“As American As Anyone”
After all these years I still can’t figure out how my mother managed it. I remember how at my brother’s Christening, Papi, who could never resist telling a good story, once again reported on my mother’s conversation with the school’s principal.
Although I was only seven years old, I could tell that no one, who listened to his long, overwrought and often repeated story, believed Mami’s success could be attributed merely to the words she used. After all my mother barely spoke English, yet, she had convinced school authorities to accept me into kindergarten at four years old—a year earlier than the law allowed.
After having experienced their own interviews with school authorities, many in the room thought it impossible that a school board regulation had been broken simply because of one woman’s plea. The consensus was that Mami had made a special trip to the botánica, and that she had paid for a powerful spell able to enchant any dour-faced school official.
“Tell us the truth, Rafael. You’re her husband and you must know which botánica prepared the hex,” my uncle Mickey said. “Maybe, I can go there to buy one that will grow some hair.”
“No hechizo will ever be that powerful, Mickey,” Papi laughed and rubbed his brother’s shiny head. “But maybe, if Victoria spoke to it, your hair might grow again.”
Clearly Papi was proud of Mami’s accomplishment. “She can do anything,” he added with a broad smile.
“Well, she certainly can cook,” Uncle Mickey laughed and held out his empty plate for more pasteles.
“And she can grow beautiful flowers on the fire escape, too,” Rosita, the downstairs neighbor added. “She is talented.”
“So, maybe she can talk my hair into growing back.” Uncle Mickey looked hopeful. “But she would have to talk to it in Spanish because my hair only understands Spanish and her English is awful.”
Just then Mami came into the living room where the tables had been set up. She held my baby brother in her arms, gently patting his back, and waiting for the loud burp, signaling the end of the afternoon feeding.
“I leave the room to nurse the baby and you are all talking about me,” she protested with a chuckle. “And, Mickey, I’ll have you know that my English is better than yours.”
Everyone in the room laughed.
Mami frowned slightly. “Well, maybe, that’s not true, but I know that Carole’s English will be better than anyone’s.”
“No one doubts that, Vicky. You got professionals to teach her for you, and she already talks like a regular American child,” Titi Margot pinched my cheek; I hated it when she did that.
“She is an American child, Margot, as American as anyone else born here.”
“Yes, yes, but how did you get them to enroll her into kindergarten a year ahead of time? We all know it’s against their rules.”
“I just asked them,” Mami replied with a toss of her head, “and they said, yes.”
“Naturally. They don’t speak Spanish now, do they?”
Everyone giggled at the thought that any important man in the city would speak Spanish.
“But you don’t speak English,” Rosita threw her hands up in the air.
“I must speak it well enough since I got just what I wanted.”
“Well, you are going to have to teach me how you did it. I could use more money, and maybe, I could talk my boss into a raise.”
“We can all use more money, Rosita,” my father interjected.
“Amen to that,” shouted Uncle Mickey.
“So, maybe I should pay Vicky to talk to him for me. What do you think of that?”
Mami put the sleeping infant into a large, dresser drawer that had been set up to function as a temporary crib. “I think,” she said, “that you are just going to have to wait until Carole graduates university and becomes a famous lawyer. She’ll do a much better job than I ever could.”
“But I’ll have to wait years before I get my money,” Rosita protested. “I’ll be poor forever. And what if she doesn’t make it? You know girls never finish school; they always quit to get married.”
“Of course. That’s only natural,” my uncle Mikey said through mouthfuls of pasteles. “What do girls need an education for anyhow? All they need is learn how to cook and make their husbands happy.”
“Not Carole,” Mami said quietly. “It will be different for her.”
“You’ve always been a dreamer,” Titi Margot said with a sad shake of her head. “When are you going to learn to be realistic? Look, at this beautiful child,” Titi Margot pinched my cheek again. “She’ll be married at sixteen and make you a grandmother when she’s seventeen, just like you. That’s they way it always is.”
“Not for Carole.”
“Victoria,” my father’s voice had lost its tones of merriment. “Victoria, aren’t you happy?”
The entire room was suddenly quiet.
“Of course, I’m happy, Rafael,” Mami paused, took a deep breath and smiled at me as if we shared a secret. “But it will be different for Carole.”