Loco Parentis: Crossing Borders

I brought my daughter up to believe that everybody’s equal. What was I thinking?

I’M SITTING IN my sunny yellow kitchen, at the cheery vintage enamel-topped table where I’ve served Thanksgiving dinner and rolled out Christmas cookies and had my morning coffee for the past 15 years, and I’m profoundly uncomfortable. Seated beside me is my daughter Marcy’s boyfriend, Mario. He is clutching his curly black head with both hands, trying with all his might to pronounce the word “Thursday.”

Terrrs-day,” he says, the T crisply explosive.

Th,” I tell him. “Thhhh. Thhhh.” Apparently there’s no corresponding sound in his native Spanish. “Put your tongue between your teeth.” I demonstrate, sticking mine out and forcing air around it. “Thhhhh. Thurs-day.”

Thhhurs-day.”

“That’s it!” I feel like Henry Higgins. “Thursday!”

Thurs-day.” He, too, is absurdly pleased. We smile at one another. I nod. He nods. Then we both look back down at the page from which he’s reading.

“Frrrri-day,” he says, rolling the R with great exuberance.

Fri-day.” I purse my lips up. He watches closely. “Fri-day. Push the F out; don’t swallow it. Fri-day.”

“Frrrri-day.” He looks worried, anxious. He doesn’t understand what I’m saying, but he knows he hasn’t got it right.

The man my daughter loves puts his head back in his hands.

I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH. Well, that’s not exactly true. I speak more Spanish than I did last fall, when Marcy first told me she was going out with Mario, who lives next door to us. I can say “Muy bueno” and “De nada” and “Gracias,” and a few curse words as well, because Marcy’s brother Jake wheedled them out of Mario, who’s very eager to please. That’s why he’s taking English as a Second Language classes at the local Latino community center. He doesn’t need them to talk to Marcy; they chatter away in effortless Español. But Marcy says he wants to speak English with Jake and my husband Doug and me.

He’s 22 years old. He comes from El Salvador, a country I only know about from Wikipedia. Its name in the native Nahuatl language is Cuzhcatl, which means “The Land of Precious Things.” It’s the size of Massachusetts. It has all the horrors that distant third-world nations are known for: earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, civil wars. Like almost all of his countrymen, Mario is mestizo, mixed — a combination of Spanish and Amerindian. He looks like an Aztec statue. His cheekbones are broad; his skin is honey-brown; his eyes are black as night.

He’s not anything like the picture I’ve had in my mind, since Marcy was a little girl, of the boy she’d someday fall in love with. That boy was All-American, a Ken doll. He didn’t wear diamonds in both his ears, or have tattoos around his ankles. He liked to watch football, not soccer. You could have an easygoing, casual conversation with him, about the weather, or the Phillies. You didn’t sit at your kitchen table with him and remind him to put his tongue between his teeth.

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