On accents, Migrating and Jhumpa Lahiri

The other day, while walking Salter at the park near our apartment in Miraflores, a woman came by so that her dog, an energetic beagle puppy, could play with mine. As the dogs graciously moved their tails and jumped around, the woman and I shared a few comments about the weather and our pets, the usual small talk that happens between dog walkers at the park.

When I was about to head home, she asked if I lived nearby. Yes, I replied, just two blocks away from here, in the antique blue building over there, I said, pointing with my head. Oh, yes, I’ve seen it. Have you lived there for a long time? She asked. No, no, I said. I moved to Peru a few months ago. Wait, so you are not Peruvian? She then asked, surprised. No, I’m from the Dominican Republic, I replied, smiling awkwardly, and walked away.

After this encounter, I couldn’t help feeling weird about the fact that this woman couldn’t tell that I was not Peruvian. That I was from the Caribbean, or at least from somewhere else. Then I thought about the rhythm of my words. Sometimes my Spanish sounds so neutral, no one could ever tell where I’m from. Sometimes my Spanish sounds so neutral, it feels like I’m betraying my roots. I do this unconsciously. Something changes in me when talking to strangers. To new people. I shift colors, like a chameleon. I don’t want to be identified as a foreigner, and so everything about me becomes neutral, rigid, still.

This reminded me of Jhumpa Lahiri and her book In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian. In this book, Lahiri explores her relationship with English, Italian and other languages. Her relationship with reading and writing. More importantly, she writes about the metamorphosis she went through: from an internationally acclaimed Indian-American writer, to an almost invisible woman in Rome writing in a vulnerable, newborn, recently mastered Italian.

“While the refusal to change was my mother’s rebellion, the insistence on transforming myself is mine,” she writes in one part of the book.

These words hit so close to home.

I have lived in five different countries, in four different continents. I used to think that when you traveled and moved around so much, it was impossible to not experience some changes in the way you speak, in the way you view life, even if just slightly. At least this is how it has always been for me: traveling has allowed me to transform myself over and over again.

But just recently, I realized that this is not true for everyone. Some people never change, like Lahiri’s mom. Some people spend 30 years living in a foreign country and manage to keep the same accent they had when they arrived. It happens to Dominicans in New York, specially those who live in places like The Bronx, where you can find an impressive community of Dominican and Latino immigrants. They keep the accent, they cook the food, they dance the music. Their refusal to change is their rebellion.

I moved to Puerto Rico when I was eight years old. After half a year, I sounded almost as Puerto Rican as any other kid in the island. By the time I was seventeen, I spoke like a real Boricua. The slang, the rhythm, even the Spanglish that permeates the island was part of my world.

Yet at home, otro pájaro cantaba. Whenever I spoke with my mom, in those careless moments when we would sit in the porch, swinging in la mecedora and drinking black coffee, I sounded like a dominicana. I sounded like her. We shared this beautiful, secret accent that would only revive in me whenever we joked and gossiped. An accent so intimate, so personal, so joyful. A rhythm that connected me to my mother and the history of our family. To the place where we came from.

Today, when I speak with my friends in Puerto Rico, my Boricua accent instantly comes back. When I call my mom, I sound as dominicana as the kid who was born there, the one who learned to speak and walk and experience the world in Santo Domingo. And here, in Peru, I speak my impeccable, neutral Spanish.

At times, I wonder: is there something wrong with me? Why can’t I just speak the same way with everyone? Is this some sort of defense mechanism? What am I afraid of?

A similar thing happens with my writing.

I lived in Newark, New Jersey for five years. I had just graduated high school when I moved to Newark. Those years in Jersey had such a huge impact on me. I arrived there as an adolescent and left as an adult.

I was an immigrant in Puerto Rico, but it wasn’t until we moved to the continental United States that I understood what it was like to be a real foreigner. An Immigrant, with capital letter. An outsider. I did everything possible to adapt quickly. I had to learn English. Once again, like a chameleon, I changed colors as fast as I could. Would not touch a book in Spanish. Didn’t even want to speak Spanish in public. I wanted to be invisible. To get lost in the crowd.

The fact that I’m writing these words in English, is a testament to the impact those years had on my way of thinking. To this day, ideas come to me in English, and I have no option but to follow them in this, my second, vulnerable language. Explore where they would take me. If I were writing this essay in Spanish, it would be a completely different one.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the United States is a beautiful yet merciless place. It gives you many wonderful things, but it takes such valuable ones away. As soon as you set foot there, everything seems to be telling you: you are different, you are flawed, you don’t belong here. Lahiri explores this idea with more clarity:

“I identify with the imperfect because a sense of imperfection has marked my life. I’ve been trying to improve myself forever, correct myself, because I’ve always felt I was a flawed person. Because of my divided identity, or perhaps by disposition, I consider myself an incomplete person, in some way deficient.”

This sense of deficiency is very familiar to many people, specially to those who belong to a diasporic community. From this sense of deficiency comes the idea that immigrants must always improve themselves. That we are not good enough. From this sense of deficiency come many of my own insecurities as a dominicana, as a woman, as a young aspiring writer.

I don’t know if I will ever stop acting like a chameleon. After all, speaking an intimate and unique language with your loved ones has its magic. Languages are about creating connections, and my many accents allow me to do just that. What I do hope is to one day learn to appreciate every single part of my identity. To value them all equally. To change not because I feel deficient, but because by transforming myself, I grow.

How Sandra Cisneros Restored my Love for Writing

My Sandra Cisneros book collection.

I was twenty-three the first time I read something written by Sandra Cisneros. It was December 2014, and I had been back in the Caribbean for a year and half after spending five years living in New Jersey. I remember feeling foreign at home. I didn’t have many friends in Puerto Rico, only the ones I had met back in high school and who now were all busy with university and life, as was I. That December in particular was very lonely. I was working on my bachelors in psychology at Carlos Albizu University, in Old San Juan. The school was tranquil and Old San Juan was a beautiful and culturally enriching place to study, but my heart was not connected to my new life in El Caribe.

Then my best friend, Arlene, who I met while working at Toys R’ Us in New Jersey, came to visit her family in Puerto Rico. She was from Newark but her family on both sides was Puerto Rican, and she had visited the island almost every holiday since she was a little girl. Her family was staying in the town of Villalba, up in the mountainous parts of Puerto Rico. When she came to my house in Bayamón, she stayed over for one night. We spent and entire day in Old San Juan, ate arroz con habichuelas y pernil at the restaurant Hecho en Casa, and drank piña colada to gather back our energies after a day of walking and talking under the tremendous heat of December. Before she left, she handed me a small, colorful book. This is my Christmas gift for you, she said. It was The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.

She had written a beautiful note on the back of the cover: “Merry Christmas! Here’s my favorite novel. House on Mango Street has been a joy and an inspiration for me as an avid reader and writer. It is Hispanic, feminist, and full of wonder and hope (like the character named Esperanza). It is a testament to how writing about the most ordinary of things can be extraordinary.

The novel was fragmented in vignettes. Tiny, powerful stories narrated by a young girl named Esperanza, who lived in a diverse neighborhood of Chicago with her Mexican-American family. Arlene was so right, this book wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I didn’t know one could write like that. I didn’t know one could tell those stories. It was written in the most simple of words, and yet every single vignette was so meaningful and poetic.

My copy had an introduction written by Cisneros for the 25th anniversary edition. That essay in itself is full of magic, and I cannot recommend it enough, specially to young women writers. In one part, Cisneros explains that she wanted to write “a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who didn’t know what came before or after.” That line has always stayed with me. The life of Latinos, of immigrants, is fragmented, so it makes so much sense that she would want to write a book like this; a book so vivid it didn’t need a beginning or end to be understood. Cisneros wrote about her experience growing up as a Latina girl in Chicago, and by doing so she wrote about all of us. She made us feel smart, beautiful, visible. I felt so thankful towards my friend. You know you have picked the right friends when they gift you the miracle of reading anything written by Sandra Cisneros. And in particular, the miracle of reading The House on Mango Street.

Flash forward to a few months after that, I was about to finish my bachelors. I was supposed to pick a grad program related to psychology: clinical, social, industrial, anything. But I just couldn’t study psychology anymore. Something which had been sleeping inside of me woke up after reading Cisneros. I, too, wanted to write stories, but it wasn’t until reading that novel that I felt the courage to try. To at least try.

I remember telling my Spanish professor a few weeks before graduation that I was thinking about getting a masters in creative writing. It was the craziest of ideas, and just saying it out loud made me shake a little. What would you like to do with that degree?, she asked me. I want to write stories. Maybe even a novel. She looked at me surprised, a novel, she repeated, that takes a lot of work, are you sure that’s what you want? Then I also had to face my parents doubts, especially my father’s, who was too conventional and too obsessed with money to believe that one should waste it trying to be a writer. Thankfully, my mom did support me, and Cisneros had already convinced me of following what I felt was the right path for me. And when you have that kind of conviction, when you realize that any other choice would wretch you, it is impossible to change your mind.

That’s how I ended up studying Literary Creation in Barcelona, where many great things, and a few not so great, happened; some of which eventually led to the creation of my blog, Conquistadora Books.

But that’s another story. One that I plan to tell you all soon.

See you next time!