Language and Family from a Latino Perspective

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Questions, Intuitions, Revisions: Storytelling as Inquiry

2005 Web Report

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Language and Family from a Latino Perspective

Jessica Castro

"I once knew a family, like no other family, always together, in the good and in the bad, winter, spring, summer, and fall; they've experienced it all together...."

This is how I would like someone to begin telling a story about my family. It should begin with the togetherness. It should incorporate one of my father's favorite sayings about what makes a good family, one that is together "en las buenas y en las malas (in the good and in the bad)." However great the meaning my father's words has on me, the phrase alone cannot carry the story along. It needs details. It needs to mention the language of my family – the voice that lingers in my unconscious. Because this language is part of my tacit knowledge, it identifies me not only as a Latina but as a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a friend, a student, a co-worker, and a woman. In other words, it affects everything I say, do, think, and feel, without me even realizing it most of the time. This is most evident when comparing my family's distinctive voice with those of other families.

I bet most of us, at one point in our life, thought their own family was weird or different from other families but couldn't exactly point to the reason why they were different. Perhaps what made them peculiar was their unique way of expressing themselves. Some families are more expressive than others are; rather than swallowing up thoughts, they let them out in the open. My family does not fall back in this sense. They express themselves with emotion and with spice.

What defines my family? Let me throw some words out in the air. "Sobrecitos de café...mama...mamita..." Translated respectively it reads little bits of coffee, mom, and dearest mom. The English version understates its true meaning (what these words mean in my family) while in Spanish the meaning is automatically understood. This explains why a verse by the Spanish poet Pablo Neruda means more, to me at least, in Spanish than in English; I can relate to the language and the experiences that come with it.

For "sobrecitos de café," I see my parents waking up on a weekend morning drinking their one cup of homemade coffee with milk, and conversing for at least a good hour. Drinking coffee for them and for me (not often, I try to cut down) is a luxury, a time to be intimate with family and this is done in the comfort of the home. Unlike other families, who indulge their store-bought caffeine within the walls of a Starbucks because they are in a rush to get to work or school, my parent's enjoy their "coffee break." The word "sobrecitos" is a term of endearment as are many words in my family like "mama" and "mamita," and it emphasizes how much they esteem that hour of the day.

Not a day goes by that my mom does not call me "mama" or "mamita." For someone outside my family, a mom calling her daughter "mother", let alone, "little mother," can be quite weird if their not familiar with my culture. Both words are signs of affection displayed by my mom, misunderstood if taken literally for its English translation. In my friend's home, (who is half-black, half-Dominican), it is the reverse, and the daughter calls the mom, "mamita." Even though she is half-Spanish, she would probably laugh to know that my mom calls me "mom." In fact, my mom herself laughed when she realized how others would react to this, and so did I. The surprising factor that allows us to detect tacit knowledge supports a fact stated in Michael Polanyi's The Tacit Dimension (1967): 'We can know more than we can tell.' This tacit knowing allows us to recognize the cultural meaning of words; yet, we usually cannot tell how we recognize that meaning until this surprising factor kicks in.

My family's tacit knowledge arose from our Spanish heritage, as far back as we can tell –not tell for that matter, but it is evident in the message we preserve. Both of my parents express this hidden message encoded in the common usage of the word "mamita," when they refer to their children. They have placed heavy values on a woman's role as a mother. After all, she is the backbone of the family. In life, as observed through biology, things fall apart. Nevertheless, the mother figure prevents this from happening, keeping my family strong from within. She can do this because she is strong, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, herself. She is strong for us. She has that familiar touch of love that is universal in mothers and in many women throughout history. The survival of the family ultimately depends on her feminine strength.

The thread that binds my family together is unconsciously knowing and appreciating a woman's strength as a mother. My mother herself preserves this feminine strength tacitly through language. Because she tacitly calls me "mamita," she is the source of this tacit knowing that recognizes her as the selected being that preserves the love and affection within my family, my closely knitted culture.

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