02 November 2005

Mi ratoncito favorito

"Speaking the Heritage," an anonymous column that appeared this week at Inside Higher Ed, exposes the tensions and complexities of Spanish-speaking communities in the U.S.:
For my students who are what has been called Heritage speakers of Spanish — those whose home language is Spanish, and speak it with varying degrees of proficiency — their relationship with the language is quite different from the one the non-Heritage speakers and the native speakers have. In these years I have worked close to la frontera, I have come to understand that, for many of the heritage speakers, Spanish is much more than just a language: it is a source of pain, no matter how well or how poorly they speak it. Some have come to tell me how they were ridiculed in elementary school for now [sic] knowing how to speak “proper” English. Others told me of other times when the newcomers from Mexico or other Spanish-speaking countries make fun of their Spanish and tell them that they do not speak any Spanish, even in the university!
The professor goes on to relate a particularly heinous experience with a university board. Ultimately, it is the students who suffer.

It is true that "there are all kinds of Hispanics, some of whom, unfortunately, do not recognize somebody who is an ally, and would rather have only people of one ethnic group teach any subject related to the interests of that ethnic group." I'm very familiar with the type of anxiety the author refers to. I think that's part of the reason I abandoned my plans for graduate school and hightailed it back to Colombia. I'm ashamed of what I don't know, of my merely adequate Spanish, of the crater-sized gaps in my knowledge of Latin America. My father knew no English when he arrived in northern California in the '70s, and although both English and Spanish are spoken at home (my Anglo mother is fully bilingual), inevitably, English predominates. (He speaks excellent English--I wish I could say the same for my Spanish!)

The longer I'm here, the more I learn about my father...and myself. (I feel more at home here in a lot of ways than I do in the States.)

As children, my brothers and sisters and I didn't have the tooth fairy. Instead, whenever we lost a tooth, we'd awake the next morning with a carefully folded note from "the Big Mouse" under the pillow. The Big Mouse always drew his self-portrait on his notes by way of signature (which included a cheeky Cheshire-like grin). These notes sent us off on "wild-goose chases" throughout the house--each clue sending us off in search of another until we found our small presents.

I'd always thought this tradition was invented by my dad--and certainly parts of it are. But last month (only last month!!) I found out about el Ratón Pérez--the mouse who replaces teeth with money under pillows all across Latin America and Spain. So I did a bit of digging...

Apparently, Sr. Pérez was partially the creation of Fr. Luis Coloma (a member of the Spanish Royal Academy) for the Spanish king Alfonso XIII when he was 8. In the story, the mouse lives in Madrid with his family in a big box of cookies in a candy store not far from the Palacio Real. The night he goes to take the tooth from underneath the prince's pillow, the prince wakes up and they go on an adventure together. The prince is turned into a mouse and travels with Pérez to meet his family and tag along on his other errands. Ratón Pérez visits many children, and the future king "discovered that there were many different children that endured hunger and cold, but they were also his brothers because all are children of God."

If you go to the Centro Virtual Cervantes site and click on "Exposición," you can view a slide show of 79 different illustrators' depictions of my old friend the Big Mouse. I'd love to add my dad's version to it.


turqois said...

what a much more delightful tale than the generic fairy. i prefer adventures to money any day.

Kait said...

It's actually what they do in France too. Instead of the tooth fairy, they get the tooth mouse.

amcorrea said...

Right--"la petite souris." I read somewhere that the French version predates the Spanish one. And Italy has one too!

Only last week I was ignorant of their existence...and now they're everywhere...