I am standing on the line at my local pharmacy. Ahead of me, a girl of roughly 11 or 12 in Ugg boots and leopard pattern leggings, deep black hair pulled back in a thick ponytail. She is with her mother, who is likely in her 30s. They both look like babies to me. Sweetly, devastatingly uncomfortable in their own skin. Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is what happens when you get older. Everyone’s fragility becomes clearer. And everyone looks like a baby.
As Mamá and Niña reach the counter and are asked to provide the usual information, Niña turns to Mamá and pulls her magic tragic: she translates the question from English to Spanish. Mamá answers, and Niña does it again, translating Mamá’s response to the pharmacist from Spanish to English.
Fifteen feet away, one hundred thousand memories visit my place in line.
I want to approach la Niña and tell her, “Muchachita, you are amazing. And so is your Mamá.” I want her growing bones to positively tingle with the knowing of it. I want her to feel in her every fiber that her Mamá is a Conquistadora, and that her own Fluidity of Being in two languages is a Superpower. That she is a Mighty Puente that connects worlds.
I want to tell her these things because I’m fairly certain that she does not know it. What she is likely told is that her Mamá is limited in some way. And that she, herself, is lucky to be able to communicate in the language and in the time and place deemed superior.
I’ve heard it enough in my own lifetime. Words of disbelief and pity. My own Mamá never learned enough English to manage a conversation past a polite greeting, a price haggling, a simple direction to the right stop on the subway. But make no mistake, she is a Conquistadora. And she didn’t stop to learn the words that her new world might understand because she was too hard at work, focused wholly on her Mighty Puente. From daybreak to midnight for roughly two decades, La Conquistadora labored over my two towers, a solid center, and the beams of support that would hold me together through the sway of countless storms.
It took a while for me to find the comeback to people who look down. In fact, it didn’t arrive until I was in my 30s and in the middle of conversation with a Human Resources director. I was giving my two-weeks’ notice at a job that was so toxic, I was leaving without a landing place ahead. I had never done that before, but even the director’s ethics and integrity were questionable, and so it took all I had to remain firm and polite as we moved through the exit interview. I don’t remember why I mentioned that my mother did not speak English. Maybe I was invoking her strength, reminding myself out loud that if she could thrive in a foreign land, I could thrive in my own. I remember the look on his face, though, when I said it. There it was, the slight, judgmental jerk of the head, the sideways tilt, the brows coming together, and then the question, which is not actually a question, but a judgement.
“After all those years,” he said, “she didn’t learn English?”
And in that moment, I recognized that the limited person in the room was him. And so I bit back hard.
“No, she did not. She was busy working her ass off to build me.”
As my Social feed floods with images of Conquistadoras and Puentes, my joy and pride know no bounds. I am especially moved by moms like mine, who did it alone, and the daughters who honor them when their own persistence, pride, and ass-hard work.
Bravo, Muchachitas. Bravo. You are amazing.
Photo: My Conquistadora and her Puente, NYU Graduation, 1989.