My American, Jewish, and Cuban identities are stitched into Asylum’s narrative. The hyphens that connect my Cuban-American-Jewish identity dangle. Who am I? I wrote a book to find answers to that question. My family’s languages are some of the more prominent features of Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets. There is a quintet of them — English, Spanish, Ladino, Yiddish, and more recently Spanglish. They come together in a thick alphabet soup.
Here is what I know: I am losing my Spanish, once the language of raucous holidays with the Cuban side of my family. “Next year in Havana!” we shouted on Passover. Our arroz y frijoles Thanksgiving was multicultural before the term was in common use. Maria the landlady, who lived above my aunt, banged her broom on the floor when our celebrations spilled out of my aunt’s apartment. When we ignored her one too many times, Maria pounded on the door and screamed, “Why are you people so damn loud?”
I am losing my Spanish. My mother is losing her memory. Como se llama tu hija? What is my daughter’s name, she asks me. At the same time, she frets that losing the Spanish she gave me is akin to losing my very soul. I, her firstborn, was the only of her three children who spoke her language fluently. Now when a Spanish word starts to leave my brain, it’s often trapped there and I can’t utter it. I know it. I don’t know it. I open my mouth, and a breath of my mother’s querida idioma dissipates in the air.
Losing my Spanish is like losing my religion, my bearings. My octogenarian mother, who has consistently spoken English for almost seven decades, reverts to Spanish in mid-sentence. I answer her with words that are half English, half Spanish; I speak Spanglish to her. Cobbling together a Spanglish world is as easy as placing a la or an el before a noun in English. I default to it after a mighty struggle to speak my tetanus-rusty Spanish. It feels impossible that I once translated entire soap opera episodes for my abuela.
I haven’t been anyone’s translator for a long time.
That leads to another question: whose daughter am I? My American father —a man who was so assimilated that I once described him as a WASPy Jew — was forged in the steely, flinty patriotism of World War II. Much of Asylum portrays not only my parents’ cultural clashes but also the gaping generational chasm between them.
Losing my Spanish is like losing my religion, my bearings.
My father graduated in 1940 with a Yale degree and a naval commission. He was twenty-one years old. That same year, Havana’s Jews were still reeling after the St. Louis was turned away twice from Havana Harbor in 1939. My mother lived near that harbor. Although only four years old, she knew that her own parents’ nervousness had metastasized into cold, drenching fear for the Jews on the ship. My abuela frantically tried to secure false baptismal certificates for our family. My abuelo, almost catatonic, could not acknowledge that more than 900 Jews, most of them German refugees fleeing the Nazis, were not allowed to disembark. The ship then headed to Florida and was so close to land that Miami’s lights were in sight. The Jews were refused entry into the United States as well and returned to the largest antisemitic demonstration in Cuban history.
The ship finally returned to Hamburg, where most of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
Twenty-one years later, I was born in my father’s hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. Abuela came from Havana to care for my mother and me. Family lore has it that Abuela went back on one of the last direct flights from New York to Havana in the spring of 1961. Before she left she made my father promise to save my uncle, who would almost certainly have been sent to cut sugarcane in Cuba’s interior.
My father arranged for my uncle to leave Cuba on a Pedro Pan flight — a CIA-organized rescue operation in which desperate Cuban parents sent their unaccompanied children to the United States. A major plot point of Asylum concerns my father’s mysterious governmental connections. At nineteen, my uncle was old for a Pedro Pan kid. He was the first of my Cuban family to leave Havana as another sort of refugee.
So many of my family stories are embroiled in multilingual world history — Cuban, American, Sephardic, Ashkenazi. They tell of migration upon migration. I worry that losing my Spanish is akin to losing a piece of that history. Spanglish is the rickety life raft I board from a sinking ship. Spanglish is what I have left of my Spanish and my Latina identity.
Estas traduciendo. My mother, always the language teacher, senses that I’m translating her Spanish into English in my head during one of my visits to her nursing home. She detects it in my pauses. For years she told her students they will know they are fluent in Spanish the day they stop calculating from English to Spanish and back.
Entiendo todo, I insist. I understand everything. I tell my mother to put on Univisión. I can follow the noticias the shiny news anchors deliver. But it’s easier to track the novelitas — the Spanish soaps — with their basic vocabulary, their slow diction in service to syrupy drama.
In Asylum , I point out that even at the height of my ability to speak Spanish, my version has always been as commonplace as the caffeterra perched on my abuelos’ stovetop brewing Cuban coffee. At my most fluent, I never used the future tense. I spoke in the monotones of the present. When I made mistakes using the past tense, my abuelos thought it was funny. My uncle said my Spanish was extraño, weird. My mother went beyond grammar and worried I was losing my accent — the accent I hid behind as an imposter. With my mellifluous accent, surely I must have appeared as a native speaker.
My mother lost her Cuba almost seventy years ago. Her yearning to return to the house on la callé Mercéd was messianic. Every Cuban I knew when I was a kid burned with the same fervor of reclamation. When I went there myself in 2012, my mother initially protested. Later, she was afraid to see the pictures I took of her patria, particularly of her house in the neighborhood near the harbor — the neighborhood achingly close to the phantasmagoric St. Louis and her doomed passengers.
I reclaimed my Spanish in Cuba. After a few sunny days, I was speaking like a Cubana again. No internal translating. No pausing. No hesitancy. I was nothing less than Latinx. Taxi drivers recognized my accent as their own. Bienvenida a tu casa, they said.I was home.
But I am losing my Spanish again. I am losing my mother. With whom will I speak the remnants of that language when she passes? Where will I hear my mother’s decorous and ancient Ladino?
Who will stir my alphabet soup with me?
Judy Bolton-Fasman’s essays and reviews have appeared in major newspapers including the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Her work has appeared in essay anthologies and literary magazines such as McSweeney’s, Brevity, Catapult, and Cognoscenti, She is the recipient of numerous writing fellowships and has won four Rockower Awards from the American Jewish Press Association. Judy is the arts and culture writer for JewishBoston.com.