“Agua,” my mother said to me as she held out a glass. She refused to release it from her grip until I relented, but I walked away with a dry mouth rather than say the word “water” in Spanish. I was about 5 years old and quickly learned the comeback that was my only sure defense: “You’re in America now. Speak English!” It wore my mother down, and eventually, she stopped offering drinks with an accompanying language tutorial. I had won. Or so I thought at the time.
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Had I grown up a Cuban American in Miami, Spanish would have been an inescapable part of my life. Instead, my mother, a refugee from Castro’s rule, settled in Brooklyn, in a primarily Italian, Irish, and Jewish neighborhood. I certainly didn’t want to be thought of as different in a community where the mere aroma of arroz con frijoles might cause “For Sale” signs to spring up for three surrounding blocks. And I think my mother never really forced the language on me because she herself worried about how she was perceived. When she came to New York in 1965, she understood that mastering English was her ticket to acceptance and a better way of life. She learned it as quickly as she could and even took classes to eliminate her accent.