Last week, Max and I had the opportunity to take a break from our Eat, Play, Meltdown routine to attend a birthday party for my colleague’s son.
I’ve learned to really enjoy toddler birthday parties and not only because everyone gets to eat cake. Even more satisfying is that the three-hour marathon of running and jumping exhausts Max to the point of a no contest nap time. This celebration was an extra special treat for Mommy because it was hosted by a Dominican family.
My first “Companion Culture” was that of Latin America. Perhaps, this relationship came about because my mother spoke so much Spanish at home that my sisters and I still respond promptly to her commands of “¡Ven aca!” y “¡Vamonos!” or maybe and simply because she gave us each a Spanish middle name or quite possibly because she repeatedly played the soundtrack of the Tony Award winning musical West Side Story during carpool. Regardless, it was this early exposure during childhood that provided me with a comfortable connection to many aspects of Latin American culture and this security has promoted my subsequent companionship with other cultures.
Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the Western Hemisphere. "Study a language that you'll use every day!" my mother commanded when I entered high school. She insisted that Spanish would be our second language because it was spoken in our own neighborhood and could also be used in exchanges with our neighbor countries. Fanatic about travel, my parents regularly pointed to our Rand McNally & National Geographic wallmaps and globes in discussion of countries in Africa and Asia where multiple languages are spoken in small villages and examined regions of Europe where, unlike the United States, languages vary by only a few hours driving distance.
My mother has always admired the advantage that Latin American children derive from growing up in inherently bilingual communities. Teaching English to an emerging Latino population in the United States for nearly half a century has made my mother an eyewitness to an ethnic population shift that has almost made a national requirement of at least a basic knowledge of the Spanish language. I use Spanish everyday as a dental provider to a largely Central American population and just as my mother used it to direct after-school chores to me and my sisters, I bring home Spanish and relay it to Max in my commands to"abra la boca" at dinner time and afterwards when it's time to brush his teeth. My husband worried that Max would get confused with yet a third language but one fine day at our local International Foods market, after a four and a half minute screaming fit over a Chupa Chups lollipop, Max smiled and greeted the Spanish speaking cashier with a cheerful "¡Gracias!"
At last week’s Fiesta de Cumpleaños, I watched proudly as Max played nicely with the other kids while I sat around a table of Dominican mothers who were discussing remedies for thumb sucking habits and baby weight loss regimens. After an hour bouncing around to the drums of la bachata, Max asked for another serving of Moro de Guandules, reminiscent of his favorite Serbian red bean equivalent, Pasulj. As we sang Cumpleaños Feliz and indulged in the Bizcocho Dominicano complete with pineapple filling, I smiled to myself as a mother intercepted her tot from reaching for another slice of cake, not with words or intonation but with a simple look of intimidation.