Issue #1

Nov 5, 2017



This is the name I wish were mine:
Isabel Betancourt

         It was my grandmother’s name, and it represents all that was lost to me as a child, and what I have recovered, am recovering.  What I embrace, grow into, and propose to myself, to live within every day.

         My grandparents came to New York City from Puerto Rico in the 1920’s.  My mother was born in New York and remembered living on the upper West Side near 103rd Street before the family moved to Connecticut.  There was no Puerto Rican culture in the city then – West Side Story is a later history – and we joke that Nana and Grampy were the originals, Adán y Eva, trailing generations behind them.  So my mother’s neighborhood was not Isleño, but Jewish, with delicatessens rather than bodegas on the corners, Yiddish spoken instead of Spanish.  But this is not a recrimination about assimilation and identity, or lost culture.

         It is a story of language and love.

         My mother never spoke Spanish, and understood very little.  It was my grandparents’ choice to speak English in the home, to ease their children’s way in America.  As it did.  The children married Poles and Greeks and Irish girls, and the grandchildren were simply American, easy in English and scattered to the Midwest, to Texas, to Massachusetts.  A usual, typical, migrant tale.

         And yet I am always delighted, happy, radiant when I hear Spanish spoken.  Oh, the joy of télenovelas, of comentarios de fútbol, of chance encounters with everyday people!  I hear accented English and have to ask, ‘¿Habla usted español?’ 

         I puzzle about it. Yes, I studied Spanish for many years, reading literature and poetry deeply, but the experience was private, an introversion.  It does not account for the resonance I feel; it cannot explain the touch of the spoken word.

         My mother didn’t love me.  She was an unhappy, bitter woman in a lifelong feud with her mother, and I was caught between them, both weapon and prize.  In time I became my mother’s enemy, hatefully teased, mocked, punished.  She demanded fealty and attention, and there was no place in her house for a pretty girl.  I grew up lonely beyond imagining, unsure, afraid, unknown.

         It didn’t quite kill me.  Life will out, after all. I became less awkward and timid away from home, wandering through college, jobs, people.  After school I married another grandchild of immigrants.  Bruce and I grew, and grew up together in the usual ways, working, learning, and living in many places.  We fit in.  But nowhere in any of these worlds was Spanish spoken to me or overheard until we settled in New Haven twenty-seven years ago.  Now Nana is nearby in a retirement home, and the language murmurs, opens in me, caresses me.  Puerto Rico too is closer and more real.

         Our first trip to the island was in February, 1995; we went to escape winter.  Once there I am changed.  Sentí un abriendo del alma, an awakening that continues visit after visit.

         Again and again I have the feeling I know who I am – at the comedor familiar on the way to San Germán, on a narrow, narrow road where an old man guides his burro and cart overladen with cane, seeing boys on horseback scampering down the steep hills of Yabucoa, and more horses tethered behind a building in downtown Ponce.  Bomba y plena, café con leche.  The ornamental grilles on every house, modest or grand.  Mallorcas, jugo de china.  The cemeteries of the south.  Cerro de Punta. Hacienda Gripiñas. Yaucono coffee.

         I am suspended, weightless in the beauty of the cordillera.  I am a girl again at the balneario in Luquillo.  Or I am a woman welcoming the courtly deference of the businessman – el guapo – at the panadería, of a vendor setting up on the beach.  I am caught in a rain shower, and I flirt, ‘Estoy mojada’

         I speak to everyone, the words effortless.  I am eloquent and funny, the rhythms and phrasing natural, idiomatic.  They all smile and laugh with me.  “Perdóname,” I say,  “Hablo solo un poco de Español … pero entiendo un poco más.”  “¡No, no!’ se dicen, “Hablas bién, nena, tienes acento apropriado.”  “Sí, pués, mis abuelos son Puertoriqueños.”  “¿De verdad? ¿Cuál es su apellido?”  “Betancourt, Castro”  “Bueno, ¡son buenos!”  “Sí, pero ningún es mio. Mami es NuYorican, mi padre es Griego. Y yo nací en Hartford.  Soy Greek-a-Rican …. Soy Yanqui.”  But they claim me, generously, con sus sonrisas.  You will read this in English; it will fail you.  You must hear, feel the words to understand.

         Year after year I am compelled to go back, to know every inch, every corner.  Caguas, El Yúnque, Boquerón.  Vista Bahía.  The lighthouse at the end of the world.  Arroz con pollo y habichuelas. Empanadas.  I am a daughter endlessly returning.  A Humacao, Piñones, Jayuya.  Por amarillos, flan de calabaza, sofrito.  I speak with the caretaker at the cemetery.  He asks for the family names, am I looking for someone?  “Betancourt,” I say, “Castro”, and he shakes his head, gently.  To make him smile, to claim him, I add, “Conquistadores de dos typos … Y Jesús el tercer ”   He does smile, he recognizes me, he owns me, and I am bound to return.  For gentility, for the ancestors y los niños, for the faces of my race.  For grapefruit trees at Ray’s, and the drinks – brujitos – that Bruce makes.

         For all of this, and none of it.

         On our last visit we drove from San Juan south and east, though a neighborhood in the town of San Lorenzo.  All is light and grace.  I am transfixed.  The old man sitting on his porch is Grampy, the houses with carports transformed to those on O’Connell Drive.  The food is Nana’s.  I go to Puerto Rico to be with mis abuelos, the people who saved me.  To hear Spanish, the language of their love.


Native Speaker

Native Speaker

I know a woman from Colombia whose first name – Betty – is also a common English name1.

Betty is very dissatisfied with the pronunciation her name receives here. She does not recognize  the softer t sound of the middle double consonant, nor can she replicate it. “ Beddy?” she says, “I am always wanting to know who is Beddy.”  She hears and reproduces the English tt sound as dd, which is not an accurate pronunciation of her name in English, either. She would like to hear sharp t’s. In Spanish all t’s are sharp sounds.

For American English speakers the letter t has two main sounds, three if you include the letter d in its sound family. The first, a sharp aspirated one (a fricative, in linguistics) used for t’s at the beginning and end of words, is made with the tip of the tongue on the roof of the mouth near the front teeth but back, without throat/voice box vocalization.  The second sound is used for t’s that show up in the middle of words, and is made with a flatter tongue glancing off the roof of the mouth a little closer to the teeth and with the larynx.  To pronounce the letter d, English speakers flatten the tongue even more and touch the roof of the mouth more firmly, while also vocalizing2.

I explained this to Betty, that tt in the middle of a word represented a medial sound, in-between t and d.  And I had two examples from Spanish to illustrate the idea of graduated pronunciations.  The first concerns the letters b, v, and f.  In Spanish v is called be chica (meaning little b), and its name is also an indication of the medial character of its sound, between b and f. To pronounce b you press your lips together and open them while vocalizing.  To pronounce f, you vocalize first and then stop the sound by closing your upper front teeth behind your bottom lip.  The letter v is pronounced in Spanish by doing all of the above, in a complex symphony.  V is a softer sound than either f or b, as tt in American English is softer than either t or d.

There is a medial pronunciation between d and t in Spanish, but it is made by adding a th sound to the letter d, and can be represented dth.  This is the sound of d’s that occur, again, in the middle of words, like adiós, and universidad (which happens to contain both d sounds). For middle d’s sometimes all that is heard is the th sound. Even some initial d’s are softened in this way, depending on the word they follow. For example the d in Buenos días is pronounced more softly than the initial d in the imperative dígame (tell me).  All d’s in Spanish are softer than those in English.

Betty seemed hardly satisfied with my explanation, and I am not sure why. Perhaps she still feels the alternate pronunciation a slight, rather than the accommodation it is. But I can make allowances. I think medial sounds are the most difficult for non-native speakers to hear and learn, and this is how I always recognize (without prejudice) a native English speaker in Spanish – hard d’s, soft t’s, and hard v’s, especially those in the middle of words.

And unrolled r’s, natch.


De Espaldas

De Espaldas

Thinking and living in two languages is an opportunity to reflect on their differences and similarities. This is rarely deliberate for me, rather awarenesses bubble up or something strikes me when I am reading. In the middle of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘All the Pretty Horses’ (which has dialogue in Spanish) I realized the difference connotation makes.

English is an isolating language, according to linguists, which means its words have discrete, exclusive meanings. This quality strongly shapes usage. Unique, precise denotations promote clarity, but also leave little to infer, little to read between. English speakers therefore rely on other mechanisms to shade their meanings.  One strategy is exemplified by the British, who use hyperbole to talk about trivial things, and understatement when speaking on topics of great import; another is Cockney rhyming slang. Other strategies of written and spoken English that augment meaning include metaphor, allusion, sarcasm, irony, satire, and inflection.

Spanish, on the other hand, is not an isolating language and as a consequence one word stands for several meanings.  For example the verb esperar means  to wait, to hope, and to expect.  You might think context sorts out which meaning is intended, but the conflation and collapse of connotations also requires that all meanings are present when any word is used. While you are waiting, you are also expecting; when you are hoping you are also waiting. I find these nuances and harmonics very powerful, and they make both spoken and written Spanish a poetic experience, as do the lyricism, musicality, and rhythms of the language.

I do not write in Spanish. But sometimes when I am writing in English I feel Spanish at my shoulders – ‘de espaldas’.  The expression alludes to a religious metaphor el Cristo de espaldas, Christ the shepherd who is always present, protecting, guiding, reminding.  And Spanish does guide me through the written English world. It shapes what I write, especially when I am writing from the heart.

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