Inglés sin Barreras”
by Lázaro Gutiérrez
It’s a late evening in May, the sun is setting at the Heritage Trace Apartment Homes. The spring air is crisp in Newport News, Virginia, much cooler than the humid air of Cuba. The air conditioner, the soft carpet on my toes, and the smell of Gain laundry detergent are new to me and equally as pleasant. My parents and I have been in the United States of America for a few months now and we are learning the way things function here. My parents are working at a factory farm. I’m completing the third grade at B.C. Charles Elementary School, though things are not going well and soon I’ll be pulled into a conference comprised of my parents and teachers where we will be told that I’ll need to repeat the third grade. My mother will cry because in Cuba I was a star student, but here I know nothing. The language is not sticking for me and my new teachers believe that if I repeat the third grade I will learn much quicker.
Looking back, I don’t know if it really made much of a difference. It’s not that I didn’t know the subject matter, I just didn’t know the language.
* * *
On the television screen, a woman from the nineties, with big dark curls and a suit with wide shoulder pads is teaching a class of people different phrases in English. My parents are both watching and taking notes. They do this often after work—when they have the time. On other nights they sit on the balcony of our apartment and play music, and drink beer. Life is better now and even though it feels as though we are toddlers in this big new country, we are full of hope.
Life is now a perpetual translation coupled with the repetition of signing documents. At school some kids guide me around on my first few days until I understand how things work. School here is much different than it is in Cuba. I’m fascinated by all the different food options. In Cuba, I remember having chicken at school once, and it was a special day for certain, here in the U.S., it happens often and served in many different ways.
I am particularly enthralled by corn dogs. It’s a hot dog on a stick covered in some sort of fried dough and it’s delicious, especially when dipped in ketchup. And don’t get me started on the breakfast ones, it’s a weird type of meat (which in time I learned was called country sausage) wrapped in a blueberry pancake batter and you eat it by dipping it in a sugary liquid (which I later learned was called maple syrup).
Our teacher is kind, she falls asleep at her desk sometimes but she gives us powdered donuts in the morning and later she sits me down in front of this blue translucent computer that is unlike anything I have seen before. I sit there and play games all day. I am the new kid. I am mostly voiceless, and I feel out of place—but I am happier than I have ever been.
Upon our arrival in this new country my parents became fixated on learning English as quickly as possible. Like most immigrants they yearned to assimilate into the country they were now slowly becoming a part of in order to become the best versions of themselves. Learning this complex language was one of the requirements. My parents were in their thirties when we moved here. My mother had studied English in Cuba and knew quite a bit. She helped me learn my first few words and phrases. I remember the nights of frustration as we sat together practicing and learning with flash cards. That was the foundation of my learning.
One day my parents bought this second-hand language course from some of their work colleagues. It was valued at over a thousand dollars—or so their “friends” said. It was called “Inglés sin Barreras” (English Without Barriers.)
“Inglés sin Barreras…para los que no tienen tiempo a aprender inglés” was one of their slogans. English Without Barrier, for those who do not have the time to learn English.
The commercials would come on at all times of the day, sometimes during Sabado Gigante (Giant Saturday—an entertainment show that aired on Saturday nights and was hosted by the iconic Don Francisco). When the commercials came on you’d hear this music that evoked a feeling of hope. My parents both worked low-paying, hard-labor jobs but this course strengthened their faith. It gave them hope that the future would not be so challenging, that if they just worked hard enough one day they would have no barriers. At the time both of my parents were working at a factory farm called Smithfield. My father would sleep at the factory farm sometimes to get extra hours of overtime pay. I stayed by myself a lot of the times but in being lonely I learned to love literature and fantasy, and soon I made friends of my own if only in the pages of books. Harry, Ron and Hermione became my English tutors when I was alone.
* * *
“Inglés sin Barreras” was a set of video cassettes, CDs, and booklets that promised a system for Spanish speakers to learn English like they did when they learned Spanish as kids. It had this blue cover with a graphic of a city skyline, a big yellow sun was shining behind a skyscraper and a multitude of lights were turned on as the evening turned to night. I see the skyline as the buildings my parents wanted to work at. The buildings they surely would have worked at had they moved to the U.S. at a younger age. Office buildings, suits, and comfortability. I picture my parents as successful business people. My father who didn’t finish middle school was born with the natural brain of a businessman and even with a language barrier he was determined to achieve all of his goals.
My parents completed the entire course, but they didn’t become fluent. My mother’s grammar was excellent. But the weight of the language became a barrier for her because she was imprisoned by the thought of people judging her accent. In retrospect, I had a taste of that feeling when I was first enrolled in school here in the U.S., I was given a test in English and failed it, but when they gave me the same test in Spanish I passed it without a struggle. I was dumb in English, but I was intelligent and promising in Spanish.
Even now my mother’s insecurities over the English language still resonate with me as I still feel inferior to those whose native language is English. Although I dominate the language I often still wonder if I could have done more with my life if everything would have remained in Spanish or if I would have been born in the U.S. instead of Cuba. The truth is that I likely wouldn’t, where I come from opportunities are as scarce as everything else. But I’ll be honest and confess that I often feel like the dumbest person in a room of native English speakers. Why? How? I minored in English in college and still I tell myself that I am the worst writer I know. And on the other hand even though Spanish is my first language, I still feel as though I never unlocked its full potential. And even though English is my dominant language now, I still feel like I am learning it every day.
My mind witnesses on the daily this strange dichotomy between the person I am in English and the person I am in Spanish. As though I am two completely different people in each language—because I am. There are parts of me in Spanish that can only be loosely translated into English and vise-versa.
When I was in college I found myself lost when we read old English. The works of Shakespeare were confusing and often time I had to read the spark notes and interpretations of others to decipher what seemed as though was written in some code my immigrant brain could not comprehend. This forced me to always give the best I could, double and triple checking my work to ensure that I hadn’t made a single careless mistake. These are the remnants of the classmates who thought it was fun to taunt me when I was first beginning to learn this very intricate language. Meanwhile in Spanish, though it’s my mother tongue and the language I grew up speaking I sometimes feel that I don’t know enough of it. And when I hold a conversation with someone whose only language is Spanish I feel that I can’t express myself as well as I would want to. And the feelings of shame and embarrassment creep in.
* * *
One of my mother’s first jobs in the U.S. was as a housekeeper. During the weekends I’d help her clean the vacation homes of rich people. Sometimes she’d let me sit down on the couch while she cleaned and I’d watch television—something on Univision usually. Some sort of children’s program completely in Spanish. These are the last memories I have of being fully immersed in my native language. It wasn’t until the later years of my life that I rediscovered my passion for Latin-American music. It was a combination of yearning for my culture and an inherent need to go back to my roots in order to understand my composition. To this day I still find myself in a constant state of fluctuation between assimilation and the preservation of my culture and language. But something about listening to the songs I heard growing up takes me back home if only for the duration of the music. Ricardo Arjona, Marc Anthony, Marco Antonio Solis, and of course Celia Cruz, are some of the Latin artists my parents frequently listened to. These are the artists that now offer me a comfort zone when I have spent too much time immersed in anglo culture.
Recently, I took my parents to see living legend Ricardo Arjona during his stop in Raleigh, North Carolina for his Blanco y Negro: Volver tour. Known sometimes as just “Arjona,” the Guatemalan musician is often described as the Bob Dylan of Latin America. With his complex lyrics on society, sex, religion, and Latin American culture and life, Arjona has cemented his name as an iconic figure in Spanish speaking countries and all over the world.
We were in an arena surrounded by people from all over Latin America who all gathered there with the same purpose—to watch Ricardo Arjona belt his hits to all of us. When Ricardo sang my favorite song of his, Si El Norte Fuera El Sur, (If the North Were The South) a song that sheds light on the stark differences between the United States and Latin America, you could hear the excitement in the audience, the energy of every Latino feeling empowered as Arjona sang his powerful lyrics juxtaposing two cultures. Flags from all over Latin America were being waved in the air as he sang his poignant lyrics. I felt myself singing with the passion of someone who despite not growing up in his home country still feels extremely proud of his origins and culture. I felt empowered, I felt Latino enough, Cuban enough. And when Arjona decided to remix one of his biggest hits, Historia de Taxi, with a salsa influence, my mother and I joined to share a salsa dance, and in that moment Cuba became me.
* * *
I always feel Cuban, I am Cuban enough—especially when I drink our strong black coffee which for me is tradition but for others it’s like drinking motor oil. That sweet “cafecito” fuels me for hours. I feel Cuban when I listen to salsa music, or when I curse under my breath in that very creative way we Cubans do. These bits and pieces in my structure will never be destroyed. I have tailored myself to fit the American brand, to be the best dressed form of the American dream and demonstrate to those that didn’t have to fight for freedom that I am in fact worthy of being here. That I am able to become what they need me to be. Except, I no longer yearn to assimilate. I want to be what I am—Cuban. As Cuban as Celia and rum.
* * *
I have the entire knowledge of the world in my hands and yet I am not a millionaire. Artificial intelligence, the voices of books reading to me without the use of my eyes and yet—I’m still not a millionaire. What worth was my parent’s sacrifice if I am not the best goddamn thing to come from this family? If I don’t elevate this last name so high that the next generations tremble at the very thought of competing against my accomplishments? If I am being honest, it feels as though I have accomplished nothing. Smelling poverty’s breath left its rancid taste in my mouth and now I am on an endless search for the best toothpaste that eliminates the stain of my teeth forever. So that everyone in my lineage may have white teeth too.
I seldom allow myself to gravitate towards the dark thoughts that tell me I won’t become nothing more than what I already am but when I do it comes over me and sinks me to my greatest fears. Sure, I went to college, but I am no doctor, I am no lawyer, certainly no engineer. I learned a couple of things and wrote a couple of papers. I was praised here and there—but at the end of the day I still feel defeated. I still feel voiceless in a room full of powerful echoes.
I have the job my parents dreamed of when they moved here. I have the comfort of working from home, sitting down in an air-conditioned room where I can get up whenever I want and grab a bite, use the restroom on my own time, and even on the most frustrating of days, I can still just walk away for a few and catch a breather. So why do I feel this way? Why do I feel…hopeless? My parents were full of hope working at the factory farms and cleaning hotels, and living in those old apartment buildings—so why do I feel so hopeless in all of this privilege when I broke the barrier of language?
* * *
I compare myself to the children of other immigrants and wonder how they did it. How did they become so much more than me? How can I be more like them? I think my mother elevated my intelligence beyond my own understanding, but that’s what mothers do, isn’t it? The truth is I don’t think I am as smart as they think I am. I always wonder how it is that my parents gathered the strength to leave all they knew behind to start all over. And here I am complaining about wasting my life away at this nine to five. I shouldn’t complain, right? I should be grateful. But surely there is validity in these emotions. I do not wish to be a prisoner to this endless cycle of selling my time for man-made value and recognition. My pain is no comparison to the sacrifice of my parents. And although I do not wish to wait until I am nearly dead to enjoy this life and it isn’t fair for me like it wasn’t fair for them, I recognize the ease in my life, that which theirs did not have. And that is what keeps me going on my saddest days, that is what keeps me going on the bluest of Mondays.
But I am an immigrant too. I often forget that even though I was young—I was an immigrant too. And I disregard the credit I deserve for being the first person in my family to finish college, for putting myself in the rooms I wasn’t invited to. For bringing my own chair to the committee that did not want to let me in.
Even with the limitations of a language barrier my parents built a life in America that many native speakers haven’t—and I say that proudly not to boast in any way. Their sacrifice birthed a business that provided for all of us, for most of our family to also be here in freedom. And I learned an ultimate lesson: that sacrifice and hard work is the key to success. That we can build our own destiny with grit and determination.
I watched my mother study each and every night, practicing the questions to pass the U.S. naturalization exam. I went with her the day she took the test, I was with her the day she became an American citizen. And she went with me the day that I (thanks to her) also became a naturalized citizen. Only I—the one who speaks perfect English—didn’t have to take the test to prove I was worthy, because I was under eighteen and that meant that if she passed all I had tondo was pay and it was just handed to me thanks to my mother’s hard work and sleepless nights. Because of this I feel indebted to my parents even more.
My father would become a citizen years later. He would fail the test the first time but pass it the second time around. What an achievement for a man that didn’t finish middle school. What an achievement for two people who were held back by a language but refused to give up. Those are the examples I grew up seeing. Two fearless people taking what is rightfully theirs without letting limitations stop them.
So, what do I do with my near-perfect English? What do I do when I have no barriers but the limited thinking I allow myself to dwell in?
I fight and I strive, and I put the entirety of my soul into my dreams to bring their fruit to this reality and savor the taste of success. For my family, for my parents, for the generations to come—for me.
Today, when I wake up feeling like a failure, staring at myself in the mirror, bloated from last night’s drinking to stop feeling like a failure, I pray for health for my family, happiness for my lady, happiness for our son, happiness—for all of us. I tell the universe that things will get better. That in no time my worries will become whispers of the past, like the memories of hardship in Cuba. I breath, take a sip of coffee, and remind myself that my parent’s sacrifice was worth it if only I am happy. And I am happy.
In this very moment, I remember the theme music of the “Inglés sin Barreras” infomercial, that song that gave my family hope that in taking action we would destroy the limitations blocking the way before us. And we did, we broke them all.
The voiceover plays in my head taking me back in time to that apartment in Newport News, Virginia. Putting me in that same living room in our first home in the United States. Back when everything seemed simple and easy—but it wasn’t. My parents were just really good at maintaining their hope and they chose to see opportunities instead of limitations.
I am choosing to do the same.
“Llame al 1-800-780-8000, las operadoras están esperando su llamada (call 1-800-780-8000,
the operators are waiting on your call).
Active in literary ventures, he contributed to The Crusader, the college newspaper, and Agora!, the literary magazine. Lázaro's exceptional achievements earned him recognition as the Outstanding Educational Studies Graduate and earned him accolades from various honor societies.
His writings beautifully encompass personal experiences, nature, immigration, fatherhood, love, and the complexities of the human condition. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Of Earth & Sky, You Might Need To Hear This, Hey Young Writer, Tint Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, Vermilion, The Gobstich Penn, Papers Publishing, and Latino Literatures. Follow him on Instagram to find more of his writings: @lazaro_gutierrez_writer