Even when we were kids, my mom would ask us to call 411 for information, or make restaurant reservations for her. We would moan and tease that she could do it herself, and she would moan and tease us back to do it because it was good for us to practice our social skills.
I didn’t believe Mama until she tried calling in a reservation for 4 at a new Asian Fusion eatery in Manhattan Beach. She was turned away. She had me call in and sure enough, I was able to get the reservation that she couldn’t.
It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that I learned that my mom had an accent. We were visiting my dad’s mom in Baltimore and my mom was talking with my grandma over dinner. At one point in their conversation, my grandma leans over to me, responding to my mother by asking me:
“Do you ever have trouble understanding your mother?”
“No, why?” I asked grandma.
“Because of her accent.”
Our pediatrician also had something to say about the way my mom talked: “Don’t speak to them in Spanish–otherwise you’ll confuse them.” The doctor emphasized the confusion part on behalf of my brother who has Asperger’s, essentially telling my mom: You speak to your son in English, or you’ll be setting him back.
It was the 80s, but it may as well have been the 1950s, back when doctors were famous for blaming moms for their children’s developmental disabilities. We would only learn English at home, and what we didn’t get from Sesame Street, we soaked up in prayers (Jesús, José y María, os doy el corazón y el alma mia) and mother-child cariños and insults (hija mia, ladrone!). I would spend the rest of my life trying to learn Spanish–at school, through friends and boyfriends, with research projects, and in my travels–so I could communicate with my relatives. Thanks doc.
In South Africa, where I’m living right now, my mom would pass for white. But in the U.S., there have been times where she was followed around in department stores because she didn’t look white and they wanted to make sure she wouldn’t steal anything.
These are my memories of growing up with a mom from Peru, who to Americans outside of our family of 4, had an accent. It was only much later that I would remember these stories of our childhood with anger at the discrimination my mom had to endure in those years because she sounded and looked different to Americans.
But my mom is also a woman. And I wonder if she was a Peruvian man in the U.S., if those interactions would’ve played out in the same way.
I am my mother’s daughter: I’m grown up now and I can emphasize with some of what my mom went through. I’m reminded of my invisibility all the time, of people not being able to hear or see me. I’m following the rules they told us–speak English, don’t steal–but I’m silenced all the same. I speak and look Woman, unfortunately.
Sometimes the inability to understand me is subtle. At work, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my male colleagues only jot down notes when other men are speaking, or male colleagues are listened to even after they’ve interrupted a woman only to repeat exactly what our woman colleague had been saying all along before she was interrupted.
Other times, the inability to understand me is blunt. I was walking to the corner bakery in Parktown when a massive Land Rover Defender (is a 4×4 safari vehicle really necessary in Joburg?) rolled up onto the 3rd Avenue sidewalk in front of me, forcing me to walk in the street. I kept walking, but a big voice inside of me encouraged me that it was 2016 and it was ok for me to speak up (politely) to the driver.
” Excuse me, but when you park on the sidewalk like that, me and other pedestrians have to walk in the street.”
“Yea, I saw you there and I thought maybe I shouldn’t park here,” he said as he backed away and began to cross into the street.
“A lot of us walk in this neighborhood, and when you park like that–”
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” and he ended it, crossing the street and ducking into a coffee shop.
I’m trying a new thing: turning my anger (slashing this guy’s tires) into inspiration (written word). I turned to the Spanish greats–Federico Lorca, Rosalia de Castro, Pablo Neruda–but I didn’t find solace there either. What did Neruda have to be sick about for being a man for anyway?
Here is my attempt to re-write Neruda’s “Walking Around”:
Still it would be marvelous
I don’t want to go on being straw in a murky pool,
I don’t want attention.
Some of my Mamas and Mamamas spoke English, others Spanish and Yiddish. We can learn the language, we can lose the accent, but we will always speak Woman.