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Latinx Coming of Age American

Her name was Julia. So classic, yet pronounced so differently depending on who said it. It was that pesky ‘J.’ It sounds different in Spanish. She never thought about its pronunciation when she was little, living with her parents in their first Baltimore apartment. The child of Guatemalan immigrants, Julia remembered the journey only vaguely in distinct flashbacks - they stopped for elote somewhere, there was a train, and other adults kept repeating to the kids that their final destination would be muy bonito. That made her an immigrant too, not just the child of them. But her entire childhood, she told herself, had taken place in this close-knit neighborhood in the Baltimore Highlands. At the age of eight, she had a homework assignment to ask her parents about their heritage. She asked them if she was born here, and they said yes without hesitating. But she knew.

She didn't really think about these differences until her adolescence. In middle school, her classmate Rachel told her that pronouncing her name in Spanish was like pronouncing the Hebrew letter ‘chet.’ This revelation occurred to Rachel while she was studying for her Bat Mitzvah, she said. And Julia would be invited, but she had to come for the entire service, not just for the 

party after. 

Julia and Rachel took Beginning Spanish together, and at the start of each term Rachel always asked the teacher politely to be assigned a seat next to her amiga Julia. She was shocked at Rachel’s boldness in assuming the teacher would acquiesce to such a request. She tried to convince herself that Rachel was not just friends with her because Julia already knew all of the vocabulary words they were studying. Julia also spoke Spanish with an accent that sounded more skilled than the teacher’s. They all seemed awed about how much she knew. But her written Spanish wasn’t as good - definitely not as good as Rachel’s, which had all of the proper accent marks.

The library on Eastern Avenue was the only library in Baltimore known for its Spanish-speaking visitors. ‘Libros para niños’ adorned a large, colorful sign on the facade. Before the hour started, she would sit on her assigned bean bag and watch visitors go in and out. But there weren’t many in-person visitors these days. She overheard a conversation from one of the librarians that it must be the mandatory face mask requirement -- issued by the city, not the library, she said forcefully - that must be keeping the foot traffic low. 

But there was also Kindle. And let’s face it, people don’t read anymore. Or maybe it’s just the adults who don’t read. She was there to read to the kids. When Mrs. Sanchez, her Advanced Spanish Composition teacher (she had moved well beyond Beginning Spanish; this was 12th grade after all), suggested that she volunteer as a bilingual reader for children’s story hour, she said yes ambivalently. “¿Por qué tan ambivalente?” Mrs. Sanchez asked. “No sé,” she replied. That was usually the reply nowadays to most questions posed to her. Mrs. Sanchez told Julia she was friends with the children’s librarian who organized the volunteers and would put her name and a good word in.

“It will help you on your college applications.” A refrain she heard many times in the last four years. And it wasn’t just her teachers or her hyper-competitive peers, either. Her parents and their friends, most of whom did not have an education beyond the third grade, asked about it too. She knew she was going to college. She met all of the deadlines that she needed to meet and submitted everything that needed submitting. Why would volunteering with kids at the library help with that now?

Once a week, she walked from school to the library for children’s story hour. It would be in English or Spanish depending on the day, who showed up, and what the kids asked for. But it was also for the moms - it was almost always moms - bringing their kids in for a free after-school activity after they themselves got off of a hard day of work. The women showed up with their hands wrinkled, their hair disheveled, and their shirts stained with whatever cleaning solutions they used that day. But both the moms and the kids showed up smiling and happy to see her.

She didn’t necessarily read in the overly animated way that she remembered from her elementary school teachers  - not con ganas. She didn’t love reading to an audience, even if it was an audience of kids who were not critical of her and got more excited with each turn of the page. But she read with purpose. The object was to get through as many books as possible until the hour was up. At the end, the mothers smiled. They reminded their kids to thank her. “Nos vemos el próximo martes” - see you next Tuesday - they would always say on their way out. That promise kept her coming back. Plus, people always showed up, every week. The worst thing, she reasoned, would be if she showed up to volunteer and no one came.

She wondered how she would explain on the last Tuesday in August that she would be leaving Baltimore. Well, it wasn’t a sure thing yet, she told herself. She hadn’t been accepted to any out-of-state schools. But she was sure her letter would come. Or maybe it was just her guidance counselor who was sure. Either way, she was waiting.

Each time she left, Julia attempted to pass the circulation desk without being noticed. Today she wasn’t so lucky. “I am impressed with your Spanish,” the librarian at the desk said to Julia on her way out. It was not the first time she heard that, but it was always strange hearing that statement from others. She never told them it was her first language. She didn’t want them to know, and she did not care to explain how she learned English when she first enrolled in Kindergarten, and the reason that she is able to speak like a gringa is because of her formal education from then to now. 

“Thanks,” she said, her usual response to any compliment made to her, whether about her Spanish or not. She just hoped it would end the conversation. As she fiddled with the zipper on her jacket, the librarian continued about how it never was like this when she was coming up in Baltimore - there were never any Latinos in this neighborhood, not until recently. Not that she had anything against them (she was careful to say that), but it’s just so different now compared to when Bethlehem Steel was the main employer.

She exited out on Eastern Avenue where the cold hit her in the face. Wherever she ended up next year, she was hoping it would be somewhere warmer. But for now, she would be back next Tuesday.

December 08, 2022 18:59

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