I was the first baby delivered in spanish in Bakersfield, California, by Dr. Ramirez at Greater Bakersfield Memorial Hospital. My father recorded the event on reel to reel tape, and he played it for me once. Actually, he played it for me several times, but I could only bear to listen to it once, the sound of my first song followed by his sobs of happiness, then he and Dr. Ramirez congratulating each other as if they’d done all the work.
Dr. Ramirez was Venezuelan but had been raised in Massachusetts, in english, with his mother’s family. He wanted to find his hispanic heritage and therefore started with language, by taking a night school course. My father, chicano, taught him to speak, read, and write spanish, and Dr. Ramirez in turn coached my white mother through pregnancy with such revolutionary ideas as preparing juice and instant milk with fluoridated water from the drug store, so that I would have strong teeth. My birth was his first step in providing health care to spanish-speaking people in Bakersfield.
I told my mom, when we talked about the details of this, that he’d delivered the right kid. She hadn’t thought of it that way, but that has always been the struggle between us: she sees my hispanic heritage as novelty, not central to my soul. Our struggle crosses the bounds of generation, race, and geography.
My parents divorced 5 years after my birth and I was raised in New Jersey, in english, with my mom’s side of the family — not unlike Dr. Ramirez. Thousands of miles from me, my father was a champion of bilingual education, but at my school no one could pronounce my last name, not even my high school spanish teacher.
This is the Cliff Notes of my life, and there is a longer version but the soundtrack to my story is already composed and arrived in the mail on a CD last week. “By the Hand of the Father” is the music and selected stories from the theatre-work created by Alejandro Escovedo in collaboration with playwrights Theresa Chavez, Eric Gutierrez and Rose Portillo. The play and music explore the relationships between immigrant fathers and their children, but the CD could also be the sonic companion to my journey as a woman staking a claim where race and culture are defined — and undefined — by the migration of time, boundaries, and blood.
“By The Hand of the Father” is not just about the border, and I don’t mean any disservice by saying that, because the lyrics and imagery are tangible and fragrant, among the most exquisite poetry I have ever heard. “On the border of a new age, I have a foot in each century. But when time was measured differently and borders had another meaning, my father had a foot in each country, where the mud on each boot caked the same and the dirt sifted the same through each hand and the earth had but one scent.” This is the music of contradiction and resolve, of carrying twice the story instead of clutching a history half-lost. It is a landscape populated by guitars and fathers who bury their sons; by violins and lovers swept up in Italian waltzes at the Aragon ballroom; by the mourning of a cello as a daughter wonders what makes her father’s hand suddenly strike… it is the man who cries after a lifetime of marriage that he wasn’t a saint but he stayed. These are the songs of defending your identity, even to your own parents. I am not the first child in my father’s family brought into the world in spanish, more likely I was the last; nor am I the first of a wave of Mexican-Americans: my father’s family has lived in the same area of the west where it is the nation’s border that has migrated, not just the people. Mom bristles when I remind her that though her side of the family settled New England, dad’s side was here first. When my great-great-grandfather traveled west to find gold, he cut through my other great-great-grandfather’s sheep pasture and silver mine to get there.
“We met at a point in space and passed off a genetic code, a hand to hand return to earth. Two separate bodies, two separate minds under one roof. And when you leave this earth we will return to that point for just a moment, our two bodies becoming one continuous line til we float away from each other, two bright signals across a bright universe transmitting a message in pure silence.”
My father died 15 years ago and it is too late to ask him questions I did not know to ask when I was young. He cannot tell me his stories one more time; it is up to me to remember them as best I can and pass them to the next generation in all of their pain and beauty, his cries of “my heaven, my blue-eyed heaven” when I took my first breath just part of a continuous line with whatever I say next.
Susan Martinez lives in Berkeley. This essay originally appeared in Rock and Rap Confidential.
She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org