A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Yesterday I woke early and had a breakfast of vitamins and painkillers so I could play tennis with a man named Cary Ng, who works as a freelance graphic designer here in Brooklyn. Most everyone I play against has a family history — or a mythology — to tell during changeovers and water-breaks. During our match Cary told me both his parents were Chinese, but he grew up in Puerto Rico. I told him that my neck was bothering me, that the pain behind my right shoulder would hamper my serve. He said he spoke Cantonese at home and went to an American-style prep school in San Juan, where classes were conducted in English. He also speaks Spanish — not fluently, but enough to watch Narcos without subtitles.
I told him my story: My father was Puerto Rican but didn’t speak Spanish at all, and thus we never spoke it at home. He died suddenly of a cardiac arrhythmia at fifty-six.
My paternal grandfather, Sixto, was born and raised in Puerto Rico and lived there until his twenties. He spoke Spanish with his wife and broken English with his grandchildren until he died at eighty-three.
Here I am approaching fifty, and there’s no one left to talk to about the family history, the whys and wherefores.
For example, I don’t know exactly why my grandfather left Puerto Rico, though I can make assumptions about jobs and opportunity and the nebulous “better way of life.” I know he was a longshoreman, though I had to ask my mother this. I’d thought he was a housepainter or a cook. I don’t know anything about his family, whether he had any brothers or sisters, or what his parents did for a living. I don’t know if he left family behind on the island to come to Brooklyn.
I know even less about my paternal grandmother. I remember hearing that one of her parents was from Spain and the other was from Cuba, but I don’t know which is which or why they immigrated to the U.S.
I never asked any of these questions, and no one in my family told those kinds of stories.
My father was born in Brooklyn in 1940, the golden age of assimilation. Growing up he played stickball and street hockey with his friends. Maybe all Latinos played stickball in the city, but hockey seems like particular proof of his assimilation, which to some is proof of progress but to me feels like a certain kind of erasure.
Because my father spoke no Spanish, I assume my grandparents insisted their children speak English all the time, with everyone, everywhere.
Of course, the language is only part of what’s been erased. There’s also food, music, customs, and, most of all, history. What I don’t know about my family is almost everything.
I can say I’m Puerto Rican, and no one can refute that, but I don’t know what it’s like to feel Puerto Rican. I don’t know what it’s like to see the flag of Puerto Rico and feel something that resembles pride. I don’t know what it’s like to feel a kinship with those who share my heritage.
I have heard all my life that I look Puerto Rican. I’ve been asked by any number of Latinos where I’m from and how come I don’t speak the language.
My grandparents made conscious decisions to assimilate, and so did my father, as part of the first generation born here in the States. And none of this bothered me until recently, which is probably why I can’t quite put my finger on what I’ve lost. There’s a certain discomfort I can’t quite articulate, like missing what you’ve never had.
My mother is Italian, and I didn’t hear much growing up about her family history either. I knew the names of our relatives — Nicolina, Johnnyboy, Ralphie — and I saw some of them at holidays. But there was never a narrative about how my great-great-grandfather so-and-so came to this country with nothing but the shirt on his back and twenty-four cents.
Until lately I never thought about any of this. But now this hole feels like as much a part of who I am as anything else.
I think about Alex Haley and how, while writing Roots, he was able to trace his family’s history back two hundred years to an ancestor in Africa named Kunta Kinte. He did this through an oral tradition that was passed down from the eighteenth century to the twentieth. There was never a break in that chain, despite the unspeakable horrors of slavery.
Of course, there’s a profound difference between immigrating in hopes of a better life and getting captured and sold to be a slave.
For Alex Haley’s ancestors the practice of passing along language and culture was an act of defiance, courage, desperation. For Sixto Lopez the decision not to pass along his language and culture to his son Robert, who therefore couldn’t pass it along to his son Robert, was probably made out of a perceived necessity: this is what you have to do to make it here as an American.
Had I been born to Chinese parents who’d moved to Puerto Rico in the 1980s, I probably would’ve learned Spanish, too.
But I can’t go back seventy-five years to convince my grandparents to maintain our family’s language, our history, what it means to be Puerto Rican, what it means to be part of this particular Lopez line of Puerto Ricans.
And so there I was yesterday, a Puerto Rican man who doesn’t speak Spanish playing tennis with a Chinese man who does.
I can’t decide if this is absurd or beautiful or tragic. Probably it’s all three.
The truth is the assimilation was successful. Sixto Lopez’s grandson went to college, got an advanced degree, authored books, and became a college professor. Sixto’s granddaughter, my sister, also has a master’s degree and lives a comfortable life in suburban New Jersey, surrounded by white people.
In fact, I was the first person on either side of my family to attend a college or university, let alone graduate. This could’ve been quite the victory for certain members of my family, but I don’t remember any celebrations. Almost everyone from my public high school on Long Island went to college. In my little majority-white world, higher education was normal, routine. So none of it seemed like an accomplishment to me.
I do remember my father encouraging me to take the civil-service exam so I would have something to fall back on. By then I’d graduated with a degree in communications and had designs on becoming a writer and educator — pursuits that would’ve been entirely unthinkable to my grandfather. Even my father, who lived long enough to see me get into graduate school, couldn’t quite imagine it.
My father, after serving in the Army, was employed by IBM and UPS. He also applied to SUNY Farmingdale under the GI Bill, wanting to take courses in horticulture, but he didn’t pursue it. After he married and started a family, he became a garbageman with the New York City Department of Sanitation, and he stayed in that job for twenty-two years before retiring.
He did all of this for my sister and me, so that we could do better than him; so that we wouldn’t have to work so hard for a living, wouldn’t have to muscle our way through life.
I see my father as having sacrificed to provide for his family: getting up at a god-awful hour, working outside in the scorching heat and freezing cold, pushing his body to the point of exhaustion. I appreciate what he did for me, and what his father did for both of us. But I don’t think sacrificing our language and culture, heritage and history, had to be part of the bargain. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “assimilation,” it’s rare for a minority group to replace its previous cultural practices completely.
But I’m living proof that it happens.
I had a typical American suburban childhood filled with Little League and fast food, MTV and senior prom, cruising the pike in a friend’s Camaro on Friday nights, doing absolutely nothing. And maybe all that was fine and the fulfillment of my grandfather’s dream back in Puerto Rico circa 1928, but wasn’t there a way for me to do all that while listening to “Oye Como Va” and eating asopao?
I do remember a joke my grandfather told me once, about the national anthem at a baseball game and a little boy in the stands named José: when the boy heard “O, say, can you see?” he thought it was “José, can you see?” and he said yes, he could see just fine.
Though my father’s mother never taught me any Spanish, she said I should learn the language in school. To underscore the importance of learning Spanish, she told me of her experience riding the subway and overhearing two men planning some sort of crime. She found a cop on the platform and ratted out the would-be criminals, and this was why I should learn the language.
My grandmother was earnest in this advice. As if there were no other reason to learn to speak Spanish.
According to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, nearly all Latinos believe it’s important that the next generation of Latinos in the U.S. speak Spanish. Yet 71 percent say it’s not necessary to speak Spanish to be considered Latino.
There doesn’t seem to be data on Latino views from 1940, when my father was born, when they hung signs in shops that said, No Dogs or Puerto Ricans, but I imagine the numbers were wildly different then.
I asked Cary yesterday about his relationship to language and family history. He said that though he speaks Cantonese with his extended family, he cannot read or write it very well, having never studied it in school.
He said his wife, who is also Chinese, can’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin at all.
I like hearing about other casualties of assimilation.
Cary said his great-grandfather worked in Cuba for twenty years, his grandfather worked in the Dominican Republic, and his parents worked in Puerto Rico. He has cousins who still live in Mexico.
I can’t decide whether this makes him more Latino than I am.
I have another friend, Brian, who grew up Mormon and learned Spanish when he was a missionary in Argentina at the age of twenty. I’m sure I know other non-Latinos who speak Spanish, but you can’t beat a Chinese guy and a Mormon.
Longtime NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw said in 2019 that Latinos should “work harder at assimilation.” Clearly he never met my grandparents.
I don’t know if my grandparents considered the ramifications of what it means to assimilate. They didn’t talk to therapists and guidance counselors about it. They didn’t read books by sociologists or other academics on the importance of culture and identity. It was just what most working-class people did when they came to America in the first half of the twentieth century.
I don’t know if my father ever thought about these issues, either. I don’t know if my father felt as though he’d lost some part of himself.
So, sure, we assimilated, and it was successful, but my family got completely whitewashed in two generations.
I ’ve never traveled to a Spanish-speaking country, partly because I feel awful in hot climates, and all of Latin America is too close to the equator for my taste. Another reason is I’d have to apologize all the time: “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Spanish.” Lo siento. No hablo Español.
But I was planning to go to Puerto Rico before the pandemic, so I could look for my grandfather in the streets of Mayagüez; so I could imagine where he might’ve gone to school, played ball, worked in a cantina. I’d talk to strangers and ask them the questions I should’ve asked my grandfather. I’d visit libraries and government buildings the way Alex Haley did in the 1960s, when he first started tracing his roots. Maybe I’d find long-lost relatives, read their names in some yellowed ledger.
Maybe I’d feel something.
I don’t have any children and don’t plan on having any. So I won’t have to worry over what to tell my daughter about her last name, or what to tell my son about how come we don’t speak the language.
All of it dies with me.
I sometimes think about an alternative reality where I did grow up speaking Spanish. I think about how that might have changed me, might have pushed me beyond the narrow world in which I’ve spent my life.
I think about the vague sense of rootlessness I’ve always felt, a niggling yet permanent disconnect.
My grandfather did make rice and beans, and I think my father had a Tito Puente record or two. So there’s that.
Singer-songwriter Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has a lyric: “What might’ve been lost don’t bother me.” It’s clear from the way he delivers the line that this isn’t at all true. The whole song is a powerful chorus of abject denial.
I feel the same way. What might’ve been lost don’t bother me, except when I meet a Sanchez or a Gonzalez, or when someone asks me about my heritage, or when I make myself rice and beans, or sometimes when I’m alone and get to thinking.