Before Hispanic Heritage Month 2018 comes to a close, let me jump aboard with this declaration: I am half-Norwegian, one-quarter Scottish, one-quarter German … and 100 percent Hispanic.
Spanish was my first language, thanks to Josefina Garcia Romaris, our Spanish maid in Caracas who spoke to me exclusively in her native tongue during our four years together. Four years after we left South America for in Italy, live-in help Julia and Rosanna took up the conversation in our home in Bogota, where I was Juanita. Five years in America didn’t extinguish the Spanish: it returned in Madrid, where sisters Brigit and Mari Cruz called me Juanita at home, and would do so again when my husband and I visited in 1982. My Spanish allowed me to sail through a year at the University of Madrid in a Castillian accent so thick that I was, in the words of my friend David Cordero, “Mas papista que el papa,” “more papist than the Pope.” No matter my Nordic blue-eyed, blonde, fair-skinned body: Española!
Once back the USA, I did some tutoring and translating and then tucked Spanish into my hip pocket, ready for the opportunity. It came in the form of a handsome man at the New York Health and Racquet Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where we both worked. Mother from Barcelona, father from Puerto Rico, raised in New York City, with a huge heart and a happy enthusiasm for living. That was 41 years ago. We just celebrated our 36th anniversary. Vaya!
Still, no one expects this gringa to be Spanish-speaking. Once, I surprised the heck out of a cabbie in Chicago who complained on his cell phone in Spanish all the way out to the airport about having picked up a fare who pulled a suitcase out from behind her; as we approached the terminal, I asked “Bueno, ya que hemos llegado al aereopuerto de qualquier manera, cuanto le debo?” So, now that we got to the airport at any rate, what do I owe you? He froze, eye-wide and jaw dropped until his face opened into a huge belly laugh. Hey, you never know who speaks Spanish, I said.
The Latin American culture of South Florida is one reason that we retired here after living in the Anglo Northeast. Our neighbor is Peruvian. My best friend is Colombian. There’s Cuban coffee on the corner, and rice-and-beans at Whole Foods up the street. The cafeteria at the Latin supermarket El Bodegon serves up tostones, fried green plantain, with ropa vieja, a beef stew.
The reminders of the eight years that Dad’s Foreign Service career carried us to Spanish-speaking countries are all around me as I write this morning.
The molas Mom and Dad bought in Panama.
The Colombian indian print.
The Spanish pottery we bought in a cave above Granada, and the plate our daughter brought us from her summer in Sevilla.
The bronzed stirrup from Colombia, like the one my friend Maria Consuelo from Bogota has in her home down the street (only hers is her grandmother’s from when she rode side-saddle).
The woven pillow covers from South America, and the watercolor of an Andean woman.
The paintings of rural Spain Mom bought at the Rastro.
The copy of Goya’s May 3 fusilade she found there, too.
And the paintings Dad did in 1950, inspired by his visits to Mexico during his years at Macalester College.
Our daughter, who has her father’s Mediterranean coloring, has gravitated toward her Latin heritage, becoming one of the few Spanish-speaking graduate students in her doctoral studies in clinical psychology at Nova Southeastern University an hour south of us. Not so long ago, she was “from” upstate New York. Now, she is a Hispanic in South Florida. I join her and my husband in celebrating the Spanish-speaking heritage that makes us family.