From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Choices and Decisions
by Natalia Sylvester
I would not be alive if not for a series of small heroic acts.
In one of my first memories of living in the United States, I’m four and sitting alone at my aunt’s kitchen table—coloring, perhaps, though that part is fuzzy—when a pan on the stove lights up in flames. My mom runs across the house. I don’t remember yelling. I don’t remember any time passing at all. It’s as if my mom sensed there was a fire. Without hesitating, she grabs a kitchen towel and begins swatting at the flames. They engulf one of her arms before they go out. The scar, shaped like a continent stretching from her wrist just past her elbow, lives on her skin for years.
In another, I’m at my aunt and uncle’s again, standing at the edge of the deep end of their pool. It’s the weekend and I’ve chosen this one moment, when all the adults and all my cousins are looking the other way, to suddenly feel invincible. Never mind that I don’t know how to swim. Never mind that I have a flotation device around my waist and I’ve raised my hands straight up in the air. The physics occur to me for half a second and then I push them away and jump. I fall straight through. I sink and begin to drown. My mom—fully dressed in crisp linen pants, closed-toe pumps, and a button-up shirt—dives in and scoops me up before I can feel even an ounce of fear. Her cigarettes, still in her pants pockets, are drenched.
One more. This time, a moment when no one’s life is at risk. It’s just a simple afternoon after my mother, father, sister, and I have moved into our first one-bedroom apartment in Miami. It’s our own place. We were lucky to live with my aunt and uncle and cousins when we first arrived from Peru, but this is finally our home. Our own couch with cushions that my sister and I place on the floor to sleep on. Our own brand-new Nintendo system, treasured like it’s the very latest even though everyone else has moved on to Super NES. Our own phone number, which my mother makes me memorize.
One day after school, I go through her nightstand drawer and find money. Crisp and colorful bills of millions and billions.
“Are we rich?” I ask.
She shakes her head no. “You can maybe buy a soda with that, in Peru.” It’s the first time I understand currency, the idea that what we brought with us is not as valuable now that we’re here. Years later, I’ll learn words like hyperinflation, terrorism, ransom. I’ll learn that our country replaced its currency twice in the span of six years, at a rate of one billion to one by the time it was all over. I’ll learn about the Shining Path and the MRTA and daily bombs exploding in the background of our existence. I’ll learn that my grandfather was once kidnapped and held for ransom for two months.
But that is later. For now, I am four, five, six. I am the girl who starts school in ESOL and makes the kindergarten honor roll months later. The girl who knows she’ll have to get a college scholarship before she understands what the words college and scholarship really mean. The girl who says however instead of but, afraid it’ll sound too much like butt. The girl who dresses up like a fairy for Halloween on the wrong day, only to arrive at school tardy, the hallways empty except for one other boy wobbling towards her, dressed as a giant yellow crayon.
To this day, I wonder what country he was from, and whether his mother brought him a change of clothes like mine did.
They say that the best way to teach bilingual children to read is in their mother tongue. They say that now, at least, but when I was in first grade I was made to learn in English first. If the spoken language had felt foreign to me, the written one was even more so—every syllable a sound I had to translate myself. I was barely what you’d call bilingual, and here were more words I couldn’t conquer. Not surprisingly, I struggled. My teacher sat me in the back of the room, where I could fall behind on my reading lessons without dragging the rest of the class down with me. She’d send me home with extra books and cassette tapes that I’d pore over with my mother.
At the time, my mother spoke more English than my sister and I did, having learned some in grade school in Peru. The way she tells it, one day I came home and it was like someone had flipped a switch: I was speaking like it’d been my first language all along. I started reading como si nada. It was the same for my sister. My mom began pretending she didn’t understand us, so we’d be forced to speak to her in Spanish. Here were her own children speaking like native foreigners. What else was she to do?
We easily shed the accent she still has today. Sometimes we’d make fun of her for it. Other times she’d tease us about our strained Spanish. While driving us around town to my sister’s allergy shot appointments, my mother would quiz us on our grammar. Pointing at a traffic light, she’d hold up four fingers and say, Semáforo. On which of the four syllables does the accent go?
I work and think and speak predominantly in English now. People ask me all the time if I write my books in Spanish and I laugh, because it is my first but no longer my native language. It’s not that I’ve forgotten. It’s more like some words are shelved so high in my memory that I can’t reach them unless someone grabs them for me.
And yet there are still concepts that feel foreign to me in English. In moments of extreme happiness, hurt, or anger, the only language my body understands—or rather the only language that understands my body—is my first. When I cook or clean or pack, I switch to Spanish to grab utensils and supplies and luggage. And the word mom is a rare visitor on my tongue: my sister and I have called our parents by their first names our whole lives. In the fourth grade, a teacher asked if Ceci was the Spanish word for mother, and we all laughed even though it made perfect sense. It is the Spanish word, for me. A name can carry everything.
I dedicated my novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home, to Ceci. There is a scene in it in which the newly married Isabel is talking to her mother-in-law, Elda, about how hard it must have been to emigrate. She can’t imagine making the kind of choices Elda did, to leave everything she knew and loved in Mexico to protect her young family. Elda responds, “Decisions are not the same as choices.”
Choices provide options, agency, hope, a livable alternative. Decisions are made for us, and we are left to do with them what we can. Like putting out a fire or jumping into the water to save your child. We do what we can to survive.
Take action today:
At a time when the pain and struggles of immigrant families have never been more visible, think also of our smaller joys and triumphs, the everyday in-between moments, rendered invisible for so long that the darkness paved the way for this destruction and dehumanization. Think of our labor—not only the houses constructed and the crops harvested, but also the daily emotional fortitude it takes to build a new life of love and protection in a land that offers so little of both. So much of this work is taken on by immigrant mothers; so much of it goes unseen. See them. Celebrate them. Help them.
Sign up to become a literacy volunteer at your local library: many offer free ESL classes, but need English speakers to either teach or chat with students to help them practice. If you’re looking for a cause to support financially, Circle of Health International (COHI) is a Texas-based nonprofit that aligns itself with local organizations led and powered by women to best serve the needs of women and children in each area. COHI is leading a delegation this fall to help the immigrant mothers, infants, and children being detained in McAllen, Texas. Learn more and donate here.
Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novels Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home.