It was one of our family gatherings. “Visiting” is not quite the right word since we spent so much of our time there anyways. It was probably a funeral, since that is what usually brought the family together. I was too young to remember. We had just arrived in Oxnard.
The drive from El Centro took five to six hours, and we were still shaking the stiffness out of our joints and limbs. The first thing I felt when I stepped out of the car was the coolness. The air felt clean as it tingled all over my body. El Centro is in the desert, where the air is hot and dry. In Oxnard, the mild coastal air was not refreshing, it felt cold.
“Oye ‘Yo’. Ven aqui.” A large and cheerful lady called to me. I had become accustomed to being called “Yo” by my Spanish speaking relatives, which was most of them.
My mother and father were saying their hellos to a throng of relatives. My grandmother’s living room was filled mostly with people I did not know, but they seemed happy to see me. I was happy to please them by my presence.
I walked to that large and cheerful lady sheepishly as she opened her arms and beckoned me to sit on her expansive lap.
“?No me conoces?” (Don’t you remember me?) She asked, with a bright sparkle in her eyes. She seemed so old yet her hair was cut short and shiny black. She laughed again and planted a strong juicy kiss on my cheek. I smiled up at her and wiped it off the way Gary Cooper would have done. The roomful of relatives laughed at that. They must have seen the movie too.
“Jody, this is your your tía Prajedes.” My mother came up to introduce me.
“Oh.” I said, still sitting in my tía’s lap.
“Hi.” I said up to her. I had no idea who she was, but she sure seemed happy to see me.
“?No hablas espanol?” She asked me with a warm smile. She smelled funny like the food that she must have been cooking. I just looked back up at her. I did not know that she was asking me a question.
“No, Tia.” My mother told her regretfully. “El nunca hablaba espanol. Siempre andaba con ingles.” And they both shared laughter. I could tell my Mama was embarrassed.
“Why don’t you speak Spanish?” A distant cousin named “Junie”, asked accusingly. I looked up at him, admiring his Air Force uniform. Junie’s real name was Bonnifacio Govea, Junior. He grew up next to my grandmother’s house, but I was not even born yet when that was happening.
“I don’t know.” I answered him, feeling safe in my new found lap. It was my customary response to most of the questions I was ever asked. I always knew the answer though, even back then, but it has always been too painful to share with others.
“How did you learn?” I asked him. I was curious at age eight. I wanted to know, but my question to him sounded rude.
Junie just shook his head and walked away from me, and he started talking to some other relatives he had not seen for a long old time.
“What did I do wrong?” I asked, not realizing I would never speak to him again.
I was bored. There were no cousins to play with as I wandered the house from relative to relative. Their names I will long remember. There was Uncle Toribio, although my father called him ‘Uncle Fudd’. He made everybody laugh as he acted out the stories he would tell. He married his cousin. I guess she still would have been my aunt anyways. There was Uncle Ralph, I liked him. He was tall and dark and bald. He looked just like my Uncle Rosario, but they were just cousins to each other. Uncle Ralph drove a big truck. I thought it would be fun to drive all over the state hauling produce like he did. My two tias, Katherine and Emily were always there. They still lived at home and took care of my grandmother. Maybe it was still the other way around. Cousin Mary lived next door. She was always nice to me, even after I grew up. There were more there. Uncle Faustino, he took care of the family when my grandfather died. (A horse spooked and tipped over the wagon he was driving, but that was many years before I was born.) The grown-ups seemed all so old and they were deeply involved in their grown-up conversations. I could not find a knee to rest on.
“Entonces se fue . . ∙ blah blah blah.” The conversation went. I lost interest. I could not understand what they were saying. Then they burst into riotous laughter and I did not know why.
I walked into the back room and drifted into sleep among the sounds of unknown words, the sounds of relatives whom I loved dearly and some I still miss. I fell asleep to familial words I did not understand but loved to hear. It was a world I was not a part of. I wanted my sisters, I wanted my brother, but they were grown-ups now and sitting with the adults. I wanted Cousin George, someone to play with, but his family was not there.
What I had was the lonely feeling of not being part of the family. I knew even then it wasn’t true for real, but the feeling was there as I lay on my tia’s bed and watched the streaks of light sneak in through the Venetian blinds. I listened to the sounds of their language and watched the shadows of the tree outside dance against the wall. I stared at the huge picture of the Virgin Mary’s loving face looking down upon me.
“She must know.” I thought. “How I feel.”
I always spoke English. I knew a few Spanish words, the phrases my mother and father used most often: eat, go away, come here, take a bath, go to bed.
I only heard my brother and sisters speak English, never Spanish. And still it was my mother tongue, my mother’s tongue. The house was always filled with music of Mexico, with the sounds of my parents conversing in their Spanish language. Calling on me, correcting me, teaching me. All in the Spanish language. I was comfortable there.
It was all to clear to me. I was born here, north of the border. Citizen. American. Just barely, but enough. Mexico was within sight of where I was born, in El Centro, California. The Imperial Valley. It was all clear to me. I went to English speaking schools. I had no need to know anything else. I talked to my mother in English. She understood. She answered back in Spanish. I understood. It was the same with my father, except when he got mad at me. But I still understood.
I have not seen my tía Prajedes, nor Junie, since that time, back in 1958, and I will never forget the way Junie shook his head in disappointment, and walked away.