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Mi lengua materna (my mother tongue)

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Growing up, my summers looked the same. I would get up, brush my teeth, shower, get dressed and while getting dressed, hear my mother call me from the kitchen to hurry up and go read for her in Spanish. 

I dreaded reading out loud, especially in Spanish. I hated hearing the sound of my own voice, I hated reading words I didn’t know the meaning of. But what I despised the most was stumbling upon my words. I dreaded how much I struggled saying words in the language I grew up speaking.

My mother knew all my tricks. She was the best reader I knew — not only of books but of people. She could tell whether or not I was skipping pages, or even sentences.

I hated when she corrected me as I read, smiling from across the kitchen as she rinsed the dishes. Every time I complained she would say, “Prefieres lavar los platos?” 

Being a third-generation kid encouraged my skewed perception of language. 

I never really felt Spanish or Chilean, even while growing up in Chile. I was born and grew up there for most of my life, but because my parents are Spanish, I never felt like I could really claim to be Chilean. And I never felt Spanish enough because I grew up in Chile. 

The distance from my family made me feel alienated from the culture. My accent was also mixed, and my family would make comments about it. “La Chilena de la familia,” or “the Chilean in the family,” they’d say. I hated feeling different.

It didn’t help that I went to an international school and that none of my closest friends growing up spoke Spanish.

The language was a constant reminder that I didn’t quite fit in with the rest of my family or friends. 

My resentment changed the summer my mom and I spent at my grandmother’s house. My Aya (my grandmother) was struggling with living on her own. She could no longer walk, and it was really affecting her self-esteem. So my mom decided that we would both travel to Spain to spend time with her. 

This summer was different from any other. I still had to do my daily reading, but this time in front of both my mom and grandma. I watched my mom cook with her mom, listening to the radio together and telling stories about her youth. I asked Aya if she’d make my mom read every day. She said she did, but that my mom would always throw a tantrum about it. 

“Your mother would skip pages in her book. I had to do the readings beforehand so I could catch her when she did.” I glanced at my mom. She smiled at me.

“Why did you make her do it?” I asked my grandma. And with a serious smile on her face she replied, “Porque hablar español nos une, y leerlo es un privilegio que yo no tuve hasta que me hice mayor.” 

“Because speaking Spanish unites us and being able to read it is a privilege.” 

These words stuck with me. Speaking and reading in a language is a privilege, one that I hadn’t acknowledged until now. So when I started reading more in Spanish, it no longer felt like a chore. It felt like every time I did, I was making my mother and Aya proud. 

That same summer, my mom and I took turns reading aloud to my grandma right before she went to bed. I learned about Isabel Allende, Federico García Lorca and Gabriel García Márquez — all authors Aya loved and names that I would grow to love. 

Reading to my grandma with my mom drew me closer to them in inexplicable ways. Our laughs and our tears flowed together as we read some of those stories. I loved listening to their voices, and I finally enjoyed listening to my own. We talked about what we thought of these stories, and they listened to what I had to say. I finally put an effort into understanding the readings. I felt closer to my mother than ever before. 

I saw myself in her, and her in my grandmother. Our laughs were the same, the way we rolled our R’s was identical.

Shortly after I left Spain, my grandmother passed away. I felt like a piece of me was gone. My mom urged me to continue reading for her; she promised Aya would hear me. So I did — I read aloud in my room everyday. A chapter or two of one of her favorite books. 

When my mother passed away in February of 2022, I stopped reading for a while. But I started writing. 

I wrote about how empty I felt without her, without hearing her voice. I was scared that I would forget it. And, slowly, I began to read what I wrote out loud. Reading in my mother tongue helped me process what I was feeling and somehow navigate the grief that consumed me. In a way, I started hearing my mom’s voice while I read. My voice became hers. 

To this day, I still read aloud in Spanish because I know they can hear me. I’m reading this out loud as I write it, knowing that my mom and Aya are together, listening.

Contact Laura Aguilar at