Culture

When I Came to the US as a Six-Year-Old Cuban Immigrant, You’ll Never Guess What Popular TV Show Helped Me Learn English

The year was 1997. I was six years old and had just immigrated to the United States from Cuba.

The zeitgeist of the late 1990s had proved to be a strange welcome for me and my family. The Monica Lewinsky scandal, the release of “Titanic,” and fear surrounding Y2K are some standouts from that nebulous time in my youth.

I struggled to make sense of it all, not only because I didn’t understand the concepts at their core (what did having “sexual relations” even mean?), which is a challenge I assume all six-year-olds face, but because the language itself eluded me. I had completed kindergarten in Cuba and learned all the basics in my native tongue.

Forced to repeat kindergarten in the United States, I was plagued by the same frustration that I imagine haunts Egyptologists upon discovering ancient tombs: deciphering hieroglyphics. 

At first, I had been so angry at my parents for uprooting my life, blind to the truth of their sacrifice. They, too, were uprooting their lives, surrendering their language and everything they had ever known, exiling themselves to give me a fighting shot at having a decent life.

I tried as hard as I could to keep all my memories of Cuba alive. But I had just turned six when we left, my early memories lodged deep in that same hazy twilight between the waking world and the world of sleep. It was hard to tell whether something actually happened or if I dreamt it. 

On my sixth birthday, two weeks before we left Cuba, I remember tugging at my mom’s apron while she was doing dishes at the sink. “Mami,” I said, “Aren’t you even going to bake me a cake?” It was Alto-Songo La Maya, Santiago de Cuba in during the Special Period. My mom knelt to look me in the eyes, her soapy hands cradling my face. “Mijita, we don’t even have eggs.”

A week after that, my family received a yellow envelope in the mail stating that we had been selected as winners of the Cuban lottery. Instead of millions, we had been granted safe passage to the United States. A week later, I was in Miami.

It took me a year to learn English, my brain like a water balloon filling beneath a faucet. This was way before Google translate, so my only council was an English-Spanish dictionary. If it had been an animal, it would now be extinct.

I’d wake up at 6:00 a.m. to watch Sailor Moon, rehearsing the words I’d just heard before the sun rose. It made me feel like I was getting a head start on the language, so knotty and incomplete. How could they get rid of the elusive ñ and lyrical double l, responsible for “lluvia,” one of my very favorite words? I relearned the alphabet, along with a few words culled straight out of my favorite Japanese cartoon. Love. Victory. Strength. Hope. Princess. Friendship. Mostly, they were short and sweet. But then — warrior. Millennium. Punishment. Nemesis. Universe. I began repeating certain phrases until I found the perfect tongue to teeth ratio, until the voice in my ears matched the voice in my head. It was during this time that I stopped resisting English and began embracing it.

I’d spend hours talking to myself in front of a mirror. “My name is Bertha. My favorite show is Sailor Moon,” I’d begin. “These are my friends, Sól and Paló.” They were imaginary. Sól appeared to me as the dust dancing in stripes of sunlight; Paló lived in the ceiling.

I didn’t have any friends for a long time. No one wanted to play with the new girl, especially considering my funny accent, recently departed front tooth, and the gnarly scar on my left arm from a reaction to the smallpox vaccine. It was my body’s braille, and anyone who touched it would have easily deciphered its meaning: “I’m lonely.”

In retrospect, I realize how much language contributes to loneliness, and how lonely my parents must have felt, tackling the colossal monster that was language and the exilic experience. 

For years and years, volumes of Ingles sin Barreras took turns being played in the VCR and collecting dust on the shelf. My parents tried and failed many times to conquer the language which ultimately conquered them.

By third grade, I had long been in charge of reading and translating the onslaught of important legal papers that came our way. Becoming their translator helped me to further explore my relationship with both English and Spanish. As a child attempting to metabolize a new language along with additional responsibilities and an entirely new hyphenated cultural identity, I turned to writing in order to express and understand.

What I want to say is: I would not be here without Sailor Moon. I would not be here without long hours in front of the mirror, quizzing myself across languages, flipping the words over like play cards in my mind. And I would not be here without my parents, whom I’ve never thanked for leaving everything behind, so that I could be here, in this moment, telling you about it.

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