My Mother’s Language

La Voz de Galicia – May 17, 2019 →

Cristina PatoWhen I hear my mother speak with her sisters, I am astonished by the beauty of her Galician, by her intonation, by her idioms, by her way of pronouncing her g’s, and by the diverse sounds of her vowels. And then I begin to ask myself once again what reasons could have prevented my mother from speaking Galician with us, her four daughters. All conversations between my parents were in Galician, but when speaking with us, they switched to Castilian, specifically, to a Castilian worthy of Spanish public television, a neutrally accented Castilian.

I suppose that my family’s case is typical in my parents’ generation of immigrants. But I always thought it curious that this would be a systematic question on my mother’s side of the family (from the rural part of Bola), and that the majority of my cousins would live the same kind of social bilingualism that we had.

When I began speaking about this phenomenon in the United States within the context of cultural memory, I began to understand the backdrop for her decision. I don’t think it was a conscious choice, though. Perhaps during her childhood, throughout her life, those who got to be somebody did not speak Galician. My mother accepted social bilingualism as a way to survive, and I am an offspring of that reality.

I did not take on Galician as a working language until a few years ago. And it is a small daily struggle to be able to speak it in all contexts. Discarding the Galician that I learned in school to learn with pride the Galician that belongs to me—the language of the women in my family, is one of the most enriching endeavors of my life. And it is also a commitment, a declaration of intentions.

But even today, I had difficulty having a conversation in Galician with my mother. When she realizes that she is speaking with me, and not with one of her sisters, she returns to speaking Castilian. Historical memory is everywhere.

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