WHEN I WAS in my 20s I was sure that I would die of a broken heart. My Cuban mother brought me to the only person she thought could fix it: Margaríta. Margaríta knew things. She was also a Cubana, a woman whom my mother called mi negra — an appellation that shocked me every time I heard it. Margaríta, brown and rotund with a short blond wig that sat askew on her head, read las cartas — the tarot cards. My first love — a boy whom my mother had selected for me — and I had been together for eight years at that point. Margaríta could see the future and he was not in it.
Visits to Margaríta were one of the ways my mother transplanted her tropical Cuba to my father’s freezing Connecticut. On our way to visit Margaríta in Hartford’s west end, Mom begged me not to tell my highly rational father about the curandera. It wasn’t only that he was an Americano. “Somos Judíos,” she told Margaríta. We were Jews in flagrant violation of worshipping one God by giving ourselves over to the others. Our Judaism was yet another form of bilingualism in my English to Spanish world. In our house — a house divided between my Yankee father and my Cubana mother — my father’s adamant assimilation into American life often created a silence that we scrambled to fill with my mother’s nostalgic narratives about Cuba.
The tarot cards displayed men in robes, knights on horses, damsels in distress. From this strange array of images Margaríta discerned that a real blonde was keeping me apart from my beloved. “La madre!” shouted my mother. His Americana mother, who’d never liked our Latina ways, had engineered our breakup. But Margaríta could not let me go away with such sad news. The cards showed another man, after all — a good guy whose name had just three letters. He was fair and blue-eyed. It turned out that Margaríta was spot on. She’d described my future husband.
Our session with Margaríta ended with low-key pyrotechnics. From one of myriad candles burning in the middle of the afternoon in her dark, two-room apartment, she lit a thick, half-smoked cigar and put the burning end of it in her mouth. I swear that smoke came out of her ears. After she stubbed out the cigar she gave me instructions. Bathe in water and honey and pray to Santa Ana — patron saint of the lovelorn. My mother was quiet. In her world, finding a husband dominated everything else.
Since Margaríta was my mother’s friend — over the years my mother had consulted her about her marriage, the family’s health, and her children’s fates — all she asked for payment was a couple of packages of Oscar Mayer Pimiento Loaf and two large bottles of Sprite.
Daisy Hernández and I understand each other. As she wisely observes in her luminous new memoir, A Cup of Water Under My Bed,
White women’s grandmothers are dead. When they mention Poland, Iceland, or Germany, it sounds like they are talking about a sock they lost in the laundry. They are white now: American. They have no history, no songs, no past.
She goes on to explain that a Latina in a gringo world lives a future that is “always plural. It is always about my mother and my father and my aunties and my sister.”
The daughter of a Colombian mother and a Cuban father, Hernández grew up in working class Union City, New Jersey. She attended parochial schools where she learned English from the nuns. The rest of her lessons came from shows like Mighty Mouse. For Hernández,
English is a game of marbles. The words shoot after each other. They bump and plod and leave tracks on the ground, and it is a decent game, English that is, but everything real happens in Spanish.
Spanish is immersive, the language of her interior life, the running monologue inside Hernández’s head. English — external, pragmatic — does not translate what the heart feels. “Qué dicen?” — What are they saying? It is a disorienting question, a plea really, capturing the stages of translation that a Latina child goes through in America. In that first stage a child may be trotted out to recite something in English even though her audience cannot understand her. Then there are more important responsibilities — doctors’ appointments and teachers’ conferences to translate. There may be telephone calls that summon a child with a panicked, “Ven, que es Inglés.” The ultimate frontier is paperwork — filling out forms is “the final act” of translation.
Hernández also notes that “Spanish is a Romance language, except when you are trying to make ends meet.” The Spanish that she speaks with her family is what I describe as “kitchen Spanish.” It is the intimate language of domesticity — functional yet unflinching in its observations. “The Spanish we share at home,” writes Hernández, “is a language where life is reduced to saying what you need, what’s working, and what isn’t.” The same might be said about translation. Hernández purposefully does not translate many of the Spanish words that pepper the book. Context, in part, aids in translation. But Hernández gracefully presents the reader with her own “que dicen” moments. “What are they saying?” is the equivalent of “what do they mean?”
As the translator and purveyor of the English language and American culture for her parents, Hernández becomes in some ways the de facto head of her family. Her mother is trapped in factory work, her father drinks to numb himself from manual labor and then unemployment. Her parents expect their English-speaking daughter to improve her life, their lives. As an unnamed Arab-American writer once told Hernández, “You betray your parents if you don’t become like them, and you betray them if you do.”
English takes Hernández from her barrio to a college campus and beyond. To make this arduous journey she takes the “solace of women’s words” with her. These are the women who read the cartas and offer balms for the loneliness and disorientation that comes with surviving in America. These women instruct Hernández’s mother to place a cup of tap water under her daughter’s bed, “[to] ferry messages between us and the santos and the dead. They carry out prayers, our deseos, our fears.” These cups of water, then, are the conduits between life and death, need and desire.
When Hernández begins to come into her own as an American-Queer-Latina, she confronts the fact that translations of familiar, soothing words — the words of her mother and aunts — no sirven. The words don’t work — in much the same way that the black-and-white television in the house she grew up in doesn’t get certain channels. At 16, she absorbs a vocabulary of love that she learns from Julio, her first boyfriend, as well as the cabal of women who have raised her. But once in college she finds that
there isn’t a good verb for what begins happening to me […]. Yes, I am meeting lesbians, but I am not one of them. I still find men attractive; it is that I am thinking of women in a new way. It is as if I am learning that I can shift my weight from one leg to the other, that I have a second leg. Kissing women is like discovering a new limb.
Hernández seamlessly combines the familiar genres of the “coming out” story and the “coming of age” story into a unique memoir of self-discovery. As she parses her Latina and queer identities, she is trailblazing another path for her family. Fluency transforms her — she becomes self-sufficient — and yet she misses her mother’s guidance. “The worst part about trying to date women,” Hernández writes, “is that I don’t have my mother’s warnings. There is no indicator if I am doing it right or wrong.”
Language initially fails Hernández when she tries to express her love for women. She is a college student, taking classes like art history, and the closest she can come to explaining her sexuality is through a painting, Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas. In the picture the artist is sitting next to her twin who holds her heart, an artery, and a pair of scissors. “That is how I feel about loving women,” she writes. “They can dig into you and hold the insides of you, all bloodied and smelly, in their hands. They know you like that. But this is nothing I can say to my mother.”
Eventually, though, she does find the words, and after much hand-wringing and confusion her mother comes to accept her sexual identity. This is not unfamiliar territory, after all, for a woman who has forged similar emotional bonds with her sisters, the women who work side by side with her at the factory, the women in her neighborhood who serve as elders.
Even as Hernández reckons with her feelings and desires, she becomes keenly aware that she must “ease the sensation that comes over me whenever I think of the years ahead: the feeling of a fist squeezing my throat.” She consults her own card reader whom she simply calls the viejita — the old lady. Like Margaríta, the viejita shuffles cards and creates stacks in which images of robes and swords, knights riding horses, and women wearing crowns are plot points of the future. If the viejita sees that Hernández loves women, she is silent on the subject. Instead, she discerns that a man is protecting Hernández and a woman is guiding her. She will work with books and words. Having money will take care of itself.
The encounter with the card reader is a natural foreshadowing of how Hernández brings her parents’ physical and existential struggles to her job as a reporter at The New York Times. During her tenure she unsuccessfully pitches an editorial about granting Colombians asylum in the United States. Her editor, a white man, challenges her choice to highlight the plight of her fellow Colombians. Taking her place at a conference table full of other white people, she thinks, “I bet no one else has written for this editorial page whose parents didn’t speak English.”
But writing “makes everything possible,” including a move to San Francisco. Hernández the Latina, the writer, the bilingual speaker makes a home for herself at a social justice magazine called ColorLines. Writing about her childhood and her coming out is how she learns to love her Latina family and how she appreciates where she comes from. Yet, even as she conjures her parents in her prose, the writing is what allows her to separate from them.
In a final, memorable act of translation, Hernández calls up the image of her mother mending a skirt, which requires her to “desbaratar.” The word can mean to destroy, but a gentler definition also means to undo. As Hernández’s mother turns the skirt inside out to determine where the seams are, she is not “taking away, but taking apart.” That same process drives the subtext of Hernández’s memoir.
It is what I am doing here right now, what I have been doing in all the pages before. I have the story, and I am turning it inside out […] so I can put it back together again the way I want, the way that makes sense now.
A Cup of Water Under My Bed is dedicated to todas las hijas. To all the daughters who brought up Hernández, who called up her future, who misinterpreted and misunderstood her — and then loved her again for being true to herself. By the end of this beautiful book, Daisy Hernández, a queer American Latina, has threaded Spanish and English together to create an inimitable new language in a brave and brilliant negotiation of a multilingual world.