According to family legend, one of my first words was “packy-say-oh.” I used to point at my mother’s navy blue VW bug and eagerly say it over and over again, “packy-say-oh…packy-say-oh….packy-SAY-oh!” My mother has many theories about what I was trying to say, but ultimately we all agree that mostly likely I was speaking some sort of made up vernacular based on my bilingual household.
Both my mother and my maternal grandmother are fluent in Spanish – “Castellano” to be exact – and so when I began to speak, I learned English and Spanish side-by-side, not really understanding the difference until I reached preschool.
So yes. I am one of the lucky ones. A bilingual California who can communicate with our multicultural population but who – due to some strange, Spanish-only speech impediment – cannot trill her “r’s.” My Spanish is also peppered with a myriad of delightful phrases from the 70s; Chilean versions of “groovy” and “far-out” that I still use, and cause my cousins to grin uncontrollably whenever this dated slang drops unselfconsciously out of my mouth.
What I love most about being bilingual is the opportunity it grants me to see the same things from a different angle. You might live in a red house, but I know that you also live in “Una casa roja.” And while English affords you only right-sided punctuation (no upside down question marks for you!) and no “ñ’s” (eñe) – Spanish is an expansive language, always ready, willing and able to illuminate static description and elevate prose to poetry.
In fact, Spanish has poetry is built right into its soul. Why else would you call a single guy the same name as a cocky rooster (“gallo”)? Think of all the possibilities that dual description affords. Pablo Neruda definitely made the most of it.
Of course, Spanish does not have a monopoly on picturesque figures of speech. Every native tongue has its quirks and its workarounds. I’m speaking more about the expanded vision, the creative possibilities, available when you can communicate in more than one language.
I learned all my Spanish at the knee of my grandmother and maternal relatives and earned a proficiency that exempted me taking a Spanish class for virtually my entire academic career (that brief semester in 4th grade – when I monotonously repeated the letters of the Spanish alphabet with all of my classmates – notwithstanding). That means that I am both fluid and inept – which in some ways in is even more helpful when it comes to experimenting with different versions of the same piece of writing. When you shrug off some of the rules – and the fear of looking stupid in the process – your brain loosens up, and you gain a new perspective.
When I speak Spanish, my brain switches over so that instead of translating “English” thoughts into Spanish words, I’m actually thinking, analyzing, even feeling in Spanish. I am always amazed by that transformation – it’s as if my brain takes on a new persona.
Which is why I decided to start writing poetry in Spanish, to make my brain work a little harder and maybe discover some new thoughts or ideas. I’ve only attempted this exercise once or twice – and the final versions are in no way perfect (grammatically or thematically) – but each time I’ve felt invigorated and energized.
Admittedly, this experiment with languages may not work for everyone, but maybe with some creative thinking, a compromise can be worked out. Perhaps you can try Pig Latin…or write it out phonetically in the voice of Porky Pig or the Lucky Charms Leprechaun. Give it a go…you may be surprised at the ideas and insights you unearth in the process.
Below is a poem I wrote first in Spanish, and then translated into English. Neruda is probably rolling in his grave somewhere, but at least I managed to avoid using the word “groovy!”
Sabes que…pienso de ti.
¿Sabes que? Pienso de ti.
Y los recuerdos me persiguen
Como un perro rabioso
O un viento sospeches
Sabes que pienso de ti
Y siento tu cuerpo
Sus brasos, sus labios
Sus piernas y sus manos
Sabes que, pienso de ti
Y oigo tu voz, contando me
Historias o tal ves mentidas
Y digo, “¿ que locura es esto?”
Que puedo sentir tan
Fuerte para alguien que
You know…I think of you
You know…I think of you
And memories chase me
like an angry dog
Or suspicious wind.
You know I think of you
And I feel your body,
Your arms, your lips
Your legs and your hands.
You know, I think of you
And I hear your voice, telling me
Stories or maybe lies,
And I think, what madness is this?
That can feel so much
For someone who
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