Alberto Rios’s face is on the screen. He’s talking and I’m listening.
He appears to be in his home office. There’s a bookshelf behind him, neat and uncluttered with a few clay vases as accents. There’s a file cabinet, its gray functionality improved by a small painting of gentle, earth-toned geometries. The space is sun-lit, and his shirt is the color of sky and his hair white like clouds, as if the outdoors is inside. He smiles a welcome as if he can see us. Me.
I’ve seen this space before—when I watched the launch for the latest of his sixteen books, when he said, “All my books speak to each other. They’re family.” A dialogue among books is something I believe in. A dialogue among family members—yes, maybe that too, I think.
But this is not a dialogue. We are connected through cyberspace, a notional place.
I am invisible to him but when he reads his poems, I am seen. Even though he doesn’t know me, I call him Alberto.
He reads a poem, “Nani,” about his grandmother. When he was a boy in the border town of Nogales, he would go to her house for lunch. But first he tells us that Nani speaks only Spanish and that at this point in his young life, he speaks only English because the teachers in his early years at school punished him for speaking Spanish, so he stopped, abandoned it like the bad habit they judged it to be. But he and Nani navigate this language barrier. “She would cook,” he says, “and I would eat.”
I know this kind of conversation. I nod at him even though he can’t see me.
When he says, “By the stove she does something with words / and looks at me only with her / back,” I am in my grandmother’s kitchen with my sisters and cousins, all of us stupidly deficient in Spanish, chattering loudly in English as Nana pinches off little balls of masa for us. We pat the dough in our poorly washed hands, flatten it to clumsy, imperfect circles, then hand them back, crowding her like an amusement park attraction.
Alberto says, “I watch her, the absolute mamá, and eat words / I might have had to say more / out of embarrassment.”
We watch our tortillas cook on the comal and she hands them back to us to eat. They’re thick and too chewy, not slivery and smooth like hers, but that is beside the point.
Alberto says, “She asks me if I want more. / I own no words to stop her. / Even before I speak, she serves.”
Throughout our tortilla-making with Nana, we offer her not a syllable. But we children are as loud as ever, talking to each other because we don’t know the simplest words to say to our grandmother.
Alberto says, “. . . I wonder just how much of me / will die with her, what were the words / I could have been, or was.”
This is not a dialogue. But something has transpired. Notions in this notional space have incited unspoken words to wrestle with spoken ones.
When Alberto says that later he learned back his Spanish, it sounds like “earned back,” like a reward or a prize. During the Q and A, I type my question into the chat box. How did you recover your Spanish? I think, how did you win the prize?
I want to know the answer, though mine isn’t a question of recovery, but of acquisition of something I never had. Something that was withheld from me.
“We didn’t want to confuse you,” said my mother and aunts, who used the secret language to talk about things that were none of our business. But underneath, there seemed to be another message. You aren’t smart enough. You’ll never learn it.
I think of all the conjugations I have memorized, all the years I have sat in classrooms, and still the Spanish is locked in my brain.
“It’s not intellectual,” Alberto says, looking at the camera, speaking to me. “It’s physical. You do it with your body.” He pauses. “It’s like learning to ride a bike.” He mimics being on a bicycle, steering straight ahead. Suddenly he swerves left and swiftly corrects as if to avoid the dire consequence of his error.
“Sometimes if you stray from the expected, your body remembers the punishment.” The trick is to overcome that obstacle, that pain.
I have wondered, what was my obstacle? What was my pain? Though I think I’ve known. Even before Alberto spoke to me, and I listened. For a key, a cure, a pardon.
Donna Miscolta’s third book of fiction Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories was published by Jaded Ibis Press in September 2020. It was named to the 2020 Latino Books of the Year list by the Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman and published by Carolina Wren Press (2016), won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced from Signal 8 Press (2011). Recent essays appear in Los Angeles Review, McSweeney’s, pif, and the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19, and she has work forthcoming in Indomitable/Indomables: A multigenre Chicanx/Latinx Women’s Anthology. She writes a monthly blog at www.donnamiscolta.com. Photo credit: Meryl Schenker