“Alzheimer’s had been pickpocketing her of a few memories each day until finally I was just a voice she couldn’t place.”
This is my grandma and me in her front yard with one of her many cats. I would sacrifice almost everything to relive this moment.
Whenever I called my grandmother, I closed the door to my bedroom. Her voice had become so faint that I wanted to ensure I heard her. Occasionally I had to ask her to repeat herself, but there was never a guarantee that she would understand me or recall what she had just said.
“Hi, Grandma,” I said.
“Mija,” she said. “Did I miss your birthday?”
“No, Grandma. My birthday’s in November. It’s January, your birthday month.”
“Oh,” she replied. “Are you still dating that Mexican boy?”
This was her question, the one inquiry that eviscerated me. Rationally, I knew this was the disease speaking on her behalf.
She’d met my boyfriend at a prior Christmas gathering in San Antonio. For Hideo’s sake, I’d asked my family to cut the Spanglish as much as possible, and they, more or less, obliged. For most of the gift exchange, though, my grandmother studied Hideo with the unwavering focus of a forensic expert. At this point, my grandmother toed the line between lucid and lost. In retrospect, I wonder what her eyes saw when she examined Hideo, what features she caught in her distorted lens.
The first time she asked if I was dating the Mexican boy, I replied, “No, Grandma. My boyfriend is Japanese. You met him at my parents’ house. Remember?”
When I was eleven, I announced to my parents that I was never going to marry. The news amused them, and my father went so far as to dare me to put it in writing. On wide-ruled notebook paper, I wrote an eloquent statement about how I, Ursula Villarreal, was opposed to the archaic institution of marriage. I briefly expounded on its disadvantages then signed off.
My father kept this note in his wallet for twenty years. Amazingly, the paper never disintegrated. It remained practically untouched by time, like the vivid image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s garment, hard proof that it was an artifact.
My therapist has asked me to dig deep into how I formed this core belief—my parents were (and are) happily married. No one in my immediate family had divorced or spoken strongly for or against marriage.
Perhaps you’ve heard of four-year-olds who spontaneously pick up a violin or sit down at a piano and bust out a Mozart symphony without any musical training. How does the score spill out of their tiny fingertips? How did I conclude at age eleven that marriage was undesirable?
For many years, our relative Monina, who lives in Monterrey, Mexico, called my mother for brief chats. Monina has five children, all of whom are married and have blessed her with grandchildren. At the time, I was twenty-nine and not married. This stressed Monina more than it did my own mother or myself. The unspoken worry was that I was wasting my fertility. Marriage terrified me, but pregnancy always struck me as the ultimate sci-fi experience, one that held negative appeal.
“You won’t believe what Monina asked me yesterday,” Mama said, her voice an echo on my shoulder.
“What,” I asked, long distance from New York.
“She asked me if you and Pablo were spending time together?” Mama cackled.
When I was in high school, my mother and I traveled to Mexico every few months. All five of Monina’s children married within a span of six years, so we always had bodas to attend. We routinely took advantage of tourist packages that included roundtrip transportation and two or three nights at the Crown Plaza for a hundred bucks. This was years before kidnappings and assassinations started to become commonplace in Monterrey.
Our senior year of high school my best friend Mohit, a tall, striking man of Indian descent, decided he wanted to visit Mexico. As luck would have it, my mother and I were headed there in a matter of weeks for my cousin Gisela’s wedding. I invited Mohit and my mother reassured his parents that our hotel was extremely safe and comfortable.
I’ve known Mohit for twenty-four years and we’re still extremely close, but in all probability, I don’t pronounce his name correctly, or at least not as it’s pronounced in India. He foresaw his name posing a problem in Mexico, so the day before our trip he asked my mother and me to please call him Pablo and introduce him as Pablo to our family. My mother and I found this comical yet practical, so we agreed.
All my family members loved Pablo. He danced at the wedding with me and my slew of cousins, even participating enthusiastically in the train that circled the dance hall. He posed for formal pictures with anyone who requested—and everyone requested. His Spanish was functional, too, and he appeared to be extremely loyal to me.
Twelve years after meeting Pablo, Monina was grasping at straws, trying to marry me off from her house in Monterrey. What she didn’t know was that the year after Gisela’s wedding, Mohit came out as gay. During the trip to Monterrey, Mohit fell in love with Spanish and Latin American culture, so now we hashtag our selfies #mexicansistas #chicasdoingitforthemselves and #fiercemamacitas.
“What did you say about Pablo?” I asked my mother.
“I said you two are very close, but that’s it.”
“Next time just tell her I’m a lesbian. End of story.”
“Are you still in Nueva York?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I’ve lived here a long time.”
“When was the last time I sent you money for a hamburger?” she asked.
Circa my eighth birthday, my grandmother started passing me five-dollar bills when my parents weren’t looking. Initially I was grateful for the money and thanked her. During my adolescence, I became acutely aware of her poverty, and I started resisting the money. “Take it,” she’d insist. “Buy yourself a hamburger.” This was our shorthand. Buy yourself a hamburger came to mean treat yourself and consider the act a type of sustenance.
“I’m eating, Grandma. Don’t worry.”
“How’s your boyfriend?” she asked.
I’d heard from one of Hideo’s friends that he was planning to propose. The information sent me into a tailspin and I was in overdrive trying to find unforgivable faults in him, reasons why I couldn’t commit. Truth be told, I was probably more in love with Hideo than he was with me. The difference was that he was more traditional and concluded that meant we should be married. For me, it was sufficient for us to stay in like and in love, minus the oaths and official paperwork.
I refrained from troubling my grandmother with my relationship dilemma. She had been married twice, and had I approached her with my problems a decade earlier, we might have had a meaningful conversation regarding my options.
But that window had permanently shut.
A hallmark of my youth was believing that I would never in all of time want to date or end up with a partner of my ethnicity. I wanted to explore another culture, create a new combination, coexist.
What I couldn’t fully appreciate was that there is, in fact, a certain comfort in engaging with a person who has a similar cultural background or history. While it can be rewarding teaching someone your traditions, there’s also something to be said about understanding, without explanation, a holiday, a phrase, a food, or a song. My grandmother’s fragility was a stark reminder of our origins and what I stood to lose. In case I was oblivious, her disease made sure to repeat the same question over and over.
Hideo and I broke up.
Initially stunned by the breakup, Hideo bounced back and found himself another girlfriend in a heartbeat. I, on the other hand, had to face the fact that I had acted rashly and essentially rendered myself homeless in New York City.
I’m doing great, Grandma.
It’s not my birthday yet.
Oh, I don’t have a boyfriend anymore.
New York is terrific.
I miss you, too.
Four months after things ended with Hideo, Julieta Venegas performed in Central Park as part of her Limón y Sal tour. I’d attended several SummerStage concerts, but this was the first where it felt the park was literally bursting at the seams. I’ve never estimated well, but it appeared that fifty thousand Latinx, mostly Mexican fresas, had come out of the woodwork. San Antonio has always been between approximately 50 percent to 70 percent Mexican American. Even still, I had never been surrounded by more Spanish-speaking people than in Central Park.
As luck would have it, I ended up close to the stage, next to three leggy female cousins who let me sit on a square of the bed sheet they spread out on the lawn. Accommodating me was a kind gesture, but we didn’t so much as exchange names.
Sure, we’re all human, but still, there was something deeply unifying knowing the leagues of people around me were all processing the lyrics through a similar linguistic filter, a particular cultural context that can’t be squarely explained, only lived.
I knew all the lyrics to Limón y Sal and every Julieta Venegas album by heart and whisper-sang along. The cynic in me doubted any man who loved these catchy songs could also dig me. It seemed like an either/or proposition.
When night fell, I exited the park amidst the horde, disappointed that I had been befriended by a grand total of zero people. This confirmed what I had long sensed, that I’m an outsider existing in the limbo between being Mexican and being American. A Mexican or Chicano boyfriend wasn’t in the cards, in the stars, in San Antonio, in New York, in this lifetime.
My therapist recently gave me a photocopy of “The Feeling Wheel.” She resorted to this elementary method after we started working through my unresolved issues related to my grandmother’s death. I started therapy because I can’t say the phrases “my grandmother,” “my grandparents,” or “my great-aunt” without erupting into hot tears. The three phrases are live wires. I wasted seven months of therapy waxing poetic about my writing anxieties, but now I’m scaling the mountain and working on grounding myself in the present moment.
During the Feeling Wheel session my therapist, also a Chicana, pushed me hard.
“Since our last session I drafted an essay about my grandmother,” I said, tears rolling off my face because I touched one of the three live wires. My face flushed and I considered removing my black hoodie but didn’t.
My therapist handed me a Kleenex. Most of her clients are teenage girls, which explains why we are a good fit. I still feel seventeen—damaged and bored.
“What did you learn while writing the essay?”
“I lost a language when she died. A vast vocabulary I’ll never hear again because my family only speaks Spanglish,” I said.
“Why do you think you allow yourself to cry when talking about your grandparents, but you never cry when discussing other tragic events or other people in your life?”
This was too easy.
“Because I lost her. That relationship,” I started choking on my words, “is over.”
My vision was a fog of wet eyelashes, splotches of primary colors.
“So you feel . . .?” she nudged.
“That it’s a tragedy that the language became extinct in my family,” I said. “That we can’t share those words anymore.”
“That’s a thought. What else did you lose besides the language? How did you feel with her?”
I write about people and their struggles every day of my life, yet I couldn’t properly identify my own emotions. I scanned the room for any type of aid.
“Let me give you an emotion wheel. The inner parts are the core feelings and the spokes are the ancillary feelings that radiate from the core,” she said as she handed me a fifth-generation Xerox. “Using the wheel, tell me how did you feel around your grandmother?”
Holding the paper made me feel juvenile, unmoored. The feelings were clear as day, but I found myself rotating the paper and sighing.
“She made me feel relaxed, serene, thankful, content,” I replied.
As she continued to decline, phone conversations with my grandmother became torturous ouroboros. I asked about her cat Pinky. She asked if I still lived in New York and if I owned a good coat. I reassured her my coat was insulated, windproof. Then it came again.
“Are you still dating that lovely Mexican man?”
This fictitious character had, in the span of a week, matured from boyhood to manhood and developed a pleasing personality. I was actually dying to meet him.
In the summer of 2008, I rented an apartment in Buenos Aires. I routinely traveled abroad by myself and South America had been calling me for a while.
In New York, I’d taken a few intermediate and advanced Spanish classes at Instituto Cervantes. One of my instructors was a woman named Martha who, on the last day of class, scribbled her email address on the whiteboard and said if we ever found ourselves in Buenos Aires she’d take us out for a beer. Aside from Martha, I knew no one in Argentina.
Rioplatense Spanish was more confounding than I had anticipated. I almost missed my stop on public transportation once because Callao was adulterated with a jshz or the zheísmo/sheísmo Argentines pronounce when two l’s appear together. In fact, I didn’t recognize my own last name the first few times I heard it pronounced as Bijshzarreal.
In search of comfort, I had traveled too far below the equator.
Upon my return, I made the following checklist and began looking for:
_ Someone whose name ends in –o
_ Someone who speaks Spanish
_ Someone born in Latin America
_ Someone who loves kittens and Kafka
_ Someone who loves film or is a full-blown film snob
_ Someone who is wise with money
_ A bibliophile
Two months before her death, my grandmother turned ninety-one. I could sense that she wouldn’t live much longer. Although our standard six- or seven-question conversations required us to use five dozen words, the vast vocabulary we had in us was inches from the surface like koi swimming in a translucent pond.
Recently, I was late to meet a friend. Raehannah looked concerned when I approached her on the track where we walk.
“Is everything okay? You’re never late,” she said as we hugged.
“Yeah, I was doing something for my mom on Facebook.” I explained that ever since our last trip to Mexico, my mother had become online friends with all our relatives. Mostly, she put likes and emojis on their posts, but sometimes she wants to genuinely communicate with them.
“I don’t get how that made you late,” Raehannah said, scrunching her nose.
“I’m the only person in my immediate family who can write in Spanish,” I said inadvertently throwing my hands up in the air. “I was taking dictation. My mother scanned six family pictures to her cousin and I was tasked with identifying and explaining who was in each photo, the year, the place. I honestly didn’t mind.”
“Your parents can’t write in Spanish? Really?!”
“We all speak it because we were auditory learners. But I’m the only one of us who has formally studied the language and who can read it.”
“My parents were born in Texas.”
“So were you,” she retorted.
On our weekly six-mile walks, my friend and I often touch upon my fear that I’m captaining a ghost ship of my family’s heritage. In a country that considers us less than. Ever the optimist, she asked me to list my favorite Spanish words.
“Muñeca. Chingao. For less phonetic reasons, cascarones.”
One night my mother phoned to tell me that my grandmother had contracted a kidney infection. While in the hospital, her doctor had requested a full-body scan.
High resolution X-rays showed that my grandmother had an inoperable brain tumor. Given her advanced age, kidney infection, and sudden loss of appetite, the doctors refused to operate.
During our last weeks, we uttered platitudes. I begged my grandmother to ingest a few sips of Ensure. Even water repulsed her. All my grandmother wanted at the end was to speak sweet nothings to her cat. She rubbed his paws, kissed his ears, and praised him for being the smartest cat in the United States.
I continued negotiating my frustrating life in New York while receiving email updates from my mother. I was renting a bedroom and bathroom on the Upper West Side from an older woman with too many quirks. Every man held the emotional appeal of a fallen electrical pole during a storm. I walked Broadway looking for new bookstores, wondering if my grandmother had glimpsed my life ten years into the future. The only thing that made sense was that she was floating in a liquid continuum the rest of us call time.
I held out hope that one day I would hear her question in my head and respond affirmatively: Yes,I am dating that Mexican man.
Our last conversation was a one-way nightmare. Her hearing had faded and she couldn’t focus. She didn’t ask me about my love life. She had one question and didn’t wait for me to answer.
“What’s your name again?” she impatiently asked.
Alzheimer’s had been pickpocketing her of a few memories each day until finally I was just a voice she couldn’t place.
The week of my grandmother’s funeral, I met my husband Fernando in San Antonio. Born in Brazil, he was a permanent alien with a green card. Although he studied science, specifically addiction, he had almost minored in film.
On our first date, we discussed cats and several of Haruki Murakami’s novels. I confidently told Fernando that I was a writer, which was ridiculous because I had not written anything other than emails in nine years.He claimed to know some Spanish.
A friend of a friend had warned me that Fernando wasn’t looking for a relationship. This was fine with me because I lived in New York and was just looking for a good time. I wasn’t sold on him on the first date, but I liked his style. Fernando donned a spiffy driver’s cap on each of our first three dates. I found him irresistible in these hats, and his smile was somewhat elusive, which made it more charming to glimpse.
I returned to New York and we continued the relationship over the phone. In a month, Fernando told me every humiliating thing that had ever happened to him from birth to the current day. I felt guilty laughing at his misfortunes, which numbered in the dozens, but some were hilarious as well as heartbreaking. Clearly, Fernando had no game, a fact I found painful and refreshing.
He had lied about knowing Spanish. Portuguese/Spanish or even Portuñol, same difference, I figured. Hindsight: They are not one and the same. Only in Spanish do I belong.
I’ve been in therapy long enough to know—cognitively—that one person can’t be everyone and everything. Did I marry my husband because he fit into a random matrix of my creation? Yes and no. We fell in love and that, of course, played a part. Marriages are the most complicated organisms in existence. This is a truth I intuited at age eleven.
After a Christmas party, Fernando and I were driving home and passed no fewer than ten restaurants with the word Jalisco in the name.
“What does Jalisco mean in English,” I quizzed him.
He shrugged. “Grill? Every restaurant is Jalisco something or other.”
“Trick question. It’s a state in Mexico.”
It irked me that he had not one iota of curiosity about a word he’d seen probably ten thousand times in the last five years. What would my grandmother think of Fernando? Is my husband’s inability to speak or understand Spanish canceled out by the fact that he loves even unflattering pictures of me? Every so often, I still catch him suspended in the same wonder that shrouded our second date.
My fountain of Spanish these days is a combination of telenovelas, música en español, and WhatsApp messaging with Mohit. The vocabulary used in telenovelas and songs is a crude, approximate echo of my grandmother. It’s a fake world. In the real world, Mohit and I text all day, often about leaving the US and living in Latin America—aware, yes, that Latin America is incredibly corrupt, that I’m fixated on an escape.
In my defense: Isn’t starting over from scratch the quintessential American narrative? It’s seductive for someone like myself who is addicted to the future.
Chuck the checklist.
All I have to do is move to Mexico and live in one of my tía Vicky’s many guestrooms. She and my tío Andrés are retired and, in their own words, bored beyond comprehension. Last time I visited them, they pointed out how close their house is to Costco, Sam’s Club, a Mexican grocery store, and a Texas-chain grocery store.
“You’ll be able to eat anything you want. You’ll never miss a thing,” my aunt assured me in Spanish.
My grandmother died on March 13, 2009. On March 14, I was scheduled to fly to Iceland for vacation. Instead of touching down in Reykjavik, I delivered the eulogy at my grandmother’s wake. Although I loathed public speaking, I knew I was the right person to memorialize her.
The funeral home was stifling hot and filled to the brim with family, friends, and oversized flower arrangements, including one from my employer in New York. It was disorienting seeing the school’s blue-and-white emblem on a card in the quaint funeral home. My identities had collided—working class/Mexican and professional/New Yorker—and my grandmother was the catalyst.
A mass followed the next morning in a church I had not stepped foot inside of for many years. I’m certain my mom or tía Virgi told me where to stand and what to do, but the moment the pallbearers placed my grandmother’s casket on a stand to roll to the front of the church, I lost it. I remember spinning in an exaggerated circle, my mouth open wide and grief reverberating out of me in an awful howl. I threw myself over the front of the casket, my arms struggling with its circumference, thwarting the men from proceeding forward. My mother and aunt, who had been quietly weeping into a fistful of tissues, had no choice but to pry me from the coffin and restrain me as I screamed No! up the main aisle of the church.
The trip Mohit took with my family to Mexico changed his life. Since that time, he’s been in love with Spanish and lived and taught in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
A thread that binds us together is that we’re both losing our heritage languages. For him, it’s Gujarati. Since we were auditory learners, we’re gripped by a weird panic when we struggle to accurately commit to paper the sounds we hear and speak.
As a bilingual interventionist, Mohit’s focused on teaching dual-language students how to read, write, and maintain their spoken Spanish. Aside from imparting these competencies, he also teaches Latin American culture and has conversations with his students about why language maintenance is important. His job is essentially to prevent seven-year-old Ursula from becoming thirty-seven-year-old Ursula.
When his students learn via bigotry to start shunning Spanish, Mohit becomes understandingly discouraged and we commiserate, preferably in his car while he’s driving so we can’t lock eyes and cry.
Months ago, Mohit and I decided we wanted to spend a Saturday doing something “Puro San Antonio.” Puro San Antonio is the city’s official self-descriptor. It’s a clear nod to the Mexican culture woven into the fabric of everything San Antonio.
We tossed around ideas. Raspas and conjunto music?Tacos and a stroll on the River Walk?Big Red margaritas?Window shopping atEl Mercado or La Villita? I almost suggested a trip to the West Side to visit my grandmother’s grave.
Since he subscribes to strict dietary philosophies, we ended up at a vegan Mexican restaurant in Southtown. We alternated between Spanish and Spanglish, but I could tell he was indulging me. Whereas I’m a natural code-switcher, Mohit, thanks to his master’s en español, can stay inside the language for months on end.
After a late lunch, we got Americanos at a tourist trap in La Villita then found ourselves at the Arneson River Theatre. Sipping hot coffee on an overcast day, we people watched.
“Esa chica llegó hoy de Monterrey,” he whispered, referring to a woman strutting by in stilettos, tight white jeans, a silk blouse, and bleached hair.
After guessing life stories for a bit, we switched to surfer accents and asked each other tacky, tourist questions.
“Dude,” he started, “like, what is this ‘Puro San Antonio’ expression? Does this have to do with churros? Tell me it has to do with churros! I fucking love those things!”
We laughed into our hands, our voices spilling onto our laps. It was my turn, so I forced myself into a typical American accent with over exaggerated vowel pronunciation.
“Cómo se dice I’m having a good time and hope this never ends?”
Then I realized it. I wasn’t searching for a mythical experience. I felt the spokes I’d called off on the Feeling Wheel: relaxed, important, content. The distance I’d traveled, well, it was not very far at all.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her writing has appeared in Tin House (online), Nashville Review, WhiskeyPaper, Bennington Review, Washington Square and Wigleaf Top 50. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, a Pushcart Prize, and long listed for Best American Short Stories 2015. On Twitter, she's @Ursulaofthebook.