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Latinx Contemporary Drama

Each word spoken ignites in my ear, warm and wet.

“Oh - kay, Abuela. I get it, but do you need to yell? I hear you.”

I glance at the rearview mirror and mouth ‘help me.’ No use. Conversations in the back of strangers' cars have become playground power trips for Hispanic seniors. No sane rideshare driver would disagree with a chancleta armed granny.

Mija, I have a point. Right, Josepi?”

“Abuela, it’s Joseph and you leave him out of this. No tiene nada que ver.”

“Oh, now tú hablas español. Miss, ‘I don’t want to speak spanish.’” She raises her index to the underside of my chin and wobbles her head, ever dramatic.

Abuela chirps like a Coqui sings at night: non-stop. Several attempts at a subject change smashed to bits since our ham and cheese breakfast. The tostado she cooked was served with enough mantequilla and opinion to clog an artery.

She had railed, “Mi vida, why don’t you at least try and practice? I know you’re nervous about the award. They will want to hear some Spanish. What kind of Latina or Latinx, or whatever you kids want to call Latinos these days, doesn’t speak Spanish?” Abuela clapped and the sound clunked off pots and pans with such finality that all my doubt gave way to fear. I thought, Oh my God, she’s right. They will call me a fraud.

“Turn right onto Orange in one hundred feet. Turn right.”

The GPS quiets and the car swerves. Abuela’s eyes widen, her doll-like body propelled towards the door, and I scramble to steady her. “Dios mío,” she proclaims, indignant.

“You’re okay,” I interject with care, fearful she will lodge an accusation of attempted murder against the man behind the wheel. Poor form whilst our life remains in his unmoisturized hands. “Abuela, fine. Teach me something to say tonight. A cute phrase.”

“Ah, of course, learn our language five minutes before we get to the venue! Madre Mía, you should have asked earlier. Your mother,” she points up, “looks down on us, disappointed.”

Infinitely void of satisfaction. Even with all that I have achieved for the foundation, my mother’s foundation. The research we will fund, the people that it will help, what this kind of breakthrough will do for our community, none of it enough because I don’t speak Spanish fluently and I hate - and I really do mean hate - flan. The gelatinous, congealed dessert, served at my second-grade birthday party was the first strike against me. Abuela terrorized my Latinx card. Thank heavens Papi defended me. “She’s young, her tastebuds will evolve,” he assured her.

Like my grandmother's view of me, my palette has witnessed no such evolution.

“God Abuela, can’t you ever be nice? I actually woke up excited today. Why not let me have this moment.”

Abuela shakes her head, settles in her chair with arms crossed at an angle, and sucks the back of her teeth. The driver picks this moment to put on the radio. We hear trumpets and drums, bongos, and the clave. Salsa music. What is usually light and upbeat, contagious, and wonderful, sounds heavy. It crashes into my grandmother. She looks out the window and her body stills, save for the reluctant disentanglement of her arms.

An inexplicable chill cascades over me. A superstition wanders through my mind, one that likens the sensation to the touch of the dead. “Ay no!” a neighborhood doña would cry out, “Te toco un muerto!”

“Excuse me,” I reach out to tap on the driver’s arm, but Abuela catches my hand.

“No,” she says. “Leave it.”

The song continues. Each bongo strike sends a shiver through me. “Abuela, what is it? What’s wrong?” I try to understand. Names collide with familiar phrases, but no answer appears. Without context, the words I do know only confuse me. The driver watches us in the rearview, gaze divided.

“It’s called ‘El Gran Varon.’” Abuela looks at me, tears ready to plunge onto her cheeks. “Willie Colón was so handsome back then.” She takes a breath. My wrist is released. She cradles my hand in her deeply lined palm.

“The song is about a man who rejects his transgender son,” the driver adds in an unmistakable accent, unbidden. I jump. No word was uttered when we climbed into Joseph's silver sedan, not even a hello. The rideshare app showed a net promoter score of four out five stars, his average across two-thousand ride reviews. I blamed his oppressive silence for the absent star. Poignant musical choices could be the culprit.

“Yes,” Abuela says. She looks into the rearview, a somber quirk etched in the corners of her lips. The tortured smile pierces through me, much like the sound of Papi’s cries when he first told me of how my mother died, a conversation that predated his death by no more than three years.

“Ay mija,” Abuela forces a hand to her breastbone. “Your mother is proud. My granddaughter, a fighter since day one. You survive, thrive with a sickness that -,” she does not finish the sentence. “I’m grateful for you. Spanish or no Spanish.”

“That man, the father in the song,” she starts. “I don’t want you to ever feel like his son, his daughter. Mija, what I do is never, ever to hurt you.” Abuela looks outside again. Her skin, sprinkled with brown bursts of age, grays in the sun starved daylight. “I did not let my daughter, or your father die alone. I accepted them. Her voice waivers, teeters on the rim of a sadness I am unable to quantify. “I love you.”

The calculation of her pain involves a factor that I once understood: Spanish. I know there is a difference in how she and Joseph hear the song compared to me, a self-rendered eavesdropper trapped in a third-party position. There is a deprivation of intimacy in my interaction with the lyrics that stifles my perception of its meaning because it becomes fixed to the reflections of those who try to explain it. The language of my childhood guards its secrets, and I must reduce myself to ask after my Abuela has slid from her seat out into the street, “Joseph, what happened to the son?”

“In the song? He dies of aids, alone.”

My lungs contract into a thimble. If I spoke Spanish, I would have felt the mammoth of her pride and the reminder of our loss. Without translation. 

December 20, 2022 07:50

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2 comments

Eileen Turner
20:22 Dec 28, 2022

Life can torment families in so many ways, so many disputes or personality differences. But then something will remind us of what really counts: love and acceptance. You pull in language barrier - and help us remember not to let it divide us.

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S N
20:25 Dec 28, 2022

Goodness Eileen, your response left me with chills. Thank you for reading and sharing what you drew from this. I am so happy to share this with someone like you.

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