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Mother Tongue

Growing up means changing. But what happens when you shed a part of your identity? Melissa Cáceres finds herself longing for native language in a new city and a specific person connected to it.


When I was a little girl, like 2 years old kind of little, I loved to jump on my mom’s bed. That’s me jumping.

And here’s my  mom teaching me Spanish.

She always took the opportunity to turn a fun activity into a small Spanish lesson. My childhood was full of moments like the one in that recording she made. Spanish was the language of my home and my mom, who’s from Mexico. We would sing the songs and read books in that language. It was even in my dreams.

As I grow up in Miami, I learned that being Latina is as common as having palm trees in your yard. It was comforting to be among other nationalities that shared your language. But like anything that becomes comfortable, I began to take my bilingualism for granted. English took over my life as I got better at writing. I started thinking about journalism as a career and by the time I graduated from college, everything changed quickly.

I took a job in New York as a reporter, moved to Manhattan and lived on my own for the first time. In my mind, it felt exciting to make fresh start. I wanted to be successful in a purely English-speaking world. And in the process, I started dressing differently – in less vibrant colors. and pronouncing my last name in an American accent for the first time. I was Caceres instead of Cáceres for four years.

And then one random day, I realized I don’t dream in Spanish anymore. In fact, I was using Google Translate and adding English subtitles to Spanish movies. It dawned on me that I was forgetting the words that made up the fabric of my identity.

My grand reinvention as an American city journalist had crossed a line.

So I did what I usually do when I feel lost. I called my mom.

And she told me that speaking multiple languages is like managing a lot of different relationships. All at the same time. They each require attention and commitment. She said you gotta work for it. And I haven’t been doing that in New York.

And as usual, she was right. After I talked to her, I started giving my native language a bigger role in my life. I now spend time in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods around New York. I’m reading books by Latinos. But mostly, I just write letters. And I address them all to Mami.

You can find Melissa Cáceres in the South Bronx, asking locals where to find the perfect tamale.


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