By Siena Edwards
Before I started elementary school, my half Cuban, half Colombian mother would speak to me and my older brother in Spanish. My father spoke to us in English, which was a great balance for us kids growing up. As far as I was concerned, every kid spoke a second language, and that Spanish was just a language people spoke everywhere. To me, these Spanish words had no implications or cultural significance. They were just words. The salsa my mother played as she cleaned the house was just music, and I loved it. She would put lipstick on me and I’d put on my little plastic heels and we’d dance to “Guajira Guantanamera” together in the living room. She sang me “Cielito Lindo” on long car trips when I felt sick and couldn’t sleep. Spanish was the language of my warm mother and it was the taste of the juicy albondigas (meatballs) that my abuelita made for me and my cousins on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve).
Then I started school. No one else around me, in upper-middle-class, white, lower Manhattan, spoke Spanish or came from any kind of Latin descent. I started feeling like some exotic foreigner, and somehow got the idea into my four-year-old head that Spanish was a dirty language and that my heritage was something to be ashamed of. I pretended not to understand my mother when she spoke Spanish to me in front of my primarily Irish friends. I distanced myself as far as I could from the music, language, and culture of my mother’s family. I wished every day that I could be like my friends, just a plain old, English-speaking, all-American kid.
I don’t know what it was that made me come back and embrace my heritage once again, but I think it may have been my slowly growing recognition of the beauty and warmth of Latin culture. I loved when my mother put on the Buena Vista Social Club CD when she was mopping the floors, and nothing warmed me up like a hot bowl of rice and beans. I’ve never considered myself to be anything but a New Yorker, even though my heritage is a compilation of about a million different nationalities. I don’t feel much identification with my Italian/Scottish/Czech heritage, but my Latin-ness always seems to stick around. Maybe it’s because I’ll find myself humming “El Carretero” while I’m taking a shower, or because hearing my mother talking chisme with her mother on the phone at night makes me sleepy and relaxed. Even though I may not always define myself as a Latina, those roots in my blood will always be there to return to, like a slow burning fire to sit by when my hands need some warming up.