Archive | May, 2014

Mama’s Revenge

19 May

“If you ever bring home an iron and have the audacity to call it a present, it’s grounds for instant divorce,” I’ve warned Conan since before we were married. Not that he’s the type for that, but just in case anyone around here were to put crazy ideas in his head. Because the most typical presents for moms around here are pots and pans and tupperware and a million other items with which to do chores. Stop the excitement; it’s just too much for me.

As if this suggestion that Mama’s only interest is her household duties were not bad enough, here in my very own beloved neighborhood in Puerto they took the cake this Mother’s Day. It’s always celebrated in Mexico on May 10, and this year it was a Saturday. At least all the moms didn’t have to get the kids ready for school. Maybe Mama could sleep in a little bit (unless she has a 2 year old like mine that has a 7 AM internal alarm).

I had to work early-ish anyway, so it wasn’t like I was planning on sleeping till noon. I was not planning on the fireworks starting at FIVE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING, either. That’s right; two hours before I needed to get up, that jerk-off, arrogant neighborhood delegate down the street decided to “celebrate” and “congratulate” all us excited Mamas in the neighborhood. He set off a bunch of fireworks, first, and then put Las Mañanitas (a sort-of Happy Birthday song in Mexico, much longer than the “happy birthday to you” business) on his loudspeaker.
It sounds something like this:

Now every neighborhood has their own loudspeaker, their own announcer. You need this to make important announcements. Like the other day, they got all the men together to clean up the creek bed down the road. Or they announced info about Kids’ Day events recently. Or they might announce that there’s a vaccination campaign at the health center. Or they announce that there are tacos being sold at so-and-so’s house, or discounts at the pharmacy today. And yes, of course they use the announcer to congratulate and celebrate people on their birthdays or for other special moments. This is reasonable.

Waking up all the tired mamas, all their cranky babies, all their excitable kids, and everyone else in the neighborhood in the darkness of the five o’clock hour, however, is totally, completely outrageous. And rude and presumptuous. How dare they set off fireworks in our honor at such an ugly hour! Who’s gonna see those fireworks at that hour? “Doesn’t he have a wife, this stupid announcer of ours? Isn’t she a mother?” I asked Conan, who was pretending to sleep, in vain. “Doesn’t his wife have any sense or decency, even if he doesn’t? Does he think moms around here need to wake up any earlier, what with all the cooking and cleaning and washing they already do for umpteen hours a day? Does he think moms haven’t lost enough sleep thanks to the wonders and magic of motherhood already?! Does he think anyone cares about his stupid fireworks!?” I was becoming hysterical, using up excessive amounts of pre-coffee energy on my ire.

“Try to go back to sleep,” Conan advised me. I almost bit his head off, too, until I remembered that he was on my side, and that trying to go back to sleep was probably the only reasonable thing to do. Tragically, though, I’m not always a reasonable person, especially early in the morning before caffeine. So instead I lay there stewing, listening to repetitions of Las Mañanitas, listening to the other “celebratory” songs he alternated with. I wanted to throw things when he again muttered his confident and totally ironic congratulations to all us proud and ecstatic moms out there. (And I say he muttered because nothing on these loudspeakers ever comes out really clearly; it all sounds like muttering to me.)

So there I lay, plotting my revenge. Planning the organizing for my protest. Mulling over the pros and cons of going directly to his house, by myself, immediately (cons: still dark out, possibility of biting dogs loose at this hour, have to get dressed, doesn’t exact revenge) or waiting and organizing among the other (surely as rabid as I) moms in the neighborhood (cons: requires patience, probably still won’t involve me making a giant scandal outside his house at 3AM when he least expects it, won’t give me back these 2 lost hours of sleep).

In the end, the darkness of my house, the comfort of our family bed, and the hope of future revenge convinced me to stay home. By six all had quieted down outside, though not in my dark and bitter heart. Since then, Conan investigated some for me and found out that another guy in the neighborhood who got out of control with his announcing duties had a vigilante neighborhood group come together and take away his loudspeaker. So something, certainly, can be done. Some collective mom action can and will be done, if I have anything to say about it. Whether it will be sufficiently just revenge or not is for the future to tell. I’ll let you know, and I promise I won’t set off fireworks in front of your house when I do.

Her Mother’s Tongue

9 May


“Más milk!” Lucia tells us first thing in the morning. “Más dump trucks!” She yells when we’ve just seen a dump truck and she wants to see more. She usually says “more kisses” as you’re walking out the door, but mostly she prefers the Spanish when it comes to more. For a while she’d get it all mixed up and say “mos” instead of “more” or “más.”

Image<“Cheers!” She says. “Ice cream!” She yells with her mouth full. Oh the joy!>

With a lot of words she tends to prefer one language or the other. For example, she always says “agua” and never “water.” She usually says “este” and rarely “this.” For a while I thought maybe she could only learn/remember one word or the other, despite the research that says babies and young children can learn multiple languages at once with no real problems.* But just when I think she doesn’t know a word in the other language, she’ll suddenly say it to somebody else. Like when she went to go get eggs with her Abuela, she said “huevo” repeatedly, although she always says “egg” to her Papi and me.

It is fun to watch language and understanding unfold in any child, but it is extra fun for me to watch her in these two languages- the way she mixes them up, when and where and how she uses them. “Esto es for poopies,” she told me yesterday, bringing me a diaper. “Ewie poopies,” she added, grinning. More and more she says both words. “Córrele” she says, like her Abuela says all the time while Lucia’s running. “It’s running,” she says as well, in case.

At almost-two years old, she’s started to learn the words to songs, too, in both languages. I love the way she says “oh my goodness!” and “aquí está!” I love that Lili taught her to say “este no sirve, este sí sirve”. I love that she asks us to sing “Sunshine” (You Are My Sunshine) and she tries to sing along. I love that she uses all of our invented words, like “feetsies” and “currito” (her Papi’s invented word- a very cute burrito, when she’s all wrapped up in her towel). I am so happy to watch her world unfold in words; it’s an exciting and never-ending adventure. 

We’ve wondered if she realizes yet that there are two distinct languages in her mind, in her world. Especially since they don’t come out so distinctly, so separately, it’s hard to imagine how conscious she could be about it. I don’t think she realizes yet that the other kids don’t understand her when she says, “It’s ball,” for example. She definitely copies what other kids do and say, so she speaks some Spanish around kids here, but there are some words she still doesn’t use (or know?) in Spanish, so it’s interesting to see the other kids navigate that. “What is she saying to me?” the older kids ask me sometimes. The younger ones, however, just go with the flow, communicate through context, don’t stress when they don’t understand a word she says. The younger kids remind me that if we’re open to learning, to communicating, we can do it despite any barriers.

While I was busy wondering if Lucia knows she speaks two languages, her Papi just told her one day, “You know you speak two languages.” They were out observing a digger truck, one of the big machines that Lucia loves. “That’s why in Spanish we say máquina, and in English we say machine,” he told her.

He didn’t tell me about their conversation, but suddenly Lucia started saying two words at a time for many things. We went to look at a digger truck down the road, and she started telling me, “maquina. machine. maquina. machine.” Her rubber ducks in the bathtub drink coffee and café now. She plays a game where she falls down, and sometimes she says “cayó” and sometimes she says “fall down”- the grammar perfect in neither language- just general learning-how-to-talk baby speak, but in two different languages.

She’s still at the age, too, where sometimes she speaks entire paragraphs in some unknown baby tongue. But it’s funny when she does it with somebody who only speaks English or only speaks Spanish. “What’d she say?” they ask, impressed with how much she presumably speaks the other language.

“Won’t she be confused?” People sometimes wonder. Luckily I know plenty of bilingual and even trilingual kids in the U.S. who do just fine. I’ve been much more concerned that perhaps she won’t have enough exposure to English. So I was really pleased when Conan decided that he would speak English to her, even though some people here might think it’s rude, like he’s just trying to show off that he speaks English. Extra kudos to Conan as well because it is difficult to speak your not-native language to your child; it is a little less comfortable, a little less natural. As a (U.S.-born) Spanish professor explained once about why her kids weren’t fluent in Spanish, it’s hard to not use all the songs and little sweet nothings and special sayings you’ve learned for babies and kids all of your life in your native tongue. Imagine, for example, your child gets a boo-boo. But you don’t call it a boo-boo and maybe you don’t even tell her you’ll kiss it to make it better because it doesn’t translate the same in the other language. Difficult, huh? So it’s a big deal that Conan decided he would speak English to her.

Because I am a professional worryer, however, I also worried briefly that she won’t learn perfect English grammar, since her Papi’s grammar isn’t always perfect. But then I remembered that my Dad’s grammar isn’t perfect either, nor is the grammar of most native speakers in the U.S. (only us crazy women on my mom’s side of the family are grammar fanatics).

Sometimes I feel silly that Conan and I speak Spanish together all the time; I feel like we’re wasting an opportunity to expose her to more English. But Spanish is the language of our relationship and our love, and language habits are hard to break. I try to remember that my Mom and my Aunt Julia managed to learn Italian even though my Nonna (my Italian grandmother) only spoke it to them some of the time. Granted, I hope Lucia’s English will be stronger than my Mom’s Italian. But my Nonna managed to teach them enough so that they could talk to older family members, get by in Italy, and inherent some of the cultural things that can only come along with the language. Probably Lucia will learn more than that, but if that’s all, it’ll be enough.

Some days it seems that maybe Spanish will take up all the room in her brain and she won’t have any space for or interest in her mother’s native tongue. But then I remember that it’s not a contest, and that favoring Spanish doesn’t mean she won’t learn English. And furthermore, me worrying about it won’t make a bit of difference in the matter, so I might just do what I can do and let go of the rest. Conan and I will keep talking to her in English. Sometimes we might even speak English to each other in front of her. We’ll keep reading books to her and singing to her in English. We’ll teach her to read and write in English, when the time is right. We’ll try to give her other opportunities and contexts in which to use English. And the rest will be up to her.

At the end of the day, her two languages are no different from the way we learn culture and habits from all the different influences in our lives. Lucia is learning language from a variety of sources and influences, like the way she loves to eat pasta and vegetables (from her Italian-American grandparents and her ex-vegetarian mama) and corn tortillas and sweet bread (thanks to her Papi and her Mexican relatives). One’s not more delicious than the other; they all just have their time and place. Her language will have it’s momentary preferences, just like in the moment maybe she wants a hug more from her Gamma (my stepmom) or a story more from her Nonna (my mama) or an outing more with her Abuela (Conan’s mom), but she doesn’t love one more than the other. They all come together to cherish and teach and nurture her in their own ways.

This year my mother’s day gift to myself is letting go of my language worries. It’s appreciating all the different language and love being shared with my baby by so many people. It’s enjoying the fact that my little girl talks up a storm, in her special Lucia native tongue. And that is just perfect.

*Here are a couple of links to some interesting research on multilingual kids, but there’s tons and tons of great info out there beyond this too:
And how babies learn and develop language:

From the Weeds Up… Building a House with Sand and Rocks and Magic

4 May
the big empty box

the big empty box

Don’t tell Conan, but I was less than thrilled with our house when I returned from my stint in the U.S. It was a big empty box- an extremely budget-busting empty box- and I was terrified that we’d never manage to fix it up and furnish it with the little bit of money we had left. Two of the rooms had dirt floors. There were lots of window slots and doorways but zero doors or windows. No separations between rooms, no water tank, no nothing. Did I mention we were already way over budget, and neither of us had a job? Nobody could tell me how long it would take before it was livable, either.

It took a month just to figure out who could work on the house within our budget and still do a good job. We hit the jackpot when Conan’s adult niece Lili agreed to come along with her partner Uriel, a master constructor (albañil). Uriel worked hard on our house for much less than what he deserved to be paid, and Lili helped with the cooking and watching Lucia to boot (especially putting her down for naps! She is our resident hammock expert). We never could’ve done this without them. On top of that, they were great company. Thank the universe for family!

Uriel stoking the fire so our black beans cook. Our albanil, our sobrino, our friend.

Uriel stoking the fire so our black beans cook. Our albañil, our sobrino, our friend.

Lili and Uriel on our roof. Lucia adores Uriel, who she calls "OO-wa" since she can't pronounce Uriel.

Lili and Uriel on our roof. Lucia adores Uriel, who she calls “OO-wa” since she can’t pronounce Uriel.

Lili, hanging out outside while we wait for beans to cook

Lili and Nery, hanging out outside while we wait for beans to cook

Again thankful for family, we spent the first couple of weeks in Puerto at Conan’s Aunt Artemia’s house, waiting for our house to be livable. We slept in a tent on their patio, folding up the blankets and taking down the tent every morning, only to rush and put it all back up again while Lucia was in the middle of a meltdown because we didn’t get back to the house on the other side of town until it was past her bedtime already again. Plus I was doing all of this tent-arranging and meltdown-calming solo because Conan was working from sunup to sundown at least, trying to make the house livable as soon as possible.

But the allure and romance of having one’s own bathroom is powerful, and “livable” can be redefined at any time. By the time we got our very own toilet, sink, shower head, and even tile floor for the bathroom, I was ready to be in our house, regardless of the rest. I was thrilled at the prospect of sleeping in a tent that I wouldn’t have to take down and put up every day. My good friend Luz, who’s also family by marriage, borrowed a tent from her sister for months on end so that Lili and Uriel had their own tent, too. Lili and Uriel left the crappy room they were renting and moved in to our construction site/future house with us. The night we all first stayed there was Christmas Eve. We ran out of gas for the stove but Lili grilled meat over a fire pit. Our friend Nery came over with beers, too; it was an appropriate and fortuitous start to living in our own place, both positive and representative of the tenacity and flexibility that would continue to be required of us.

our bathroom and bathroom floor, with the hanging shower thing that came laterP04-05-14_08.55[1] P04-05-14_08.56

When we did have gas for the stove, the kitchen consisted of some plywood on top of horses that we used as a table, and a two-burner stove. It was in the tin shed. That was the only part of the house that we could lock up, since our big box still didn’t have a door or window protections. We locked it every night and three different times I was accidentally locked out from my wake-up necessity of coffee. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I was when, months later, we finally got to move the kitchen to inside the house and there was no chance of being separated from my morning life serum.

When we first moved in, there were two rooms with rough concrete floors and two rooms with dirt floors. There was a big hole in the floor where originally Conan had thought he might put a staircase connecting the bottom floor (the “in-law quarters” which will eventually be two more rooms) to the kitchen. The yard was all dirt, hilly and uneven, with big piles of sand and rocks being used for construction. There were tools and raw materials pretty much everywhere. All of this made it nearly impossible for Lucia to play without someone being on top of her at all times- which also made getting anything else accomplished nearly impossible. It was boring and maddening a lot of the time, and it required me to totally (temporarily) redefine success. Every day that we managed to cook our meals and do the dishes and work on the house and go out to buy tortillas and ice for the cooler and run any other necessary errands and prevent Lucia from any major accidents was a hugely successful day.

And progress was made. Suddenly the cousin that was making our window protections came over and installed them! Since we had waited for them, the fact that most of them reminded us of prison bars was easy to overlook. Like with so many other things, I learned to think, ‘we’ll fix it someday.’ Conan and Uriel painted the two nice ones that Conan had gotten a deal on, and we got those two up, too. Just in time for us to visit Juquila for New Year’s, the cousin who made our doors (without charging us any labor cost) came over and installed those. The house started to look like it was owned by someone and wasn’t just being squatted by bilingual hippies.

our jailhouse window bars

our jailhouse window bars

Big magic happened on my birthday. Conan borrowed Arturo’s truck and brought down mattresses that fit in our tents! He brought down a bunch of Lucia’s toys, a couple more chairs (we had 2 or 3 before and put more plywood on horses to make a bench), more dishes, more clothes and shoes, a dresser, the changing table for Lucia (oh what a luxury to change her somewhere besides the floor), and several other random yet important odds and ends (like the hanging thing for the shower so our soap and shampoo aren’t on the floor). He brought down a big gas tank so we wouldn’t run out of gas every two weeks. And Paulina (my mother-in-law) gave me the aloe plant I had wanted and needed so sorely in the heat (and sunburn) of Puerto. It might not sound exciting, but it was like camping for a month or so and suddenly having civilization brought to you. Lucia’s utter joy at throwing herself backward on the bed and landing on something soft was a birthday present all alone, never mind all the other benefits from the things Conan brought down from Juquila.

Slowly but surely things kept on improving. We all (except Lucia) stayed up till midnight putting down the first floor. The guys had laid the concrete during the day, with the help of an extra hired hand, dumping five gallon buckets of sand and gravel into a big machine to mix with the cement to make the concrete. Then they carried buckets of concrete from outside to the appropriate spot on the floor. Then Conan and Uriel smoothed the concrete out, which is a lot of slow and tedious work. They used a 2by4 and this thing that looks like an iron, and by sundown they were not even close to finished. Since you might recall that we don’t have electricity, and timing is of the essence in this whole concrete business, there we found ourselves, Lili and I, shining lamps on Uriel’s and Conan’s work for hours on end. Our rechargeable lamps both went dead and we shined our cellphones on the floor until they finally finished. The next day they spent the day, still hunched over, drawing lines on the floor to make it prettier and less slippery. I had never seen the perseverance needed to make something so seemingly simple as a floor. We wrote Lucia’s name in it, too, and it sunk in a little more that when you build from the weeds up, it’s really all yours.

the floor! smooth concrete with pretty lines on it (not a great picture, mind you)

the floor! smooth concrete with pretty lines on it (not a great picture, mind you)

<the link has a beautiful picture of Uriel and Lili working on the floor in the dark.>

The other floor, months later, was an even later late-night project. Because our entrance opens to that floor, Conan and Uriel and Nery (bless his heart for coming to help us after he got off work) did it at night so we wouldn’t need to walk on it while it was wet. But by then our good friend Epig (who you may recall from my post about his amazing burgers had lent us his small generator, so they worked by the light of Thomas Edison’s amazing invention. I went to bed so I could be useful the next day but Lili told me they were up till 4 in the morning finishing it. I made the coffee for them the next morning at 8 so they could start the back-breaking job of hunching over and drawing lines on it.

Once the second floor was in we moved the kitchen to inside the house. It was exciting, but still frustrating because we had to schlepp the dishes from the house to the lavadero (concrete washing tub/board) out in the yard and back up to the house. About a month later I finally got a kitchen sink! Not even my mother-in-law has an inside sink and a fancy faucet like mine! Beyond the convenience of not running dishes back and forth, beyond the convenience of a completely indoors kitchen (not super common around here), it is a bigger convenience because we don’t have to put on Lucia’s shoes and sunblock etc. so we can go outside to wash dishes. I had no idea I would someday appreciate the ability to wash dishes, but here I am.

the now finished kitchen sink!!!!

the now finished kitchen sink!!!!

And more and more happened as the weeks passed. There were lots of boring things that had to happen, like adding a layer of concrete to the walls to make sure they don’t leak in the rainy season, smoothing out the windows so we can put in screens (we have half of the screens in now; the other half is still in the works). Things that before sounded boring became exciting, like putting up curtains. Uriel made us curtain rods and Conan’s Aunt Artemia took me out thriftstore shopping. Some of our curtains are repurposed sheets, but they do the job just fine. And thanks to Nery, we have a big, beautiful bed with mosquito netting to tuck us in at night. Lucia has her own bed, too, and some nights she even sleeps in it. Paulina paid to do the second bathroom, and Uriel put a moon and stars on the ceiling for Lucia. We’ve got mint, oregano, epazote, watermelon, tomato, cantaloupe and chiles. We’ve got more furniture. Our magnets are on the busted refrigerator we use as a giant cooler. A piece my Nonna embroidered hangs on my wall, reminding us to have a good day, everyday. Everyday, the house becomes more ours.

a key holder my Nonna gave my dad and mom long ago

a key holder my Nonna gave my dad and mom long ago

our "fridge" and magnets from my niece kayla and my mom

our “fridge” and magnets from my niece kayla and my mom

a gift from my Aunt Julia, made by my Nonna

a gift from my Aunt Julia, made by my Nonna

our bed, a wedding gift from Nery (Conan's b.f.f.)

our bed, a wedding gift from Nery (Conan’s b.f.f.)

Lucia's bed

Lucia’s bed

the moon and stars in Lucia's bathroom

the moon and stars in Lucia’s bathroom


the new bathroom

the new bathroom


There are still plenty of other things that we want to do in the future. The porch is still at half mast. The “in-law quarters” downstairs is going to remain an open box for the foreseeable future. Eventually we’ll replace the bathroom curtain with a real door. We can’t do it all now, but what we have now is enough. Now, I am grateful that Conan had the foresight to build us a big budget-busting box, to change our original plans for something bigger and better, for something we can grown into over time. Like the rest of life, our house is a constant work-in-progress, a labor of love.

This time last year, when we first concocted this crazy scheme to build a house, when we were about to lose our minds from living in Juquila, where I am sitting now was a big patch of overgrown weeds and trash and stray-dog poop and uneven dirt. To make this house possible, I went and worked a restaurant job in Kentucky and my parents and stepparents rearranged their lives to take us in and to watch Lucia while I worked. To make this house possible, Conan lived in the tin shack he built, day in and day out, even when it rained for two days and our land flooded, even when there was no running water, even when it was 100 degrees (most of the time), even when he was all by himself making sure the materials weren’t stolen. He had to orchestrate everything: find the albanil, the plumber, the electrician (because someday we will have electricity), buy all of the materials, oversee the work, and a million other details. It’s been anything but easy, but it’s been possible thanks to help from our families.

And all of our sacrifices are part of what makes this house our home. It is what will make this house a legacy for Lucia and any future brothers or sisters she may have. It is what will make great stories for her when she’s in the mood to complain. It is the way to learn that you can’t take kitchen sinks and flush toilets and concrete floors for granted. Most people around here who have their own house have similar stories, only many are even slower than ours. It took Paulina some 20 years to get her house into the shape it’s in now, and she still has her kitchen on the list for the future. Some people are not even able to make slow progress on their houses. Although of course, some people have bigger and better houses than we do, too. But this one is all ours. We dreamt it when you needed a machete just to walk the parameters of the land, when it seemed totally implausible. And in all the moments when it was a struggle just to wake up and put water on for coffee, it was a struggle for our very own house, for the first time ever. Even when I felt disappointed that the house we dreamt of was just a giant empty box, it was our giant empty box.

So we’ll keep on developing our house and our family, day by day, rethinking our expectations, redefining success. We’ll keep learning to appreciate what we have when we have it. We’ll try not to pine too hard for what we don’t have. And we’ll give you the best Kentucky/Mexican hospitality there is whenever you come to visit.

May your home be as marvelously, royally yours as ours is, from the weeds up.


our dirt floors (Lili and Lucia pictured)

our dirt floor before laying the concrete (Lili and Lucia pictured)

under construction... our house and the in-law quarters

under construction… our house and the in-law quarters below

Conan's house- the tin shack he lived in for months/ our kitchen for a while

Conan’s house- the tin shack he lived in for months/ our kitchen for a while

our land, getting the weeds out

our land, getting the weeds out