The amateur blacksmith
I began questioning words when I moved to Lima and was given a label I didn’t quite ask for.
I was raised by a Peruvian dad and Cuban-American mom. Peruvian dad meant we always had Inca Kola in the fridge. Cuban-American mom meant we liked our tostadas tightly pressed, smothered in butter and dipped in café con leche. Our parents spoke to us in Spanish. We’d nod and register but respond in English always. El español manifested itself in the things we did, not in the things we said. It was our culture, not our language.
I began questioning words when I moved to Lima in sixth grade and became painfully aware of how fragmented my Spanish was. I didn’t roll my “r’s”. I didn’t spit out my “j”s. I could hold a decent conversation but I didn’t speak in slang. I knew of fiestas, not tonos. I knew it was my Dad’s trabajo that had sent us to Peru, not his chamba. And the bits of culture I had acquired throughout my pseudo Peruvian upbringing didn’t cut it here. I learned that I couldn’t dance for my life. I learned that everyone had watched Es Tan Raven growing up, not That’s So Raven, which meant I couldn’t sing the theme song during lunch. I learned that there were five or six Shakira songs everyone knew and I didn’t. Memorizing their lyrics felt like a rite of passage so I started reciting them in the shower. I learned, above all, that I was American, something I hadn’t ever really felt until it was being pressed upon me. I didn’t feel it back in Miami, where everyone carried the weight of Latin America on their shoulders. Everyone’s grandparents were immigrants. Everyone carried half-spoken Spanish in their step. But in Lima, people had more than Peruvian grandparents. They were born and bred on the same streets as them. And their Spanish? It wasn’t half-spoken. It was strung into a song I wasn’t attuned to and heavy with words that were foreign to me. So, I wore “American” on my forehead like a permanent stamp.
“A ver, a ver! Habla en inglés porfa!”
At my new friend Barbara’s beach house, I am placed under a microscope. I sit in the sand surrounded by kids, a few from school, the rest unfamiliar. They’ve been going to this beach their entire life. So have their parents. All of them and me. They beg me to perform a few sentences in English. They beg in a Spanish so smooth, I wish I can grab it from the air and put it in my mouth but their words spill too quickly, gone before my hands can even reach them. I am reduced to Barbara’s American Friend who moved to Lima a few months ago. I can’t crack jokes because I don’t have the words for them. My humor doesn’t translate. They ask me why I’m shy and I want to scream that I’m not, that I have a tendency to speak too loud and say too much but the words to explain this are elusive. I try hiding the gringa in me but she hangs over my neck like an unwanted medal. She begs to be seen. So, the curtains unveil and she gives them a few words.
“My name is Lola and I’m from Miami. I just moved here.” They look at me, eyes wide open, smiling.
“Ayyyy! Yo quiero hablar así!” I want to speak like that, one of them says, and it is then that I realize they aren’t even looking at me. They’re looking at the medal that shines through my shirt and clings on for dear life. The weight of it anchors me deep in this foreign sand.
I want to speak like you, I want to say. But I don’t.
When my friends looked at me, they saw americana, but they didn’t know I spent most of my days trying to scrub that label off. I stopped ordering ketchup with my tequeños during lunch because I was scared I pronounced it too American (que-choop, I had learned, was the right pronunciation). I started after-school tutoring where I learned that it’s fácil, not facil and even though problema ends with an “a”, it will always be el problema, not la problema. I memorized and recited the Peruvian national anthem. The words bestowed upon me during those extra hours of español, words I polished and practiced when no one was looking, served well beyond the classroom. They became swords to establish myself in this new terrain. With them, I dominated the four-square courts (“juguemos con doble bote”), poked my way through the lunch line (“me colas?”), and jabbed at boys (“no jodas”). The bits of Spanish I knew before moving to Lima quickly metastasized into a Spanish so peruano, the gringa in me, the gringa everyone saw when I first arrived, quickly faded.
At Colegio Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The American School of Lima, English was the language of instruction, yet it was Spanish that pervaded its halls between third and fourth period. English was the language of instruction, yes, but it was Spanish you heard whispered in classrooms when teachers turned their backs. I wanted in on the whispers, so I said adios to el inglés and actively set my default setting to español.
“Ey, ey, ey! In-glich at all times.”
Authority cuts through the air, disrupting the chaos that stirs in the back of our Math class. I use authority liberally here. El profe isn’t the most assertive of teachers within el Roosevelt’s confines. He throws this phrase around two or three times a class and is met with unanimous laughter each time. “In-glich at all times”, he reminds us while solving for “x” but we sit in a whirlwind of Spanish. It gusts through the room bringing chismes and chongos along with it. It’s tenth grade. The language that dictates my life is español. I’ve learned to float among the regulars. One might say I’ve even become one of them.
“Oye, profe. No entiendo nada. Me explicas?” I ask, trying to make sense of the variables scribbled on the board.
“Claro, Lolita. Qué parte no entiendes?” He says while picking up his wooden meter stick. He points it at the equation and uses it like a lightsaber to weave through the numbers and letters.
“Esto va aquí. Blim. De ahí pasas la “x” al otro lado. Blim. Después resuelves. Blim. Es fácil. Entendiste?” I nod my head to each blim to acknowledge that I’m going through the motions with him. It makes sense after a few seconds.
After a quick “gracias”, I turn my head back to my friends and the chismes resume. While he continues rearranging the variables, I rearrange words. A shuffling of languages that once took me several seconds is now second nature. Spanish spills out like a can of beans.
From an early age, language was a currency. Speak fluent Spanish and you’ll have people to sit with at lunch. Speak fluent Spanish and it’ll be easier to order food from Yanina at the kiosk. Call it quiosco, y eres una más. Spanish plus proficiency equals un mundo de possibility. By tenth grade, that mundo felt wide open to me. I flaunted my words with confidence and felt rich in my shiny peruanita shoes.
But that mundo came at the price of some self-deprecation. I began mispronouncing English words or messing with my grammar to sound more Peruvian. An Active Attempt to Make English My Foreign Language.
“Can you borrow me a pencil?”
I knew this didn’t make syntactical sense but I didn’t care. I let the English mistakes rub off on me in the same way that I adopted the Peruvian lingo. If erasing americana meant adopting second-rate English, I would. And it was all de lo más bien till I walked into my ninth grade English class and realized I loved to write.
Mr. Topf sits at the front of the room with the rest of the class facing him. We’re split into two teams. The opponents slam the table. Their turn.
“Angry because something is unfair or unjust!” someone screams. That’s right. Damn. He tallies up the points and continues down the list of words.
“Mollify.” He reads again. We hit the table first this time.
“To calm down.” Point for us. He tallies up again.
Every few weeks, Mr. Topf makes us memorize a list of vocabulary words at home. But when we’re back in the classroom, he weaves them into lessons and gives them life. Words become something worth fighting over.
Long after we play, I find myself actively trying to remember their definitions. When something is worthy of punishment, it’s reprehensible. When something ceases to move or flow, it stagnates. I jot the words down in the side columns of my planner and force them into my essays.
A few months later, we deconstruct the lyrics of Billy Joel’s Piano Man and I see how words take on new meanings when strung into song. I see that they can reveal the subtleties of the human experience, or the power of conversation, in Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. Mr. Topf challenges me to accept the conviction that English and writing and words for the sake of words can be fun. That they’re allowed to be fun. In his class, I don’t mispronounce. I don’t phrase things wrong. I want to preserve the integrity of my inglés and become its master.
The first semester of ninth grade wraps up and we shuffle into our high school gym for final exams. One of the writing prompts for our English final asks that we write a vignette about a moment that stood out during class. I write my vignette about the first time we wrote a vignette in class. I write about being in a classroom and calling upon a memory. The feel of the pencil, the tick of the clock. The pressure of timed writing imploding, you sit in your chair and try to grab a meaningful experience from your web of scattered thoughts. An experience that demands to be written. When you find it, you try letting it unravel onto the page. Words become sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. You flesh out as much as you can till time is up. Then you drop your pencil. A vignette about a vignette.
Those vocabulary words he taught me stick for years to come.
Apathetic. Lacking interest or enthusiasm.
The apathetic attitude I had adopted towards the English language was suddenly being turned on its head. I was being nudged to care again.
Ambivalence. Mixed feelings towards someone or something.
I wrestled with the newfound ambivalence that comes with loving English words, when for so long I convinced myself it was better to forget them.
Eventually, I cut the crap and owned up to the fact that I liked words, that I liked to write. I didn’t sulk in the fear of saying something dumb because I knew that in the realm of the English language, I was more than just my slang. My friends saw this, too. They saw how I reveled in words and began asking for my help. Some requests would end with a reassuring “no es tan largo” but even if the essays were sólo una página, I took them on like a project.
I can’t remember what they are about but I chisel at them like a blacksmith, smoothing the rough edges of sentences when they run on for too long. I weld phrases together and bend them in new directions when they reach dead ends. There was a repetition to the task. Smoothen. Weld. Bend. Repeat. I’m not one for routine but there was something cathartic to the smoothing and welding and bending of words. A process that was always preserved with words that were always different.
I didn’t feel qualified to be doing this and was caught by surprise when friends asked, but I didn’t complain. If taking on some extra work meant getting the chance to embellish new sentences, I was happy to be the blacksmith, to put on the rusty apron and punch at words for hours. I became more accustomed to the idea that English was no longer something that clung around my neck and weighed me down. I let the medal hang with the newfound lightness that comes with embracing something you didn’t know you were allowed to love.
I checked the “Corrections” folder on my laptop the other day and all traces of my high school editing days have been washed away. A folder once packed to the rim with English essays is now filled with obscure Spanish titles. El Misterio de Caramelo. El Vínculo Roto. Una Doble Prisión. These are the things my Duke friends send me and ask that I skim over for them. Español now pervades what was once a space to rearrange sentences in a language I grew to love. For these new essays, the chiseling is tedious. I check for grammar and spelling mistakes. I change verb tenses. I add transition phrases. But I don’t give these words the craft they deserve because it isn’t the same in Spanish.
At Duke, I am Peruvian. Bearing this label means I carry the weight of explaining my country to those who can’t see its many layers. But it also comes at the price of still feeling reduced to that one place. I ask myself if they know that I love English words. If they know that I write. If they know that, like Peru, I too have many layers. But I see how so many years of scraping americana off my forehead can make myself seem flat.
January is one of the rare months that we — my home friends and I — all happen to be in Lima at the same time. On my last Friday before heading back to Duke, we all go to the beach. Barbara’s beach. A place once alien to me has become a haven for my favorite childhood memories. Babi has invited me here so many times I’ve lost count. We drive into the beach’s familiar gates on this Friday and I am reminded of nights playing policias y ladrones with this friend that has become family and this city that has become home. José, el heladero, calls me by my name and offers me an ice cream. The trampoline sits in its rightful place on the beach, next to the swings. I look at the waves and remember the time I got caught in one and broke two of my fingers. The weight of my longing to hold onto this place is what anchors me to the sand now, a sand that is no longer foreign. It hugs my feet. My friends laugh and waves crash and it is this feeling — the feeling of things once out of place now coming together — that makes me want to write.
I write with the hope that the craft will provide clarity, that the words will act like swords that pierce through the fog covering mi Lima limón. But when I read the words over I end right where I start, wrestling with the ambivalence that comes with digging relentlessly, only to find another layer.