“What color is your skin?” my seven-year-old son, Norrin, asked looking me right in the eye.
Norrin has autism. And if you know anything about autism, you know that a spontaneous, age-appropriate WH question with eye contact is enough to make any mom squeal with utter delight. And I would have answered his question, except I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t prepared myself to have the talk about skin color. (I don’t think the color of my skin was anything I really thought about when I was his age.)
So I did what I normally do when Norrin asks a question I suspect he’s ready to answer. I flipped the script and asked, What color is your skin?
He smiled his big cheesy smile and shouted, apricot!
Apricot? (WTF?!) Not exactly the color I would have chosen.
His response made me think of the U.S. Census Bureau race question — none of the options apply to us. And as I thought about the words I would use to describe our complexion, my mind immediately lapsed into Spanish which is strange, because I don’t really speak Spanish (a few words and phrases at most).
My parents are Puerto Rican but I was born and raised in New York City. My parents are fluent in Spanish and English, yet they never taught me. And I’ve lived 37 years never learning on my own. While Spanish is a language I do not speak, I understand the sentiment of its words. The language, the music, the culture, the food was embedded in my being throughout my childhood. Spanish adds flavor to my English like salt and pepper on a juicy steak.
I want the same for Norrin. I want him to have a connection to our culture, to identify with it — even if its only in a small way.
Norrin is still looking at me, smiling, waiting for praise. I squeezed his hand. No Norrin. You are not apricot. You are cafe con leche. He liked my answer and repeated it several times. His articulation was practically perfect.
In that moment, I realized how important Spanish and being bilingual was for us. And I was reminded of a book I received a while back — Bilingual is Better by Roxana Soto and Ana Flores, the creators of Spanglish Baby. Flores believes, “language is the bridge to the essence of who we are and to the heart of our heritage.” And I couldn’t agree more.
While I don’t really consider myself bilingual, I know more than I give myself credit for. I realized that a few years ago when I had to take a translation exam as a graduate school requirement. Without studying, I was able to translate a full-page of text from Spanish to English and I passed.
And so does Norrin. He knows how to count to ten in Spanish and say, help and come on (thanks Dora the Explorer). He knows to give me a beso (kiss) when I ask for one. He’s proud of his caf con leche skin and when he’s frustrated he says, ay dios mio. He knows how to say his favorite fruits in Spanish.
I want Norrin to know who we are and I want him to be proud of our heritage. I want to give him that bridge to help him find his way. The only way I can do that is through teaching him Spanish. And that means, I’ll have to take the initiative to learn to speak Spanish. To practice with my family — even though I’m embarrassed by my accent. Norrin and I will take those baby steps in becoming bilingual together.