Sisters: peleas y travesuras

Carlos has just as many siblings as I do but he knows nothing about sibling rivalry. His brother and sister are much older than him so a good amount of his childhood was spent almost like a single child.

I, on the other hand, was born in the middle of an older sister and a younger sister. This usually meant that when we went to war, (which we did often), I always had an ally. My older sister and younger sister never teamed up together – that’s the benefit, (and injustice, depending on which side you fall), of being one of three.

Now as a mother of two boys I sometimes try to view their relationship from their perspective as siblings. Two brothers means there are no allies – it’s direct one-on-one combat – At least it keeps things fair?

When the boys fight, I usually turn a blind eye and let them work it out on their own, knowing it’s just one of those things siblings do, but Carlos considers this “American parenting” and will have none of it. When the boys fight, Carlos takes action. “Ey! You’re brothers! What’s wrong with you? Brothers don’t act like that!”

“Yes, yes they do,” I say to myself as I watch Carlos force them into a stiff-armed hug under threat of the chancla. Carlos’s heart is in the right place, but I think sometimes you just have to let them work it out by themselves. Conflict management skills come in handy in the real world anyway, verdad?

The funny thing is, when our hijos “fight” – their acts of revenge aren’t even that bad. The things they do to each other are fairly innocent compared to what my sisters and I did to each other when we were all under the same roof. Our youngest son has erased his older brother’s user account on a video game. Our older son has hidden a toy from his younger brother – That is usually as far as it goes.

Some of the routine things we did to each other as sisters included:

• Insisting our little sister was adopted until she cried.
• Turning out the lights and terrorizing our little sister with scary monster noises.
• Locking each other out of the house.
• Stealing our older sisters clothing/perfume/jewelry.
• and, picking up the phone while our older sister was talking to a boyfriend and saying things about her that would humiliate her.

When my mother left our older sister in charge, it was time for our older sister to get revenge. My little sister and I usually ended up locking ourselves in the bathroom so she couldn’t beat the crap out of us for all the things we’d done to her during the week.

Our older sister had one boyfriend in particular that we didn’t like. My little sister and I took some dinner rolls and drew wings on them with a marker, then we chucked them at him from the next room. (Not sure why we bothered to draw wings. It was creative cruelty.)

Then there was the Thanksgiving my family will always remember. At the table my older sister kept putting her finger in my face and doing the “I’m not touching you” thing. Being someone who values their personal space, I warned her that if she didn’t stop, she would be sorry. Of course she did it again. I grabbed her shirt collar in one hand and punched her in the face with the other. She got a bloody nose and I broke a necklace she was wearing. My mother cried because she envisioned a Martha Stewart-esque meal. (Sorry, Mom.)

My older sister had to put up with a lot from us two, but she’d get a break once in awhile when my little sister and I got into our own battles. One time my little sister stole a book from me. She ran to her room with it and locked her door. I kicked her door so hard I made a hole in it. She also did this to my door on one occasion. I think that was the same day she threw an iron at my head. My little sister also chewed up the feet on my Barbies multiple times – They were so deformed they couldn’t even wear their high heels.

This all sounds dysfunctional written out like this, but I’m pretty sure it’s normal. There was a lot of fighting, cruel pranks and rivalry, but we loved each other and still do. The good memories far outweigh the bad, and I love having two sisters, (even though I once told them I’d trade them both in for a brother.)


As much as I wanted to, lullabies in Spanish were not something I could give to my children. Lullabies are the quiet songs whispered in the middle of sleepless moonlit nights – songs that come from our hearts, somehow deeply remembered within us but never formally taught, songs our mothers sang to us as babies.

My mother would gently swipe the hair from my forehead and sing “You are my sunshine”, and this was always the song that came to my lips when my children needed comforting.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy, when skies are gray,
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
Please don’t take, my sunshine away.

That is the song I was raised hearing, and so that is the song that I sung. And sometimes I would inexplicably sing “Blackbird”, among a couple other Beatles songs. My father is a big fan of The Beatles, so maybe he listened to them while my mother tried to put me to sleep. ¿Quién sabe?

Lullabies in Spanish on the other hand, were provided to my children at times by Suegra, but I always found the lyrics puzzling, funny, frightening.

Duérmete, mi niño — (Go to sleep, my child)
Cabeza de ayote, — (Pumpkin/squash head)
Si no te duermes, — (If you don’t sleep)
Te come el coyote. — (The coyote will eat you.)

It loses some of its charm in English, no?

And another one she often sang was:

Qué bonito es mi niño — (How beautiful is is my child)
Se parece a su papá — (He looks like his Papa)
Qué bonito es mi niño — (How beautiful is my child)
Se parece a su mamá — (He looks like his Mama)

(Except when she was mad at me, she’d change the song to repeat the second line at the end.)

I wish I had known lullabies in Spanish to sing to my children, but I’m hoping I will know some for my future grandchildren… I will sing them the silly ones I learned from Suegra, but I want to sing them beautiful lullabies as well. Here is one I recently found que me encanta.

Lindo, ¿sí?

Which lullabies were sung to you? Which lullabies are sung to your children?

Sonría, en español

This button was a regalito from my first Spanish teacher, Señora B. She was known for being pretty strict. I can’t count how many times I swallowed gum that year upon seeing her fists on her hips, her black cat-eye glasses at the tip of her nose, as she asked, “ReNeé, estás masticando chicle en mi clase?”

*gulp* “No, Señora.”

You may be wondering who “ReNée” is – that was me. Some classmates had their names automatically translated to Spanish and assigned by the teacher, having no say in the matter at all, but since there is no real equivalent to “Tracy”, I was allowed to pick from a list hanging up on the chalkboard. I read over the names multiple times but nothing caught my eye until I came to “Renée” … The only problem? I had accidentally drifted over to the “French Names List”.

Señora B informed me that “Renée” when used in Latin America, is for males only, but as a tomboy, that only made me want it more. Señora B relented and let me have it, even turned a blind eye when I insisted on capitalizing the “N” – just because I wanted to. Señora B accepted my need to be different even as she often sighed in exasperation, “Ay, ReNée…”

Other memories from her class: Marching around the perimeter of the room chanting “o! as! a! amos! áis! an!” (The conjugation for “-ar” verbs.) After a few minutes we complained and she told us, “You feel ridiculous, but I promise you’ll never forget it, now keep marching.” … And 20 years later, I haven’t forgotten.

Here is what she wrote in my yearbook, (and at the time I barely understood a word of it):

Señora B was my first Spanish teacher, but she wasn’t my last. The next year, and almost until graduation, I had Señora S, and she liked me just as much as Señora B – she even trusted me to help grade papers and tutor other kids, (though I definitely wasn’t her top student academically speaking.)

In my Junior year of high school, Señora S, petite but with a fierce sparkle in her eyes, is the one who insisted I go on a group trip to Europe, though I was sure I couldn’t afford it. I worked hard at a local restaurant and saved some of the money, but the due date came and I didn’t have enough. As usual, my parents bailed me out. Señora then told me that while in Spain there would be an optional day trip to Toledo that would cost extra. Of course I told Señora S that I was going to have to pass on it – She wouldn’t hear of it and paid my fee for the trip to Toledo because she didn’t want me to miss it.

The trip to Europe included a few cities in Italy, then Vatican City, Monaco, one city in France and then a few cities in Spain, in that order. In Rome, drunk on freedom, I snuck out to a discoteca the first night. While drinking a second Rum & Coke, I chatted with a guy from Mexico.

“¿Tienes una novia?” I asked.
“¿Aquí o en México?” he responded, completely serious. He had no idea why I laughed and found someone else to dance with.

The next day in Florence I got lost and asked a man on the street where my hotel was. It turned out he was quite drunk or crazy, but had an impeccable sense of direction. He escorted me to the hotel but then proceeded to enter the lobby and almost get into a fist fight with the manager. In turn the manager wanted to kick our group out of the hotel. Señora S was not amused. This situation called for much more than a simple “Ay, ReNée.” – I almost got sent home, after only a couple days in Europe. Señora S warned me that I better not step a single toe out of line for the rest of the trip. “And don’t think I don’t know about your fun last night,” she whispered.

I behaved for the rest of the trip, (or at least kept my trouble-making less obvious.) Some of the fun Señora S didn’t find out about, (or pretended not to know of), included, sitting on people’s doorsteps and tricking tourists into thinking I was a local. I bought a scarf at the market and tied it over my head babushka-style. My simple costume paired with pretend broken English, fooled tourists every time. I also got kicked by a palace guard in Monaco for apparently sitting somewhere I wasn’t supposed to sit.

By the time we arrived in Spain, I was out of money and surviving on the stale bread and coffee that was our free continental breakfast, (with the occasional sip of Sangria.) My memories of Spain are mostly memories of hunger.

On the final day of our trip I had the luck to enjoy a cup of thick, rich hot chocolate that a friend bought for me just before we got onto the bus. Unfortunately, this wasn’t instant hot cocoa like we have here at home, made with water and a packet of chocolate-flavored mix. This was real hot chocolate, made with very real milk.

After so many days of not eating much, the Spanish hot chocolate didn’t agree with me. I felt my tummy begin to churn and my cheeks flush. I begged the bus driver to make an unscheduled stop and ran to the restrooms. My moment of relief was fleeting as I entered the actual bathroom and looked at the “toilet”… Here was something even more perplexing than the bidets I had previously encountered – It was a hole in the floor. I was so desperate that I tried to use it, but I had no idea how to do so without making a complete mess. Defeated, I pulled my pants back up, deciding to hold it until we got to our destination and more modern facilities.

Despite all the fun, by the end of our trip, I was definitely ready to go home. All these years later, I reflect back on the impact these teachers had on who I am today, and how profoundly they affected the trajectory of my life, and I smile… en español.

Dismantling Memories & Making New Ones

This past weekend my husband looked out the back door, into the backyard, as he has done a million times and asked aloud, “When are we going to get rid of the swing set?”

The rusty swing set really serves no purpose. The boys have grown too old to bother with it and it’s in the way when Carlos cuts the grass. It’s simply taking up space, but what do you do with a swing set you don’t want? You can’t just toss it in the trash… and besides, it hurts my heart a little to admit that the swing set years are officially over.

Carlos didn’t wait for me to make excuses. “I’m taking it down,” he said, and then turning to the boys, “Who wants to help?” … I expected the boys to beg him not to take it down but they ran to get the toolbox. I guess it was time.

(Our older son asked where to put some bolts, and in typical Salvadoran fashion, Carlos pointed with his lips.)

While we dismantled the swing set, Suegra happened to call on the phone from El Salvador.
“What are you doing there?” she asked.
“We’re taking apart the swing set.”
“Oh no!”

For once I thought Suegra was in agreement with me – that we were doing away with a special memory, but she continued on, “Why are you taking it down?! Where will I hang my laundry when I come back?!”

Escritura y Diferencias

September is a special month to me. It’s the month I started this blog last year, and though my husband and I met each other at the end of August all those years ago, September is when we became novios. And so today has me thinking about the early days, when we were new to each other, and I was still discovering all the little things about him that endeared him to me…

I first noticed my husband’s escritura, (handwriting) within minutes of meeting him. He gave me his name and phone number, and instead of the chicken-scratch I was used to seeing from American boys, I held in my hands something not only completely readable, but strangely intriguing.

Yes, after all these years, I still have it.

As novios, I looked forward to his love letters, not just for the words themselves, but the way in which they had been written – the form of each individual letter. Everything about him reminded me of how different we were, from our inability to communicate at times, (I read his love letters with an English-Spanish dictionary by my side), to something as simple as the way we write the letter “e”.

They say “love is blind”, and while I agree with the sentiment, it isn’t literally true. We saw our differences, and were fascinated by them.

Many handwriting experts claim you can’t tell a person’s ethnicity or nationality by their handwriting, but again, I say this isn’t true. (Link is to a PDF titled: “Spanish Handwriting And Spelling” – a document meant for non-native Spanish speakers deciphering Spanish documents to extract information. The fact that such a document exists proves that there are differences!)

Maybe it isn’t fool proof, but I’m able to pick out the handwriting of native born Salvadorans from that of U.S. born Americans. While I haven’t seen handwriting samples from all Latin American countries, everybody in my husband’s family – his mother, his sister, his brother, his cousins and uncles – even completely unrelated Salvadorans I’ve met, all have similarities in their handwriting. I can’t tell you if it’s a uniquely Salvadoran handwriting or a Spanish-speaking/Latin American way of writing, but it is different – and noticing a difference is not a bad thing.

In this politically correct world we’re admonished to look for the similarities, but I say go ahead and look for the differences, and celebrate them, because they’re beautiful.

Yo soy ese romántico, Yo soy ese lunático

What do you do when you get a craving for birthday cake, but there are no family birthdays on this month’s calendar? You celebrate an un-birthday.

When I called my husband and asked him to pick up a birthday cake, (yellow with white icing, please), on his way home, he obliged. Actually, he more than obliged. He took the opportunity to be muy romántico.

Saying that word, (“romántico”), reminds me of the first Spanish language album I bought. It was 1995, which makes me around 16 years old. The album was “Vida” by La Mafia. Who knows why I picked it up but I remember listening to it on repeat, with the lyrics insert spread before me on the carpet. I especially loved the song “Yo soy ese romántico” because it was one of the few songs I understood all the words to.

“Yo soy ese romántico
Yo soy ese lunático
Que pinta corazones
con tu nombre
Por toda la cuidad
Yo soy ese romántico
Yo soy ese lunático
Que llama cada noche
Que te dice que te ama de verdad.”

-Yo Soy Ese Romántico/La Mafia

I remember my love sick sighs, dreaming of meeting a guy who would be as romantic as the one in the song.

I guess sometimes dreams come true.

All paths lead to fútbol

Surrounded by Christmas presents including my first soccer ball. 1979.

My father played soccer before I was born. The dusty trophies on a shelf in the basement and a few faded sepia-tinted photographs were all I knew of it. I don’t remember my father ever watching soccer while I was growing up and though I was given a soccer ball for my first Christmas, the game was only played casually in our yard, just another ball that was part of our collection of toys, piled in a box along with cob-webbed baseball bats, tennis rackets, and flat basketballs.

It wasn’t until I started working at a little Italian restaurant that fútbol fever took over. The owner was from Italy, and as any good Italian should, he loved soccer, (“calcio” in Italian.) Business was often slow and he was infamous for working us hard, always reminding us in his thick accent, “If you can’t find something to do, I will find something for you. I am not paying you for nothing.” But during the World Cup, he allowed us to sit with him at the wobbly uneven-legged tables in the dinning room once in awhile to watch the games play on the little TV up in the corner, (though we had to re-fill ketchup bottles and salt shakers while we watched.) Sometimes he even forgot to complain that we were taking advantage of his generous “unlimited fountain drinks for employees” benefit.

It was during this time that I really fell in love with the game, and not just because it offered a momentary respite from scrubbing floor tiles with a toothbrush. The actual game itself is beautiful; there is beauty in the skill in which the men move the ball down the field, but also in the ball itself. Such a humble object, so humble that people have been known to create them out of trash in the most dire circumstances. There is beauty in the fact that the game is accessible to all, and that no matter our differences, for a brief time, it can bring the world together in a common love.

One of the few photos of his childhood. My husband and his father (lower right), with the team. 1978.

My husband’s love of fútbol is a very different story, (as is almost every story which directly compares our childhoods.) Growing up in El Salvador during a bloody civil war, with the sounds of helicopters and gunfire as background noise, he still ran out to kick the ball around with his friends. His father was the coach of a second division team, and my husband was the team mascot. Sometimes they would go to the crowded stadium to watch games, which could often times be dangerous as it was common for passionate, (and sometimes intoxicated) fans, to become violent. The Football War, (La guerra del fútbol), between El Salvador and Honduras happened before my husband’s time, but that just goes to show the passion they have for the game.

Though my husband has told me he wasn’t given toys as a child, and his Christmas present was usually a pair of shoes, (purposefully bought a few sizes too big so they would last), somehow he remembers having the official FIFA World Cup sticker albums. While I collected puffy, sparkly, and scratch-and-sniff stickers like most American children of the 1980’s, my husband collected stickers of futbolistas and it’s one of very few fond childhood memories he has.

So this year, as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa fast approaches, I encouraged my husband to buy the sticker album. He was at first reluctant, saying that there was no one to trade stickers with, but after I found out some friends would be buying the albums, he agreed. It didn’t take long for my husband’s enthusiasm to be re-ignited. When we bought the album at one of the local Latino markets, we bought a few of the sticker packets with it. The next day, he came home from work with more packets in hand, having stopped at the store on the way. Watching him open the packets and sort through them gives me a glimpse of the little boy he used to be.

We began brainwashing our niños at an early age. Our oldest son. 1998.

We also like sharing this experience with our boys. At first it was just to force our love of fútbol on them, but it turns out, the album provides a great opportunity for practicing Spanish. The pages are multi-lingual, listing the names of the countries and other vocabulary in a dozen or so languages.

As for the stickers, so far we’ve got three doubles. We’ve got an extra Sebastian Abreu (Uruguay/Sticker #86.), Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina/Sticker #117), and Hendry Thomas (Honduras/Sticker #612). Who wants to trade? :)

You down with O.P.P? (Yeah, you know me!)

When I was in middle school, there was a rap song they played at our lame school dances called “O.P.P” by Naughty by Nature. I think that half us didn’t even know what “O.P.P.” stood for, even though they break it down in the song. (And obviously, the school administrators had no idea what it meant or they wouldn’t have let the D.J. keep playing it!)

Okay, but I’m not talking about that kind of O.P.P. When I ask if you’re down with O.P.P., I’m talking about “Other People’s Pupusas”… (And not that kind of pupusa either. No sean mal pensados!)

My Suegra takes a lot of pride in her pupusa making skills – and they are good, but it’s the difference between a homemade hamburger and a Big Mac. Sometimes you just want the fast food version.

Today we were out running errands and I stopped at the Latino Market which has an attached cantina. I snuck over there while Suegra was fighting with the cashier over how crappy their phone cards are, and bought 2 pupusas de queso. When Suegra discovered me over there she chastised me in front of everyone for buying other people’s pupusas, but they were so worth it.

El Policía

One day when we were in El Salvador, my Suegra needed to run an errand to send a fax. So we took the bus to who-knows-where in San Salvador. The store was small and insignificant looking but this is where she went for things such as faxing, wiring money, etc.

What really caught my eye was the police officer on guard outside the establishment. I instinctively took a step back and then stopped dead in my tracks. My Suegra laughed at me and my husband reassured me that there wasn’t a riot or anything crazy going on – he was just a normal, every day, Salvadoran police officer. I tried not to gawk at him as we went past him into the shop. He greeted us with the traditional “Buenas” that all people, friends and complete strangers alike, use on the street.

Inside the store, Suegra took care of business and then said to me, as we walked towards the door, “Want to take a photo of the police officer?”

“No way! He’ll shoot me!” I whispered as we went back out onto the street.
“Just wait a minute,” she said, walking ahead of us.

I watched Suegra walk up to the police officer and gesture in my direction.

“You see that American girl over there? She’s my daughter-in-law.”

The police officer seemed friendly. He nodded and smiled in my direction, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the gun slung across his chest.

My Suegra continued, her voice as sticky sweet as honey.

“My daughter-in-law is very impressed with your gun,” she said smiling. “The police officers in the United States don’t carry guns like that.”

(Think of all the funny euphemisms you want because at this point I was trying not to laugh.)

The police officer’s chest visibly puffed out, like a bird shaking off after a dip in a puddle.

Suegra went in for the kill. “Do you think my daughter-in-law could take your photo? She’d like to show her friends and family what a proud Salvadoran police officer looks like.” She raised her eyebrows in expectation and gave him her best smile.

The police officer nodded his approval and waved me over. As I got my camera ready, he licked his fingers and slicked his hair into place. I took the photo, thanked him, and managed to hold my laughter in until we were down the block and out of earshot, (or gunshot!)

It’s been more than 10 years now since I took that photo. Sometimes I wonder about him and what he’s doing today. I wonder if he remembers the silly gringa that wanted to take his photo.