I must’ve been in kindergarten when my younger sisters and I crowded around our mother to hear her read Disney’s The Little Mermaid book to us for the eight-hundredth time. Every performance was slightly different, with new jokes and comments for every rendition, but this time was very different. When she mispronounced a word, I laughed. My mother immediately shut the book and glared at me with her dark, intense eyes. Then she said, “It’s very rude to laugh at people’s accents. You know that English is not Mommy’s first language. You hurt my feelings.” I dropped my curly head in shame and said I was sorry. My mother accepted my apology and continued reading, albeit without the same unbridled enthusiasm as before. The joy and innocence of the evening had been tainted.
As an adult, I can only explain my bratty outburst as something I picked up at school. Before kindergarten, I never realized my mother had an accent. This was in part because I probably didn’t know what an accent was, but it was also because I had few points for comparison. I didn’t go to preschool or Sunday school, so when I started kindergarten, I suddenly met more people than I had ever known before in my life. This included my classmates’ parents, grandparents, nannies, and other caretakers. Hearing my mother speak among these people from my place among a sea of legs, I slowly learned that my mother wasn’t like my classmates’ mothers. She was a Central American immigrant whose first language was Spanish, whereas her peers were white, American-born women whose native tongue was English. For this reason, my mother was—however ignorantly—often confused for my nanny.
When my kindergarten teacher read stories to the class, she sounded like an actress auditioning for a Saturday morning children’s special. She was a native English-speaker with a flat American accent. Meanwhile, my mother read stories with a cadence perfectly fitting for a Salvadoran who moved to the United States as an adult. It was a cadence that some of my classmates had bullied me into thinking was comical and wrong. Luckily my mother swiftly corrected that belief in my six-year-old mind.
That doesn’t mean my mother’s accent didn’t embarrass me at times. Her accent was almost a constant source of mockery for a couple kids in particular. They’d scrunch up their noses on the playground or in the cafeteria and do their best impression while I stood there, fuming. More than once, I got in trouble for kicking one of those kids or throwing mulch at them. Though I understood why my mother had an accent, at least as much as a small child can, it didn’t mean my classmates did. Even if they did, it didn’t mean they respected it. It also didn’t mean it hurt less when the bullies were in full force.
But no matter how much those pig-nosed gremlins taunted me, I was always happy to come home and snuggle up to my mother and listen to her read. Accent or no accent, she was an animated reader who habitually introduced my sisters and me to new books. She’d muster up a whole range of voices for the characters so that even my youngest sister could follow along. Her finger jumped from word to word as we took in the letters that formed the sentences in whatever story delighted us that night. Just as important when it came to picture books was my mother’s focus on the art. She taught us to appreciate the colors, details, and creative expression in pen and ink illustrations, collages, watercolors, photographs, and other media. She did this simply by pointing out this or that, asking us what we liked, and giving us plenty of time to admire an image before she turned the page.
Thanks to my mother, I grew up adoring everything from The Tales of Beatrix Potter to the Amelia Bedelia series to Charlotte’s Web and much more. She read us classics, bestsellers, and whatever odds and ends she found at the library or in thrift shop bins. While no two immigrants share exactly the same American dream, I know that my mother’s involved instilling a love for reading in her daughters. It also meant achieving a life where she never had to deny her children a good read. No matter what and whenever we wanted, we had books and access to libraries. And sometimes even now when I pick up a storybook, I hear my mother’s voice in my head—accent and all.
This essay first appeared in Fourth & Sycamore.