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Creative Nonfiction Fiction Latinx

He tells me to sit still.


It is not hard to do. I am lost in thought, lost in my reasons for being here.


I keep thinking of that woman I never knew. The person in the painting on the wall in the hallway of the house I grew up in. I keeping thinking about what it would have been like to know her, what it would have been like to call her my grandmother.


Or would you have preferred, abuela? Did you speak English? Even that, I do not know. Even that, my father will not say.


He only says, You look just like her.


I test your name out on my lips: Mary. Mary. Mary.


I am AnneMarie, but sometimes people say, AnneMary, and I hate it. But it’s not because of you, grandmother. I mean, abuela.


Did you know your son does not like to speak Spanish? Did you know that one time when he was at a Cuban restaurant – the one he drives thirty minutes out of town to for his favorite rice pudding – did you know that the woman behind the counter spoke to him in Spanish? He was taken aback, and then my mother told her, Yes, he does know Spanish, and my father smacked my mother across the face with his glare. He didn’t speak to my mother for six months after that, not even in English.


He's ashamed of the language on your tongue, abuela. Four children, and he didn’t teach any of us more than just our numbers.


I can see the portrait on the wall; it hangs in my mind on the days people tell me, Really, you're Mexican? The background is forest green, and around your head it is a lighter yellow. I always thought it looked like a halo, and it made me think of those cards we got in church with the saints on them. I used to think you must be a saint to have your picture painted and hung up in our home. You must have been a really incredible woman.


Then I see your eyes. They are almost smiling, unlike your lips. They are almost telling, unlike the large framed circles of your glasses. What were you thinking about when a white man painted your face? Were you happy about how diluted he made your skin look? Did he ask you to roll your r’s for him? To work your tongue for him, like the exotic, animalistic creature you were just because you were not from here? Or did he make you swallow your tongue, tell you to learn English, spit at you after you paid him for his work? I wonder what it must have been like for you, so far from home.


I imagine you were thirsty, sitting here for hours, motionless, in your black blouse. I ask for water, and he brings it to me. He doesn’t know that he’s done this painting before, generations earlier. A woman, out of place, with the same last name.


When I was twenty-seven, my mother told me the first story I’d ever heard about my German grandfather who died when she was fifteen. She’d said, “He was a funny guy, but he was a racist.” And my mother would laugh, brushing it off like the artist lightening the paint with water. Then she would remind me to always check the box that said, “Hispanic” on my applications. With her fair skin and blue eyes, she’d said, “It matters.”


I wonder about those water colors, abuela. I wonder about dilution, blurring colors until you are unsure of which color you started with. I always felt bad, checking those boxes. If something is purple, can we still call it red?


I'm not sure.


For instance, your hair is brown in the painting, but I see redwood tied neatly in a bun. Inside the bun are all those branches, thick and gnarled and carrying cobwebs. I imagine it was long when you let it down, hanging all the way down your back. Mine used to do that when I was younger, before I cut it off and changed my name to something more “white.” It wasn’t my fault my husband had blue eyes. Now, no one knows we are related; there’s no more Spain in my hair or in my name. Mexico still lingers in my eyebrows, but no one says anything about it.


When the artist asks me if I have children, I wonder if he asked you the same thing. How did it feel having babies in a country that isn’t home? You must have known what you were going to do. You must have known that you were going to leave them. I think of those eyes that watched me walk up and down the hallway of my home as I grew from a little girl into a woman. I stared back at them all the time. I looked at those brush-stroked eyes, trying to find myself within the paint, hoping the artist got them wrong. You had to have known what you were going to do; you knew it when he painted this.


On my driver’s license, my eye color says: hazel. But when I look in the mirror, I know that is not true. When I look at the painting of you, I know it even more. There is no amount of minutes that can make them less brown.


Uno, dos, tres... Still brown.


My father tells me, You look just like her. And when I ask him to tell me more, he says, I don’t remember.


Abuela, can you lie if you do not know the answer? Can you be someone you are not if you don’t know who you are?


When my father asks me for my rice pudding recipe, I know he is thinking of you. I know he is imagining your portrait on the wall the way I am imagining it now. He knows how to make rice pudding the way you taught him, but he is making sure I do, too, because that is all we have left of you. When I send him my new recipe, it is dairy-free, and he doesn’t respond. I’ve hit a nerve in him. I’ve hit you.


I know he is hearing you scold him, arroz con leche sin leche? You have failed her. Tú me fallaste.


Abuela, my father wanted to hide the part of him he gave to us, and that is the part of him you gave to him. But what you gave him was a book with no words. It was an empty canvas with a face painted on it.


So, when I tell my father that I am going to get my portrait painted to feel more connected to you, he tells me I am remembering all of it wrong; how cruel is the mind of someone who does not know who they are. He tells me, She is not your grandmother, she was mine.


Abuela, you are somewhere in my past, but I think if we walked past each other on the street, we wouldn't even know it.


When the painting is done, it is like looking at a lie, manifested into faded blue hair – turned blonde – and pale skin. This person cannot make rice pudding. This person cannot speak Spanish. This person should not check that box.


My father always said, You look just like her.


But, abuela, there is too much water in this painting, because when the artist hands me my portrait, I only see me.

November 24, 2023 18:57

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22 comments

Marty B
04:53 Nov 25, 2023

Thank you for telling a story about your Abuela. I'm sure she would be proud of you and all you have done. You really brought out the vibrant connection between color, and heritage and culture, and how we are all mixed of many different people and culture. None of us can know what are ancestors wanted with us, we can onlive live our own lives honestly and with integrity. Thanks! note: 'He doesn’t know that he’s done this paining before...' painted?

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AnneMarie Miles
16:54 Nov 25, 2023

Thanks for the early read, Marty! I find myself very disconnected from my Hispanic side because my dad really didn't embrace it. But whenever I think of his parents and grandparents, I wonder if I would feel differently if I got to know them. Thanks for catching that typo!

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Helen A Smith
17:54 Nov 29, 2023

Such a powerful image. To be looking at a picture of someone who is so familiar, yet not to have known her. Daily feeling the connection and yet knowing so little of her heritage, it having been blocked. A great way to get the point across of heritage being diluted: a palette of colours being blended, then watered down . I almost felt I knew a little of your grandmother by the way you portrayed her - as seen in the picture. You made the reader feel as if they wanted to know more about her life too. Such complex emotions here. - about heri...

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AnneMarie Miles
14:10 Dec 01, 2023

Thank you so much, Helen! I had to tag this as both nonfiction and fiction since I know so little about her and my memory is so contorted when it comes to the little that my father told me. Also, fiction, because I did not actually go get my portrait painted, but I have often wondered about my grandmother's experience and how her portrait came to be. You picked up on those complex emotions - I feel very distant from her so my emotions towards her are muted, but I also feel deep regret for not knowing more, and a bit betrayed by my parents f...

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Nina H
21:01 Nov 28, 2023

Haunting self-discovery, beautifully written. Feeling connected to our roots is important in understanding ourselves. I loved so many parts of this. The checking of the box, because it’s important. Your father denying his memory, but wanting the tradition of the pudding. So many conflicting feelings I’m sure. It’s interesting how names can define/describe us. Or not. I don’t have an ounce of Spanish/mexican heritage, but because I’m Nina I’ve grown up with people asking me if I’m Spanish. I’ve been called Niña countless times, and my nickna...

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AnneMarie Miles
14:14 Dec 01, 2023

Thank you, Nina! I think this feeling of longing to know about our family's past is universal, so I am glad to hear so many people have found a connection somewhere in here. It is so interesting about your name! I don't think I would ever have immediately assumed Nina to be Spanish, even though I know it is a Spanish word. I have heard so many things about mine - First my mother said that AnneMarie is as common as Mary in Ireland. Recently, I've had several French women tell me it is French! Very interesting! Thanks so much for reading and f...

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Jeanine Rogers
01:27 Dec 22, 2023

Thank you for sharing your family history. It can be difficult to write about. The story held my attention and I want to know what other things you have discovered about your abuela.

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AnneMarie Miles
16:35 Dec 22, 2023

Thanks for reading, Jeanine! I've found writing to be the best healing source I have, so while it is difficult sometimes, it's always worth it. I labeled this both fiction and nonfiction because I've had to speculate parts of this based off the limited information I have about my father's mom. He tends to shy away from the topic. It was my uncle who explored dna testing and ancestral tracking and discovered that my abuela had 8-9 children, all of which my father and uncle knew nothing about 🤷‍♀️ so the mystery continues!

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Danie Holland
14:51 Nov 30, 2023

Oh AnneMarie, exceptional writing. As I grew from a child to an adult, I always wondered about the term "melting pot." They always said it in school like it was a good thing. "America is a melting pot." As if one culture getting lost in anothers and losing itself was a good thing. This story was beautiful and all though it's told from a singular point of view I think you touch something here that many don't speak about. The loss of culture, the loss of heritage, the loss of "home." I cannot speak to your experience but I can speak to mine....

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AnneMarie Miles
14:05 Dec 01, 2023

Danie <3 Thank you for sharing your experiences. Of course, I want to hear the connections this story brings out in people, as I know mine is not a unique experience. I am right there with you, wondering about that melting pot. And as I was writing this, I was really worried that it would come off as some sort of purest advocacy or something, which of course it is not. We are all going to be a mixture of everything eventually, I imagine, and I think there's some beauty in the creation of something new. But like you said, this is more about ...

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Michał Przywara
21:52 Nov 29, 2023

I love it! What a great premise - we reinvent ourselves, or are reinvented by the artist, by subtle alterations in the colours of our portrait. Or, more to the point, we are watered down. Is this aspirational? No more than photoshopping a blemish out of a photo, glossing over the ugly bits we wish weren't there to preserve the image we want. Maybe. Partly. But there's a huge race side to this. Or more generally, culture, heritage - the immigrant experience. Must you erase your roots to fit in to a new home? As an immigrant myself, it's alw...

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AnneMarie Miles
17:51 Dec 02, 2023

I'm so glad you loved it, Michal! I think heritage and culture really play an important role in self-discovery and identity - perhaps that's why 23andMe has done so well. I think you are so right when you say: "A lot of us take for granted what others had to fight for." I know nothing of the immigration experience really, but I do spend a lot of time wondering what it must have been like for so many, both in and out of my ancestry line. I'm glad you were able to find a connection there. I'm really happy to hear you found the ending impac...

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Honey Perez
14:01 Nov 29, 2023

I truly loved the ending. Thanks for sharing :)

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AnneMarie Miles
15:02 Nov 29, 2023

Thanks for reading!

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Vera Peter
01:18 Nov 28, 2023

I really enjoyed reading your story. I felt super connected to it, and I hope I can one day write as beautifully as you do! Congratulations on winning!

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AnneMarie Miles
17:10 Nov 28, 2023

Thanks Vera. I'm glad you were able to connect to it. The only way to get better is to keep writing and reading. I'm always learning and improving thanks to all the phenomenal writers on Reedsy. And thanks for the congratulations on my winning story, Cerulean 😊I appreciate your time!

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Kailani Bonam
19:33 Nov 27, 2023

My grandmother was Lebanese and apparently I look vaguely like her. I wish I could've talked with her, discovered what her life was like. Thanks for sharing!

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AnneMarie Miles
21:46 Nov 27, 2023

Thanks for reading, Kailani! I'm glad it resonated with you!

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16:34 Nov 26, 2023

'Can you lie if you do not know the answer? Can you be someone you are not if you don’t know who you are?' Wow. I really really loved this. 💖 I'm going to get both my parents to read it too. Beautiful, loved the artist and painting imagery.

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AnneMarie Miles
17:17 Nov 26, 2023

Thank you Khadija for reading, and I'm so happy you loved it. I hope your parents do too. You picked out my favorite lines of the piece. Thanks again 😊

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Mary Bendickson
05:23 Nov 26, 2023

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you... Very enjoyable I assure you. Thanks for liking my poor mirror.

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AnneMarie Miles
15:03 Nov 26, 2023

Been out of fictional ideas lately, so pulling out a little nonfiction fusion from my poetry. Thanks for reading, Mary!

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