LINEAGE AND LANGUAGE
Throughout my adulthood, curanderas have said that my grandmother watches over me. I knew this was true when my mother came back from a visit to Mexico five years ago. She opened her suitcase and handed me a white plastic rosary and a black shawl. These items belonged to my grandmother who had passed away nearly twenty years prior. “Cuidado,” my mother warned, as these sacred items could not be replaced. I placed the shawl on my lap and gently ran my hand over its sheer fabric. I held the rosary in my palm, running my fingers across the beads as I envisioned my grandmother reciting the Ave Maria. I’m not Catholic, but as a spiritual person, I recognized the importance of these gifts. I placed them on my altar along with her picture, some roses, and a few candles — offerings to her and my ancestors. To my surprise the next morning, a small white feather appeared on the shawl, which I understood as a confirmation of her connection and guidance. This white feather has meant even more to me as I continue learning about my grandmother and her relationship with language.
Before my grandmother, Esperanza, passed away when I was eight years old, I used to visit her in Mexico once a year. I feel closer to her now than I did then because I have a better understanding of her story. As the eldest daughter, she took care of her siblings, a responsibility that became even greater when her own mother passed away during childbirth. She was only twelve years old when she suddenly became everyone’s caretaker. This task didn’t get any easier when my great-grandfather remarried and had eleven more children. Helping raise a large family left no time for her to attend school. Meanwhile, her older brother had the opportunity of studying to become a priest, although he ultimately decided not to.
My fascination with learning how to read and write as a young child was a result of my mother’s experience with language; I had wanted to learn for the two of us. Now that I know more about my grandmother, I do it for the three of us.
I wonder what my grandmother would have done with literacy and how different her life would have been if she did not have to wake up at sunrise, prepare meals for a large family at a time when electricity and water were not easily accessible, and look after everyone. I wonder what she would have done if she had the same opportunities as her brother. She was the backbone of the family, a role that became a double-edged sword: she had to sacrifice her education to take care of her loved ones. She never learned how to read or write, except for her name, Esperanza. It means hope.
At eighteen, she met my grandfather, a young man who was able to read and write in Spanish. They soon got married and began their own family. My grandfather was a bracero, which meant he had to leave her with their seven children for months at a time while he came to the U.S. to work in the fields. My grandmother already had the skills and knowledge to run a household on her own, but as a parent who did not read or write, this meant she would no longer be able to help my mother and her siblings with their homework at some point. She would also have to depend on them to write letters updating my grandfather on family matters and finances.
This pattern of intergenerational dependence repeated itself years later when my parents came to the U.S. and had me and my younger sister. My parents had pursued their education up to the sixth-grade level in Mexico and were able to read and write in Spanish. Before getting married, my father, like my maternal grandfather, came here months at a time to work, picking up some English along the way as a plumber. Since we lived in a community that primarily speaks Spanish, my mother didn’t have the same exposure to English that my father had when he worked with clients outside of our neighborhood. Like my grandmother, my mother couldn’t help my sister and me with our homework. When telephones became more accessible and allowed for easier communication, it was up to my sister and me to read the mail and update her on health benefits, finances, or any other information we thought was important. In spite of this, she still made sure we earned good grades. She attended parent-teacher conferences (with occasional translation on my part) and never hesitated to take us to the library when we asked. In college, she made comfort food for me while I spent my days studying to become an English teacher.
My fascination with learning how to read and write as a young child was a result of my mother’s experience with language; I had wanted to learn for the two of us. Now that I know more about my grandmother, I do it for the three of us. I read and write as a way of recognizing that it is a privilege to do so, and because our stories are worth telling. As children, we do not always understand the sacrifices our parents and grandparents make until we reach adulthood and recognize them as multifaceted human beings. My grandmother’s and my mother’s resilience astonishes me. Their sacrifice is something I don’t take for granted. It’s the reason why reading, writing, and preserving my family’s history take up so much space in my heart.
When I place offerings on my altar and ask my grandmother for her guidance, I feel that she understands my heart regardless of the language I choose to speak at the moment.
I realized that my grandmother and my ancestors could soon be forgotten if I didn’t take on the responsibility of preserving and documenting their history. I have since asked my aunts in Mexico to send as many photographs of our family as they could and was amazed to receive some with names from five generations ago. In the spirit of passing things down to future generations, I have preserved our family’s molcajetes, began documenting herbal remedies, and flagged books that have meant a lot to me, such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, with archival-quality tabs.
So much familial knowledge can be lost in one generation, especially if a family moves to a new country and adopts a new language as a means of survival. I sense that the next major linguistic change will begin with my generation, since we’re the bridge that connects this first generation living in the U.S. to our lineage in Mexico. I recognize that we need to make strong efforts if future generations in our family hope to continue speaking Spanish in a country that primarily speaks English. We need to preserve our language by speaking it, learning how to read and write it, and exposing ourselves and our children to Spanish-speaking media.
When I place offerings on my altar and ask my grandmother for her guidance, I feel that she understands my heart regardless of the language I choose to speak at the moment. (Although I do feel closer to her when I speak in Spanish.) I may not be Catholic, and I may have been raised outside of Mexico, but the bond between my mother, my grandmother, and me is strong. The feather was my grandmother’s way of showing guidance that transcends time and distance. I have kept it close since it appeared, and it has been my source of support and inspiration through countless hours of writing and reading. How fitting that my grandmother chose to send me a feather, not only a traditional tool for writing, but also a symbol of freedom — and hope.
Based in Inglewood, Ruddy Lopez studied English literature and education at California State University, Long Beach before previously teaching at Huntington Park High School. A Fellow of the 2020 Los Angeles Review of Books Publishing Workshop, Lopez hopes to help amplify voices from diverse backgrounds. Her passions include reading, writing, and learning about herbalism.
MARIANA ISABEL JIMENEZ
mariana isabel jiménez is an undocu-queer, oaxacan artist, and student. they grew up in san diego but now live in santa cruz where they go to school at the uc. they are a senior working towards graduating in critical race and ethnic studies with a minor in education.
she is a part of twanas, a publication organization on campus whose lineages are tied to the world liberation front strikes led by black students that took place during the late 1960s at the beginning of the fight for ethnic studies.
mariana paints, draws, and makes prints and jewelry. they especially love to make jewelry, because it is a form of adornment and love that comes from the earth through metal and precious material. their art attempts to emphasize our connection to la naturaleza — the earth — and its beauty that surrounds us despite all the fences and state control of land that belongs to the indigenous people of turtle island. they are deeply inspired by california’s landscape: the redwoods, pine trees, and all the flowers that cover the rolling hills and mountains. mariana is continuously inspired by the strength and beauty of her ancestors, family and community, which they hope is depicted through their art. check out mariana’s instagram.
About the Artwork
ABUELA | monotype print, using relief ink and plexiglass-plate | 11 x 15 | 2019
ABUELA is about how i see my grandmother and how her ways of knowing taught me to understand colibris (hummingbirds) as sacred. this piece is a depiction of a time when we went to the market in salinas where she lives now. in her hands my abuela is holding cempasúchil flowers.