Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A letter from mother to daughter about language, love, and identity

Photo by *NabiaOrebia/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A contest that's part of the Lea LA Spanish-language book festival taking place this weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center has yielded some beautifully candid and eloquent letters from Latina mothers to their children (and from grandmothers to their grandchildren) about the importance of keeping language and culture alive across generations.

The idea of the contest was for women to communicate how they felt about passing along Spanish, as well as the cultural heritage of the countries their families came from, to the children in their family as they grow up. Just going by the handful of letters I've seen, provided by festival organizers, it's a brilliant idea.

Here is what one contestant, Berenice Picazo, wrote to her infant daughter. The letter was written in Spanish, so I've translated it. I hope I've done it justice, because it's lovely. And because even a good translation isn't quite the same, here's the original.

Dear Teresita,

This is your mother, and I'm writing you this letter with all my love. I know that you're very small, and you aren't going to understand what I write. The language that you do understand is love. You are only eight months old. When I see you in my arms, I can't contain the happiness and joy in my heart. How quickly time goes by. Every day that passes, I see you getting bigger. The more you grow, the more you develop. Soon you'll begin to walk and say your first words.

You know, the first thing I told you once I had you in my arms were the words "mi amor" (my love). I spoke to you in Spanish because it is the language of my heart. Of course, I said this to you through tears and smiles. I couldn't contain myself. You are my first daughter. Your birth was what I'd hoped for for a long time. Now I wish in my heart that the first words you say to me will be "mama."

I want for you to know that Spanish is the language that gives life to our family. I learned it from your grandmother. Since I was small, she taught me the importance of Spanish within our Mexican culture. Once you grow a little more, I'll show you our family photo album. I'll tell you about the many times that "las manañitas" were sung to celebrate birthdays. Very soon, it will be your turn to break open your piñatas, and to listen to your father and me sing "dale, dale, dale, no pierdas el tino" (hit it, hit it, hit it, don't lose your aim)! I'll also talk to you about my fifteenth birthday party. It was an incredible night. How badly I want to tell you all about it! I danced the waltz with your grandfather. I remember that the song was "Tiempo de Vals," interpreted by Chayanne. We all enjoyed the party. You know, the music that the guests liked most were the cumbias. You would have seen how well your uncles could dance. The most wonderful thing was that in spite of having relatives on both sides of the border, Spanish united us, and it always has.

My wish is that in your life, you can live the happiness and the joy that speaking Spanish gives you. Thanks to Spanish, I have firmly established my identity. I know who I am, and even more, I know what I need to do to contribute to preserving this great cultural and linguistic heritage. One of these responsibilities is to help form you and teach you that a person's identity revolves around their mother tongue. With all my love, I'm going to teach you just as I was taught, to fall in love with our Spanish tongue and to use it as a tool for forging a destiny that is full of opportunities.

The road is long and we have much ground to cover, my love. I will be here by your side so that together we may undertake the great adventure that will be teaching you about your cultural heritage, along with our Spanish language.

With all my love,

Your mami (Berenice Picazo)

To all the mamis, of all cultures, who have passed along so much to their children - and to the newer mamis trying to follow in their footsteps - a very happy Mother's Day.