Mother Tongue

Growing up, I heard a lot of Spanish spoken. My mother, the oldest of seven children moved from Quito, Ecuador to Los Angeles when she was almost fifteen. My grandmother, who until very recently I had never appreciated for the brave woman she was, came by boat to the United States with her seven children, one niece, two maids, and speaking no English. My grandfather remained in Quito to work, coming to Los Angeles twice a year to visit his family. This always struck me as a rather unconventional arrangement, but apparently it worked for them as they were married until they died, a year apart, in their eighties. At the time the family moved from Ecuador it was customary if one could afford it, to send your children to the United States or England for high school. With seven children to educate, my grandfather thought it was a better idea to move the family to the United States so all the children could learn English. The plan was to follow that move with a move to France so they could learn French as well, but World War II intervened and they never made it across the Atlantic.

So, my mother completed her last years of high school in California and learned to speak English. In 1937, her ESL class was a Spanish I class where the nuns at the Catholic girls’ school she attended hoped she would pick up English as the rest of the class learned beginning Spanish. Indeed, she did. And learned very well. A self appointed, high-ranking officer in the grammar police, she was quick to correct any errors. I don’t think any of her five children ever made the mistake of saying “Karen and me” more than once. And I still cringe when I hear someone say “He’s taller than me”, waiting to hear my mother’s stern voice –  “taller than I. Just finish the sentence – “He’s taller than I am, not taller than me am.”

But Spanish was always her mother tongue and the one she reverted to in times of stress or anger, particularly when angry at one or all of her children.There was a long, repeated list of Spanish words she would shout in frustration. Always the same words. Always in the same order. We were a Catholic family. We went to Catholic school. We referred to it as her litany.

“Carajo! Mierda! Cochina! Sucio! Pendeja! Malcriada!”

By the time I or any of my four siblings could talk, we could repeat the words, learned by rote. My grandparents visited us when I was three. Excited and happy to have their attention, I enthusiastically rode my rocking horse, a gift from my grandparents, until I fell off. More embarrassed than hurt, I expressed my unhappiness and frustration: “Carajo, mierda, cochina, sucio” completing the whole litany. My grandmother, and elegant and very refined woman, turned in shock to my mother. “I know where she learned it” she said. “But what I want to know is where YOU learned it?”

And as we got a little older, although we could easily repeat them, we knew not to use those words. We didn’t dare. Somehow, even though we didn’t know the meanings, we knew we shouldn’t, that they were bad. We knew the wrath of God would descend on us if we did.

So, it was with all of my twelve year old gumption, sassiness, and just a touch of defiance that I approached Stella Gualdoni that day in seventh grade. New to our class that year and exotic, Stella came from Argentina and her first language, like my mother’s, was Spanish. I remember approaching her on the playground cautiously. I didn’t want to scare her off with my request. I made a little comment about our spelling test that segued nicely into a conversation about words. Perfect! “So, do you know what these Spanish words mean?” As I began to rattle off the litany, I watched as Stella’s big brown eyes grew larger and larger and her face registered surprise and horror. After I finished, a small, embarrassed smile appeared on her face as she began to timidly translate for me.

“Hell. Shit. Dirty pig. Dirty, just generally dirty. Stupid jerk. Spoiled brat.”

While I was initially shocked, I was at the same time ever-so-pleased. Did I ever have something on my mom now! For someone who was frequently exhorting me to be more ladylike, this was a new side to her, a new development in our relationship. I felt as if I now had some power. This was going to be fun! I couldn’t wait for the school day to end. Couldn’t wait to tell my mom what I had discovered. Couldn’t wait for her reaction. It was going to be epic!

I got home. I told her. I imagine she was embarrassed to have other people know she used that language. But her reaction, the epic reaction I had gleefully anticipated – nothing. There was none. No fireworks, no excitement. At least nothing I can remember now. I do remember being disappointed that outing my mother hadn’t caused more of a stir, at least a little uproar. But there was nothing. Only a crushing disappointment on my end.

I was reminded of this day, years later, as a twenty year old home from college for the summer. In a hurry, preparing my breakfast before rushing out to my summer job, I spilled orange juice all over the kitchen counter. I was now going to be late. Thinking I was alone, I boldly  shouted “Shit!” From laundry room around the corner,hidden from my view, came my blue-streak cussing mother’s stern reproach, “Peggy, that’s not very ladylike!”

It may not have been, but there could be no question about where I learned it.

Interconnecting Circles