had only ever heard my mother speak and which, coming from her quick mouth and wrapped in the sound of her mousey voice, was unfamiliar and unsettling to me. She and I crouched along this labyrinth of tombstones and roses for what seemed like a very long time, during which I could not stop reading her strange body—wonder overwhelming me. Watching her, the voice of the Father, his grumbling Spanish, gradually pierced through our sanctum. “Nuestra pérdida,” his voice came steady, a calm wave reaching my shore. Nuestra pérdida…nuestra pérdida… And, slowly, his voice becoming clearer to me, I recognized the word.
Season suddenly grabbed my hand with such tenderness it surprised me, and when I looked at her face for explanation I realized she too understood the meaning of the Father’s “nuestra.” And yet, though we shared this “our,” I knew we did so differently; Season belonged here and I was a stranger—a familiar foreigner among the crowd of shadowed figures that were (that are) my family.
In the background of this memory there is a gray stone pebbled house behind the cemetery’s chain-link fence. But this house may only exist in my memory considering I recognize it as my grandmother’s and I am told the cemetery where she is buried is nearly three miles from where her home actually stands. Still, this stone house just beyond the cemetery’s fence is a permanent fixture in my memory of her death. I refuse to accept its impossibility.
These are my memories of visiting the dust land where they buried my grandmother, of its footprints and of its thirsty raíces; but I knew, and still know very little, of this place. At the time of my grandmother’s funeral, I couldn’t understand the distance my mother and I had traveled to come there—some 1,356 miles south—and I didn’t know I should have been ashamed that I could count on one hand the number of times I had visited my grandmother, and that only until I was 21-years-old would I learn to remember her name—Esther—without having to ask my mother to remind me. But that afternoon, as I stood on the cemetery’s side of the chain-link fence, across from the memory of my grandmother’s home, separated from her and my family by more than death or a fence, I know now that my mother saw all this truth and vergüneza and its consequences too.
Shortly before the coffin was lowered into dirt, I began to weep. So sudden were my cries that Season was taken aback. Her surprise, however, shifted into a comforting steadiness as she observed the water leaking out from a deep and shadowy place within me, each heaving breath throbbing inside my chest, steady aches that moved across my premature breasts like feet running across a gritty ocean beach.
If my mother heard my cries or merely sensed them, I do not know, but moments after the water broke from my body my mother withdrew from the crowd of black-laced, hooded women and walked toward me. “Ahora, mi’ja, nos vamos,” she said, swiftly, slipping her hand into mine. I rose and said a muffled goodbye to Season, who delicately waved back.
I can only speculate why, so suddenly, I began to sob; and it wasn’t, I don’t think, out of a deep sadness for the loss of my grandmother—though I wish I could say it had been. Instead, I think it was out of fear, anxiety, or an unfamiliar longing to be like my cousin who ate her hair through Spanish words.
I would always be on the opposite side of that chain-link fence, the stone house only ever a distant mirage in fickle desert heat.
"I was running about
and, at that time, I felt very much a lot of guilt
but at the same time I couldn’t go back because it
was like poison
I was running away, trying to get as far away as I could
but as you get older things change for you
and you remember the things
that were pretty”
— My mother on why she left Calexico at 18 & never went back (September 2013)
Mama would leave me at the children’s nursery with a big kiss, promising that she would come back, always, at the end of the work day. “Te regreso, mi’ja. No te preocupes,” she’d hush, pushing me towards the other children.
But as a woman raised by a mother who never left her children in the care of strangers, who was taught that a mother is always self-sacrificing, that she lives an unconditional devotion to the interest of her children and therefore never dares to put herself before them, shame and guilt would strike my mama every moment she was away from me. Whispers from the border women who crowded my grandmother’s Calexico porch would trickle into my mother’s ears, cooing at her as my mother sat in an off-white office on the fourteenth floor of a Seattle government building wearing dry-clean only slacks and button-down blouse.
For field trips, the women working at the nursery would tie dirty white string around each of the children’s right wrists and string us all together, pulling us into a single file line with little to no slack, holding us in. I remember us walking alongside a large and busy road all tied together with our long dirty string, a woman guiding us in front much like a lighthouse does a ship at sea that has just glimpsed the light. We did not know for certain where our roped wrists were taking us, but we followed mindlessly, trusting the women who took us beyond the walls our mothers had left us.
A boy I liked who would suck on his knuckles when he got excited promised me he would help unknot the string around our wrists and share his apple juice and hold my hand when we reached the unnamed destination we were being lead to. His name was Tommy, but his mother called him Tomás. He would never respond when I called him this, but his mother never gave him that choice. And this was why I loved him; because while he was never given this choice, he never once fought her for it.
My mother gave birth to my baby brother before Tommy would ever actually hold my hand or share his apple juice or successfully unknot the string tying us all together. As a mother of two, the whispering words of the border women were too loud for my mother to ignore and she promptly decided childcare was no longer acceptable to her. I was pulled out of nursery school in a matter of days, and soon after my mother quit her job.
I missed Tommy a lot after that. And though I credit this longing to how we never shared his apple juice or how we never figured out how to release ourselves from tangles of white string, sometimes I think it may be because I miss the way his mother would say his name with the flare of a fluid tongue—the same tongue my mother often flickered in her own voice, though often accidentally—and how he’d always look at me before running towards her.
That same year, while my mother busied herself with the new mouth of a baby boy, my mother and I slowly stopped the slip of our Spanish language. It was too hard, she would tell me when I asked 21 years later, to teach two American children a mother tongue so far from the border and with so little help, as our father does not speak Spanish and her siblings, unfortunately, were so far away. Instead, she told me, she always kept in mind how my brother and I had so much of what she never had, so much good, she said, so much she had always dreamed of giving to her children—a home with a good roof, a park across the street, rain boots to wear even when it didn’t rain, a school with singing classes, a father who painted my face with images of unicorns and butterflies—so much good that she felt it was greedy to ask for more. And if that meant Spanish wouldn’t be what strung her family together, “So be it,” she said. “Love isn’t perfect.”
“When I met
she was practically
My father each time I ask him to tell me the story of how he met my mother
Growing up, my mother only ever told my brother and I one story about her childhood:
She’s sitting in her mother’s kitchen, off to the side, listening to her mother and her tías and the women from the block talking about their husbands and certain mujeres malas and the disappointments of sons and the heat and the dogs and jewelry at the store across the border in Mexicali and what they would be cooking for dinner that week. As they speak, my mother is sitting there silently, listening for hours to these women, getting up only to get a glass of water or to do what her mother has just asked of her. And once the visitors would leave, my grandmother would sometimes, in her off-handed way, thank my mother for her obedient silence: “Recuérdate,” Esther would say, pointing to the flies circling the kitchen, “en boca cerrada no entran moscas.”
My mother tells my brother and I she learned a lot from not speaking, from only listening, from blending into the background and finding a source of knowledge through this learned invisibility. And, as a girl, I had always found this image of my mother sitting amongst a swarm of moscas oddly enchanting.
“Muchachitas bien criadas don’t speak unless spoken to!” my mother snaps at me, scooting me out of the kitchen full of women when, having tried to emulate the girl who had once been my mother, I had failed badly by asking my mother’s friends too many questions. I exit the room, my mother’s cackling laugh echoing behind me—a laugh my father says I inherited.
Bitterly, I retreat to my father’s office. He is busy speaking to someone on the phone, so I write a note on his notebook like he has taught me to do. “Mama yelled at me,” I write. Holding the phone between his cheek and shoulder, he laughs and pulls me closer with his free hand. When he finishes the call he hangs up and I repeat my mother’s words. He looks at me and smiles. “Well, your mama’s right.”
In the summer of 2013, on a Tuesday evening, I bought my first jalapeño without supervision. The girl working a booth at the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market watched me as I scanned her bucket of jalapeños for the deepest green, struggling to know which I should buy. I was looking for the color that my tía Susana would get so much pleasure in that she would take up my bundle of purchased jalapeños with both her hands and drop them into the bowl placed in the center of her dinner table. Sitting at the 50-something-year-old mesa veiled in my tía’s yellow tablecloth, during dinner my tía would complement the color of the jalapeños I had selected, but immediately add that she was surprised her sobrina güera could achieve such a selection.
Tía Susana’s surprise always hurt me, and it was for this reason that I always spent the most time at the jalapeño buckets—holding them in my palms, admiring the unusual swirl of greens and yellows, petting the bumps, the scratches along the skin. I’d hold them up to my nose, palm up, smelling for its spices and histories.
After my visits to the market, each Friday I would always arrive to my tía’s home in Oakland, Califnoria, with a small sack of jalapeños in hopes of pleasing tía Susana.
But during dinner it was always the same:
“Goodness, niña, you wear too much black – where is your color?”
What is this brown,
la mestiza, the choice
of my light
What is this red,
this bleeding lengua,
the cracked voice
of my doble
What is this Blanca,
the shadow shape
of dark eyes,
in my view
What is this rosa,
this water blood,
in my veins
What is this,
ni de aquí
mentira I feel is so true,
of this privilege,
of this shame,
of this heritage caught in el viento
de mi padre gringo and the brown
of my mother?
Tell me where do I say I fall,
and where do I say
In 2007, when I was 15-years-old, a White boy told me I had a good ass.
“It’s big, girl, in those jeans you got,” he said through straight, white American teeth as we stood in line for roll-call during P.E. “You and your colored girl thunder thighs.”
I could never bring myself to wear jeans after that, and when I got home from school that day I threw away every pair. I ripped holes in them to explain their waste to my mother.
A few months later the boys announced that the Freshman Year Best Ass Award went to a white girl named Annarose. “We could look at that ass in those jeans all day,” the boy who had commented on my ass said to me as we stood in line for roll-call. “It’s the best colored girl’s ass on a white girl we’ve ever seen.”
I was both proud and lonely the rest of the day.
I am 21-years-old and I am sitting in the passenger seat of my lover’s car as he drives us north on the 405 highway. It is a warm tangerine evening in May and the wind gushes through the open windows. I stare out the window. It is that moment in the day, just an hour before sunset, when the shadows of buildings and palm trees drugged from the smog of Los Angeles reminds me of the countless times I have arrived to this city unhurried, only to find the man I love running ahead of me.
Seven months have passed since we have last seen each other and my body aches to be with him again. I place my hand above his on the gear stick and stroke his knuckles. What comes from my mouth does not surprise me: “Have you been with anyone since I’ve been away?” He seems unmoved by the question and names two women. The names themselves do not hurt me. Rather, it is what he says next that ruptures.
“You know, I realized something,” he starts, smiling to himself. “I like white girls who are mixed with something else.”
I say nothing, turning my gaze back out the window towards the familiar shadows.
Love isn’t perfect, I hear my mother’s voice echo against the wind. Love isn’t perfect.
“Who could we make an altar for….?
….mi mamá, mi papá, mi hermano…. ¡Ay!
I don’t want to remember
any of that….
— My mother after I suggest we celebrate Día de Los Muertos (October 2012)
On the door of the garage refrigerator there is a photo of my grandmother, myself, my mother, tía Susana, and another, much older girl with blond hair who I do not recognize. We are sitting along a bench in Berkeley, California. In this photo, I am four-years-old and I am sitting in my mother’s lap but my body seems to be shifting forward, suggesting that just moments later I might break through her hold. To the left of the frame, next to my mother, my grandmother clutches a woven purse in her lap and stares not at who has taken this picture—like the rest of us—but up toward the sun, her large ocean-gray sunglasses shielding her eyes.
I am standing at the fridge to get the second carton of eggs my mother has requested, but I cannot leave this photo, cannot pull myself away. It’s the only photo I know of my grandmother and I where I am not a newborn baby held in her arms. Was this the last time I saw my grandmother? I pull open the refrigerator door and grab the eggs.
When I return to the kitchen I ask my mother about the photo—a question only until now I have the courage to ask.
“Mama, who’s that older blond girl in the photo on the fridge in the garage?”
“Oh, that’s Season.”
“Yes, that’s Season. You don’t remember?”
“I think so…That’s Season? I didn’t recognize her.”
“Mhm, she looks different now, huh?”
“Doesn’t she speak Spanish?”
“Oh no, she doesn’t speak a word. Your Spanish is much better than hers.”
“But…I remember her speaking Spanish to me. At your mother’s funeral.”
My mother laughs.
“That’s life’s gift to you, mi’ja,” my mother says, finally, shaking her head, “an imperfect memory.”
She gestures for the cartoon of eggs. I hand them to her and she cracks several into the pan, sips her coffee, and laughs again before she kisses me on the forehead.
My Spanish-speaking friends often tell me that to say ‘te amo’ is wrong.
“It is colloquially incorrect,” they say. “Say: ‘te quiero.’”
But my mother, when she tells me she loves me through the smothering sound of her skin pressed against the speaker of a phone, says in a language I both know and might never know, ‘Te amo, Alana.’
Ask me who I am,
and I’ll tell you
through rajadas. Ask me
how my eyes sit deep in their brown
and how my mouth moves comfortably
to a colonized tongue,
and I’ll tell you
through mispronunciation. Ask me
what I see in the black reflection of my mother’s obsidian mirror,
and I’ll tell you
through straight white American teeth:
“The thesis and the anti.”
I am on the phone with my mother and she is telling me about Calexico because I have asked. Growing up along the border in the 1950s and 60s, she recounts, there was no word for the feminine “we.”
“But it’s ‘nosotras’ Mama,” I tell her, like I know what I’m saying.
“No mi’ja, it was only ‘nosotros.’ I didn’t hear women refer to themselves as ‘nosotras’ until I was 24 years old.”
I listen to her on the other end of the phone, hearing how much she loves me through the sound of her chin smothering the speaker.
“The ‘a’ didn’t even exist,” she goes on. “And we didn’t even think to add it. Wasn’t even a possibility.”
I think about this robbery: how my mother first encountered “nosotras” when she was 24-years-old, and only until then did she learn to take back from the masculine plural what had always been hers, what had always been women’s. And then I wonder: when will I recover the word that holds onto my being as a woman of both Brown and White heritage? A recovery that, in turn, I imagine I will finally learn to take back what has always been mine: my responsibility to my roots—both Spanish-speaking and English, Brown and White.
I turn 24 next June.
Alana de Hinojosa is a poet pursing a dissertation in the César E Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. Her dissertation is concerned with histories of displacement, dispossession, diaspora, loss, return, and what these sometimes have to do with rivers, particularly the Río Grande. Her poetry has been published in Huizache, Duende, The Acentos Review and is forthcoming in Four Chambers, Track//Four, and elsewhere. She is a Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, Las Dos Brujas, and Hampshire College alum. She was raised in Davis, California.