LAST September, I moved away from the United States-Mexico border for the first time. Friends were sure I'd miss the visible evidence of Mexico's proximity found in cities like my native El Paso, Texas. Friends smiled that I'd soon be back for good Mexican food, for the delicate taste and smell of fresh cilantro, for fresh, soft tortillas. There was joking about the care packages that would be flying to the Midwest. Although most of my adult home and work life had been spent speaking English, I was prepared to miss the sound of Spanish weaving in and out of my days like the warm aroma of a familiar bakery. I knew I'd miss the pleasure of moving back and forth between two languages - a pleasure that broadens one's human flexibility.
When I hear a phrase in Spanish in a Cincinnati restaurant, my head turns quickly. I listen, silently wishing to be part of that other conversation - if only for a few moments, to feel Spanish in my mouth. I think Hispanics who become US citizens need to speak English in order to participate in public life, but I think it's equally important to value native languages, to value the rich range of options for communicating. In my apartment, I'm reading more books in Spanish, sometimes reading the sentences aloud to myself, enjoying sounds I don't otherwise hear.
I smile when my children, who never had time for learning Spanish when they were younger, now as young adults inform me that when they visit they hope we'll be speaking Spanish. They have discovered as I did once that languages are channels, sometimes to other people, sometimes to other views of the world, sometimes to other aspects of ourselves. So we'll struggle with irregular verbs, laughing together which is such a part of Mexican homes.
Is it my family that I miss in this land of leaves so unlike my bare desert? Of course, but although they are miles away, my family is with me daily. The huge telephone bills and the steady stream of letters and cards are a long-distance version of the web of caring we would create around kitchen tables. Our family web just happens to stretch across these United States, a sturdy, flexible web steadily maintained by each in his or her own way.
Oh, I miss the meals seasoned with that family phrase, ``remember the time when... .'' But I've learned through the years to cherish our gatherings when I'm in the thick of them, to sink into the faces and voices, to store the memories and stories like the industrious Ohio squirrel who works outside my window.
I've enjoyed this furry, scurrying companion as I've enjoyed the silence of bare tree limbs against an evening sky, updrafts of snow outside our third floor window, the ivory light of cherry blossoms. I feel fortunate to be experiencing the part of this country which calls itself the heartland. If I'm hearing the ``heart,'' its steady, predictable rhythms, what am I missing from its Southern border, its margin?
Is it other rhythms? I remember my mixed feelings as a young girl whenever my father selected a Mexican station on the radio, feelings my children now experience about me. I wanted so to be an American - which to me, and perhaps to many on the border, meant (and means) shunning anything from Mexico.
As I grew, though, I learned to like dancing to those rhythms. I learned to value not only the rhythms but all that they symbolized. As an adult, I associated such music with celebrations and friends, with warmth and the showing of emotions. I revel in a certain Mexican passion not for life or about life, but in life, a certain intensity in the daily living of it, a certain abandon in such music, in the hugs, sometimes in the anger. I miss the chispas, sparks which spring from the willingness, the habit, of allowing the inner self to burst through polite restraints. Sparks can be dangerous but, like risks, are necessary.
I brought cassettes of Mexican music with us when we drove to Ohio. I rolled my car window down and turned the volume up, taking a certain delight in sending such sounds across fields and into trees - broadcasting my culture, if you will.
On my first return visit to Texas I stopped to hear a group of mariachis playing their instruments with proud gusto. I was surprised and probably embarrassed when my eyes filled with tears not only at the music, but at the sight of wonderful though often undervalued Mexican faces. The musicians were playing for some senior citizens. The sight of brown, knowing eyes which quickly accepted me with a smile, and the stories in those eyes were more delicious than any fajitas or flan.
When I lived on the border, I had the privilege of daily seeing the native land of my grandparents. What I miss about that land is its stern honesty. The fierce light of that grand, wide Southwest sky not only filled me with energy, it provided unsoftened viewing, a glare of truth.
The desert is harsh, hard as life, no carpet of leaves to cushion a walk, no forest conceals the shacks on the other side of the Rio Grande. Although a Midwest winter is hard, it ends, melts into rich soil yielding the yellow trumpeting of daffodils. But the desert in any season can be as relentless as poverty and hunger. Oddly, I miss that clear view of the difference between my comfortable life as a US citizen and the lives of my fellow human beings who also speak Spanish, value family, music, celebration. In a broader sense, I miss the visible reminder of the difference between my economically privileged life and the life of most of my fellow humans.