My high school friends studied Latin or French, but my father said, “Learn Spanish. It’s useful.” That’s how I came to spend four years in Senora Gonzalez’s classes. I took more Spanish in college. I naively considered myself, for want of a more honest word, fluent.
On a trip to Ensenada, Mexico, I gabbed away, and the clever shopkeepers let me show off in order to sell us things. My confidence remained intact. When we lived in New York, I exercised my waning linguistic skills via a flexible crossbreed, Spanglish. Alas, over time even those diminished skills, like anything else one doesn’t use, rusted and withered.
On Buford Highway, there’s a shopping mall that our family calls “Mexico.” Fiesta Plaza features the sights, smells, goods and overall ambience of south-of-the-border culture.
One day I invited our granddaughter Miriam and her friend Rebecca to go to Mexico. Miriam and I had made this excursion two years earlier, and we’d had a lot of fun. This time I promised plenty of time among the incredible ball gowns 15-year-old quinceañera girls get to wear. That, and the fact that there’s an arcade, nailed it.
The signs at the entrance were in Spanish. “Don’t worry,” Miriam declared proudly. “My bubbe speaks Spanish.” Well, kind of.
On our previous sojourn, I had located the bathroom at a crucial moment by asking, “Donde esta el bano?” I know the official and the tongue-in-cheek words to “La Cucaracha.” I often call out “Hola!” to fellows working across the street. I use the correct pronunciation of the double ll’s in llama. I’m also crazy about piñatas.
Yes, I’m a regular Latina wannabe.
Here our story begins.
Fiesta Plaza was a great quasi-Hispanic experience, and we even happened upon a gorgeous teen trying on quinceañera dresses.
“She looks a lot older than 15,” my 11-year-old companions remarked.
“You’ll probably look like that in a few years,” I declared.
With that intriguing thought in mind, we headed toward the arcade.
En route, I blithely translated shop placards and signs. We stopped at a window of a minuscule shop that sells fancy shoes, Zapatos Elegantes, and the three of us were impressed with a pair that caught the light and glittered alluringly. We had to find out the price.
“Speak Spanish,” Miriam whispered.
I squared my shoulders. “Que sera sera,” I thought philosophically.
Using the remains of my schoolroom Spanish, I asked about the shoes and was given the price, which, of course, I misunderstood. I told the saleswoman, who I learned was named Clara, that we might come back, and I meant it, but I cautioned the girls not to count on it.
Rebecca, a practical girl, declared that she already had dress shoes, but Miriam claimed she was in dire need. Naturally, we returned to the tiny store an hour later. This time the woman spoke English to us, and I learned that the shoes cost less than I had thought.
The conversation between Clara and me would make a great “Saturday Night Live” routine. Her English and my Spanish were beautifully matched, and we ended up speaking Spanglish.
The effort was worth it, because in the eyes of my granddaughter, the glittering, bowed, jeweled shoes were fabulous. Miriam modeled them in black, gold and silver. Rebecca (remember, she’s sensible) recommended black, but Clara and I knew better.
“Abuelas!” I laughed, acknowledging that both Clara and I were grandmothers, destined to supply our granddaughters with fancy shoes. Would it be gold or silver? Again, Clara and I were in consonance. “Plata!” we agreed, as Miriam decided, “Silver!”
On the way home, Rebecca told us her family was going to the real Mexico in February, so in preparation she practiced “Donde esta el bano?” As my father said, it could be useful.
Miriam was wearing her new shoes when our daughter picked her up. “Where’d those come from?” Sara laughed. She knew that, whatever the backstory, I was culpable.
“Mexico,” I boasted. We looked at the stamp on the insole: “Made in China.”