“No Habla” by Shannon Barber

My Mother stole the Spanish from my lips before I could speak.

My Grandmother feeds me tiny morsels of Spanish.

I’m sitting in a classroom with a bunch of other adults trying to learn how to speak Spanish. I’m silent and embarrassed, working at a snails pace.

I’m embarrassed because Spanish is supposed to be my Mother tongue. I am supposed to be able to roll insults off of my tongue in ways that the White girls who stare at me and point at me won’t understand.

I can’t.

I can’t because my Mother, my beautiful proud Mother wanted to be American. She wanted it so badly she obliterated her accent with fanatical religious zeal.

I have no memory of my Father and his Spanish save for dim rumbling memories of lullabies and furry kisses.

The small bit of Spanish I have comes from my Nana. She has gnarled hands five shades lighter than mine; she rubs my round cheeks with her knuckles and kisses me all over my face, while singing to me in her old dry voice,

“mi negrita.”

Then something something I can’t understand. I used to feel too dark, too Black and ugly when she did it but I learned that she loves my skin. She strokes my face and tells me I’m beautiful. That I understand. She beams at me when I stand on my tiptoes and kiss her.


I can’t say the whole phrase she uses but she laughs and laughs.

And here I am in this classroom.

I wish my Mother could understand how naked and vulnerable I feel without any Spanish. I am without a sisterhood, adrift without ties to our history.

In her pursuit to be American she even erased herself. Without an accent or even particular taste in food I can’t figure out where home might have been.

“Mom, are we Dominican?”

I have asked her so many times.

“We’re American.”

We’ve gone back and forth since I was ten. I always lose.

So here I am. For the fourth time this quarter there are tears on my cheeks and I can feel the back of my neck get hot. I start sweating.

Our teacher, a grandmotherly type with salt and pepper hair and the most beautiful aquiline nose sits next to me, she squeezes my arm and I cry harder.

“It’s okay.”

A couple of weeks ago I broke down for the first time after class. I could not say something and I poured out all of my feelings and the spoonful of Spanish from my mouth.

She tucks a box of tissues under my arm and I know what to do. She will leave me to cry until I can leave.

I float, I cry. Time passes and in my head I can hear my own voice speaking the kind of effortless beautiful Spanish my tongue just won’t allow.

I go home to Nana. In her arms I’m a child again, crying the same song without words because I still don’t have enough Spanish. She croons to me, her old hand cupping the back of my head.

“Te amo, te amo, te amo.”

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