Like so many Latinos, I’m a mutt. When people try to guess my ethnicity, they ask if I am Italian, Lebanese, or Hispanic — depending on how much sun I’ve gotten. Take a vial of my blood and you’ll find a dash of Catalan, a pinch of French, but mostly a high concentration of Boricua.
People don’t usually believe my family is Puerto Rican until they see the number of empty Bustelo cans in my closet, the cornucopia of pasteles in my freezer, or experience my "colorful" Spanish words while behind the wheel. Because my parents were born on the mainland, my grandparents are mostly responsible for bridging my whitewashed environment back to my (incredibly fabulous) roots.
I grew up in New Jersey, near Manhattan. When I was young, I could see the Twin Towers from my bedroom. My grandparents, Roberto and Rosa Latimer lived in the same town, so you can imagine how “Everybody Loves Raymond” (the tv show with the grandparents barging into the son's house every day) our lives were (and still are).
Almost daily my grandparents were scheduled to make an appearance, whether they came over with food or my mother picked some up from their home. My parents would break out the jamon serrano (Spanish serrano ham) or the pan con tomate (bread with tomato) if Roberto and Rosa were coming over. Arroz blanco con picadillo (white rice with ground beef) was a staple in my diet because my grandparents made sure to anchor my brother and me to our Catalan and Puerto Rican heritage.
Food was a concrete example of how my family emphasized - and loved - our background. I loved the feasts of malanga and fried yucca. But mostly it was through sitting and enjoying the time spent with my grandparents that I learned so much about them.
My grandfather was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Yayo, as I call him, always carries a pocketknife. Every time the blade glints in the light, he says, jokingly, “Like a good Puerto Rican, I am always prepared.” He says this while opening a letter or even spreading butter. His pocketknife makes many more guest appearances than necessary.
His dictionary, as well, is severely loved. Every page has been touched hundreds of times. You always know he will read you new words when you walk into his home. While he grew up speaking Spanish, I have never met someone so knowledgeable about the intersection between the Romance languages and English. From Yayo and his books you can learn French, Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese - or at least that's what he claims!
My grandmother, or Yaya in our family, hails from Barcelona. (My Puerto Rican grandfather went to Spain for his university years; he met her there and brought her back). As a wonderfully prolific watercolor painter, she taught us to look deeper into the colors of our surroundings and the people we speak to. Because of her intuition, I learned to listen to people and understand not only their perspectives, but also their backgrounds. Everything she makes - our birthday cards or Thanksgiving feasts, are constructed like Catalan museum exhibitions. Her drawings match the intricacies of Dali and her creativity rivals the diversity of Gaudi. Every single one of her art pieces is fueled with emotion.
Yayo and Yaya spoke to me in their first language, Spanish. Even though my fluency needs a ton of work, because of my grandparents I can follow along Spanish conversations. Like so many other second or third-generation Latinos, my speaking skills are lacking, something which I am working on. But if you direct me to make a cafecito or to take out the garbage, I’ll quickly comply.
At the end of any day, as we are saying our goodbyes, my Yayo always says, “Te quiero mas que si te hubiera parido.” ("I love you more than if I would have given birth to you.") What else is there to say about a grandparent's love than that sentence?
And that, ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, is what this all boils down to. While I have learned about my heritage and language from my yayos - or abuelos to some of you - what I got the most from them was unconditional love. To me, that's such a big part of my Latino family.
My grandparents have taught me to love myself, as well as my ethnic identity.
On National Grandparents Day, I wanted to thank them for the experience of growing up in the magic of a loving Latino household.