Sometimes it strikes me how quiet many of our friends’ and neighbors’ homes are. I don’t mean that they’re noiseless, as much as I mean that they lack the particular blend of sound in the background — a radio on, a pot simmering on the stove, voices chattering and laughing — that I grew up with in Spain. Here, our house is bursting with volume, because we have three kids two years old and under, but also, I think, because we’re a multi-culti family, and I try to emulate the best of what I remember from my own juventud animada. Our daily activities collide and clatter against each other spiritedly. You can usually walk by our house, day or night, and quickly sense signs of life — sounds, and often also music.
And so, just a day after we move into our new home, one of the little girls next door notices we’ve arrived in the neighborhood and calls across our yard asking if I can teach her Spanish. She seems to mean the entire language, in a session, maybe two. Since I’m still exhausted from unpacking boxes, I ask her if we can start with a song. I give her a few options to consider before the next time I see her: “El barquito de cáscara de nuez”, “La mona Jacinta”, “La canción de la vacuna.” She asks me what they’re each about.
“Well, the barquito song is about a little mosquito that goes sailing on a nutshell boat, delivering drops of honey, in a terrible storm. The mona Jacinta song is about a poor but pretty monkey that makes her own fortune. Oh,” and I grow exuberant here, “And the vacuna song, that’s a really fun one, too. It’s about a doctor that comes riding into town on a motorized quad bike, with vaccines, and basically replaces the witch doctor.”
She looks back uncertainly at her mom and dad who are standing in the yard with her.
Her dad nods convincingly, “I know that one.”
She tilts her head to the side. “Um. Is there a ‘Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star’ in Spanish?”
I think a minute, trying to remember one from my childhood. “No, I don’t really think so. Stars, no. Mosquitoes, monkeys, vaccines, yes.”
So far, a few weeks later, she’s still thinking it over.
I never noticed how much culture music carries until we had kids. Like good new millennium parents, my husband and I made mp3 playlists for our kids of our favorite songs and played them for our older son and daughter every night while they were babies- as much to share part of ourselves with them as to keep from going crazy during the long hours of feeding them and rocking them to sleep. But as they grew into toddlerhood, we changed the playlists in favor of kids’ songs they could understand and learn. I started singing songs I learned in Spain while my husband started singing ones he learned here, in the US, and we quickly noticed they differed in more than just language.
“What’s that you’re singing to the baby?” my husband asks one day, while I’m rocking our younger daughter in my arms.
“Just a song I used to sing on the playground as a kid.”
“How does it go?” he asks.
“It loses something in the translation, but it’s about an assassination on 24th street.”
His eyes grow wide. “Is it… appropriate?”
I tell him it’s actually very peppy and then throw in that if he doesn’t like it, there’s another song I could sing about a boy soldier that doesn’t come home from the war.
“Why? What did you sing in preschool?” I ask.
As it turns out, songs like “The Eensy Weensy Spider,” “The Wheels on the Bus,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Old McDonald”…
From my (undoubtedly biased) perspective, the songs my husband learned as a kid are overarchingly either about animals, routines, American history, or farm country. They’re certainly conducive to learning- after all, there’s lots of repetition, a fair amount of history, even some spelling- but, they’re pretty far from exciting. On the other hand, the songs I learned as a kid are exaggerated, absurd, and often simultaneously very sad and very hopeful. His are songs that get the job done, and mine are songs of tragedy and magic. Each nod towards a different history, a different set of coping mechanisms used by each of our ancestors.
At first, I think, it’s fine, and we agree to balance and compromise on the song issue as we’ve done with others. Our kids will hear both from each of us. But then it keeps eating away at me. As much as I want to believe that there’s a place for both of these in our home, what I really think is that there’s a place for the English songs outside of our home and a place for the Spanish songs inside our home. If songs are first stories, I want resilience and imagination rather than diligence and list-making to take root first.
When I finally bring it up, my husband’s agreeable. “I don’t sing to them that much anyway,” he says. We agree that I’ll sing to them in Spanish, only, and I’m surprised at my relief.
When I find him a few days later, holding our dozing younger daughter, softly singing “Los pollitos dicen” a Spanish lullaby about cold and hungry chicks, I’m surprised again, and full of awe. That somehow, this is the man I share my life with, that I have children with whom I can share so many of my cultural touchstones. That in our noisy, full house, the multi-culti balance doesn’t always mean an even sharing but sometimes taking the best of what each of our traditions has to offer.