My family and I wait for the train and I notice an older couple. They appear a little confused. The woman asks us, “Washington?” I notice the Spanish undertones. Her accent betrays an Iberian heritage ~ the use of the “th” in place of the “c” sound when she speaks.
I love listening for different accents and dialects when talking to people. It’s something I’ve loved since I was little. The sounds of language paint a picture of place ~ of history, customs and sometimes, home.
I grew up around people from various cultures. I think my great-grandparents liked it that way. Nanny and Grandaddy Nickens lived in several exotic locations through the years: the Bahamas, Panama and Brazil. When they returned home, they brought pieces of these places with them and wove them into our family. Each year, they would invite friends from all over to their farm for a “cane-grinding” and “hog-killing”. My whole family pitched in to grind sugar cane and roast a pig. We made candy and syrup. (Occasionally, I stirred a cast iron pot of chitterlings over an open flame until I couldn’t take the smell anymore.) But what I remember most about these annual feasts, except for the chitterlings (chit’lins back home), were the people. All kinds. Some were native Floridians but others were from the Phillipines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I used to listen attentively and hope that somehow I could absorb their language spontaneously and miraculously become foreign. Someone other than me.
I spent many nights falling asleep to my Nanny’s stories of beautiful café au lait women in colorful dresses at the straw market, men in white suits with fat cigars and monkeys sitting in trees. I would dream of stepping into one of Nanny’s Caribbean stories.
I learned to speak Spanish when I was around 10 years old at my friend Ana Lourdes’ house. Her mother was from Cuba and Spanish was the language spoken in their home. I learned how to ask for things and I learned song lyrics by Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco. I went on to study Spanish in high school and later, at the University of Florida where I became fluent.
I answer the lady at the strain station in Spanish. Her face brightens at the sound of her native tongue. Her husband smiles and asks me where I am from. We talk a few more minutes before the train comes and as they leave, the husband puts his hand over his heart and says, “un placer”. A pleasure.
The pleasure was all mine.