Some language experts believe that your dominant language and culture is the one you love in. Like so many other theories or rules when it comes to this sort of thing, it only almost works. Maybe because I was created from a bilingual, bicultural union, I was always somehow destined to seek the same thing out: a home where there are two words for everything, a husband and children born thousands of miles away from my own place of birth. Maybe because I grew up as a simultaneous bilingual, as much at ease in either language, I can’t halve the vocabulary of my love.
I fell in love with my husband in the spring of my eighteenth year in a quintessentially American scenario: a small group of high school friends was sitting on a front porch, talking about our lives and all of our big ideas, eating Dairy Queen cheeseburgers, and playing Scattergories. I don’t even remember what we were talking about anymore, but I remember someone asked me that question I always dreaded, “What are you?” That question that strangers and acquaintances had asked me throughout my whole life as if it were their right to know. Everyone else on that porch had been born and raised within a 15-mile radius of where we sat. They were uncomplicatedly American. I drew a big breath in and began answering the only way I’ve ever known how: I started telling a story.
I was born in Madrid, Spain to an American mother and a Spanish father. My mother was born and raised in Pennsylvania, but had gone to Spain as a Spanish major in her late teens to study. Once there, she fell in love with my father, a young businessman whose family came from the north of Spain. After a few years of dating, which my mother often summarizes as eating dishes like guisantes en salsa rubia and going to see scandalous art films, they married in the US, but returned to live and work in Spain.
In an unfortunately typical Spanish move, my father deserted my mother and me when I was not quite two years old. Except for my abuela, the rest of that side of the family pretty much cut ties with us at that time. Yet we stayed in Spain, and my mother ran the English-language school she — a foreigner, a woman — founded, a feat still astounding in the time just after the fall of Francisco Franco.
We remained in Spain for the first decade of my life. Finally, after the finalization of my parents’ long divorce, and after years of twice-yearly visits to the States, my mother decided to relocate us to Pennsylvania permanently. We settled just outside of Pittsburgh, 15 minutes from my American grandparents.
My telling of this story on paper is much abridged. That night, in person, I went on for over an hour, undoubtedly getting tangled up in the details. The way our house in Madrid was laid out, the bright blooms of our garden, the hushed mysticism of my Catholic grade school. I remembered again how, once we moved to the US, Spain seemed like a dream I’d once had. I lost myself in my telling of the past, mesmerized by my memories almost as much as my friends around me were. They knew hardly anything about this part of my life; none of them had ever asked.
They watched me tell my story with the prickly voyeuristic attention they would have given a car wreck. And when I was done, it was just something they’d listened to to pass the time. They said, “Boy! That was a long story!” and “Well, but now you’re just like us!” It made no difference in how they understood me. But it should have.
I fell in love with my American husband-to-be when I noticed that the way he watched me tell my life-so-far story differed from that of everyone else there. Instead of trying to shape my story with his own questions, he let it bloom with a respectful attention. Instead of responding to me with squinting, rolling, or widening eyes, he held my gaze with a warm, remembering look. I recognized him then as a man who would be undeterred by complicated things. Though we wouldn’t start dating until a few months later, I associate falling in love with the smell of citronella candles, the lush green of Pennsylvania in bloom, the sound of the Allegheny River rippling under the touch of a warm late spring breeze. With that American night.
I met my husband in English; I fell in love with him in America. But my babies, the other great loves of my life, happened in Spanish, in Guatemala.
I could tell you each of many individual reasons for why we decided to adopt from Guatemala, or I could tell you the truth another way: it was one of those mystical orbits of life that led me — who for years avoided my multi-faceted identity — to take a leap of faith into the role of a multi-culti wife and mami.
Even before we met, I was certain that I would love each of our children, though I couldn’t yet know how. I spent the many months waiting for their adoptions to be finalized reading every parenting book — literary and otherwise — I could get my hands on, in either language. After we’d set up the nursery, I’d sit in their rocking chair, reading aloud to no one, imagining what it would be like when they’d be home. And that’s when I read so many books about bilingualism, wrestling with the decision of whether or not to raise them in two languages, searching for a blueprint, for a “right” way of doing things that would mean our kids would never have any conflicting loyalties of language and culture, never a cruel comment directed at them, never a bad day. But instead of helping me, these books made me lose sleep, call my poor mother telling her what she could have done differently, drive my husband crazy with discussion of various rigid plans to stimulate “proper” bilingualism. Me volvieron loca.
The afternoon we flew in to Guatemala City for a visit trip, I worried over what language I would tell our babies I loved them in. I shouldn’t have worried. The moment I held our oldest daughter and son, and, a year and a half later, our younger daughter, motherhood, culture, and language shifted from theoretical, to practical. Natural. Holding them for the first time, breathing in the soft, warm scent of their hair, I reflexively whispered, “Mi amor, soy tu mamá. Te quiero tanto.” My love, I’m your mom. I love you so much.
Those first afternoons of motherhood in Guatemala, I would sway while wearing them, narrating the world in Spanish. Swaying and saying mira, mi amor; look, my love. And then, I would turn to my husband and reach for his hand, with no need for any other language.
What the language of love and other formulas ignore is that there is no concrete sense of balance in multi-cultural relationships. The very idea of a “dominant” language seems beside the point and wholly misleading. The language we fall in love in does not necessarily remain the only language we love in. There are moments when I can’t break out of Spanish with the kids, and when I turn to speak to my husband in Spanish, too. And after these few years, he can mostly understand me and is happy to mix increasing amounts of Spanish into his replies. Other times, it’s English I yearn for and fall into. In our home, the language of the moment is spontaneous, unpredictable. What we speak at a given moment is always only part of who we are.
Living as a bilingual family isn’t as simple as speaking in English exactly 50% of the time, as reading every other bedtime story in Spanish, as making trips, and having theme dinners. Instead of a formulaic balance, there’s a constant sense of shifting. The reality of our multi-cultural life is that it’s a passionate, complicated, wandering journey. A curse, and a gift: the way my family’s identity extends far and deep across so many borders.