La suavecita

We dress my daughter in amarillo, not butter
or sunlight or mirasol, maybe an Easter yellow,
maybe a Dia de los muertos yellow, a baby chick
yellow, it doesn’t matter. She flickers
around the house all bare-foot.  She takes you
by the hand and makes you play
La Suavecita on repeat, her hair in brown
bouncy pig-tails. All day. She watches 
your mouth, the way you say tambores,
the way you say cumbia. She won’t stop smiling. 

When she laughs I hear my mother. I am 
back in her house, all bare-foot, dancing 
to the same song. 

My mother dresses in a teal bata, not Miami
or peacock or Tiffany Blue, maybe an Easter teal,
maybe a Dia de los muertos teal, a robin egg 
teal, it doesn’t matter. She flitters
around the house. She takes me
by the hand and teaches me how to spring
my arms, how to move my hips,
how to follow the beat already in my legs.
She tells me,
ay mijo, one day, las muchachas
will want to spend the night with you
on the dance floor. Find those feather feet. 

Carry a smile and laugh, mijo laugh. 
I ask to play the song again and run
to rewind the cassette tape. All day.
My mother is all baila, baila,
all brown curls of bobbing hair
abriendo sus brazos the moment
I learn how to spin her in
our shot-gun house.  She won’t stop smiling.

My mother loves the color yellow.
There is a sing, a flow around inside.
My daughter ooooos the color teal.

When they lay eyes on each other, they watch
each others’ mouths, see just who smiles first.
I’m just here, waiting to see who wants to dance
si no la invito, me invita ella.

Related Poems

Mambo

(Skip to the original poem in Spanish)

translated by Edith Grossman

Against a topaz sky
and huge windows starry 
with delirious heartsease
and sensual red cayenne;
the sweet twilight breeze
fragrant with almond and Indian orange;
on the Moorish tiles,
wearing their spike-heeled shoes,
lowcut dresses and wide swirling skirts;
their long obsidian hairdos
in the style of the time;
perfumed, olive-skinned, smiling,
my aunts danced the mambo
and sang: "Doctor, tomorrow, 
you can't pull my tooth
even if I die of the pain."

those evenings of my childhood
when my aunts were young and belonged to me,
and I danced hiding in their skirts,
our lives were a happy mambo—
I remember.

Contra un cielo topacio
y ventanales estrellados
con delirantes trinitarias
y rojas, sensuales cayenas;
el fragante céfiro verpertino
oloroso de almendros y azahar de la India;
sobre las baldozsas de diseños moriscos,
con zapatillas de tacón aguja,
vestidos descotados y amplias polleras;
sus largas, obsidianas cabelleras
a la usanza de la época;
perfumadas, trigueñas, risueñas,
mis tías bailaban el mambo
canturreando, "Doctor, mañana
no me saca ud. la muela,
aunque me muera del dolor."

Aquellas tardes en mi infancia
cuando mis tías eran muchanchas y me pertenecían,
y yo bailaba cobijado entre sus polleras,
nuestras vidas eran un mambo feliz
que no se olvida.

In a Neighborhood in Los Angeles

translated by Francisco Aragón
 

I learned
Spanish
from my grandma

mijito
don’t cry
she’d tell me

on the mornings
my parents
would leave

to work
at the fish
canneries

my grandma
would chat
with chairs

sing them
old
songs

dance
waltzes with them
in the kitchen

when she’d say
niño barrigón
she’d laugh

with my grandma
I learned
to count clouds

to recognize
mint leaves
in flowerpots

my grandma
wore moons
on her dress

Mexico’s mountains
deserts
ocean

in her eyes
I’d see them
in her braids

I’d touch them
in her voice
smell them

one day
I was told:
she went far away

but still
I feel her
with me

whispering
in my ear:
mijito


En un barrio de Los Ángeles

el español
lo aprendí
de mi abuela

mijito
no llores
me decía

en las mañanas
cuando salían
mis padres

a trabajar
en las canerías
de pescado

mi abuela
platicaba
con las sillas

les cantaba
canciones
antiguas

les bailaba
valses en
la cocina

cuando decía
niño barrigón
se reía

con mi abuela
aprendí
a contar nubes

a reconocer
en las macetas
la yerbabuena

mi abuela
llevaba lunas
en el vestido

la montaña
el desierto
el mar de México

en sus ojos
yo los veía
en sus trenzas

yo los tocaba
con su voz
yo los olía

un día
me dijeron:
se fue muy lejos

pero yo aún
la siento
conmigo

diciéndome
quedito al oído:
mijito

Mother Country

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: 1968,
my mother leaves Cuba for America, a scene
I imagine as if standing in her place—one foot
inside a plane destined for a country she knew
only as a name, a color on a map, or glossy photos
from drugstore magazines, her other foot anchored
to the platform of her patria, her hand clutched
around one suitcase, taking only what she needs
most: hand-colored photographs of her family,
her wedding veil, the doorknob of her house,
a jar of dirt from her backyard, goodbye letters
she won’t open for years. The sorrowful drone
of engines, one last, deep breath of familiar air
she’ll take with her, one last glimpse at all
she’d ever known: the palm trees wave goodbye
as she steps onto the plane, the mountains shrink
from her eyes as she lifts off into another life.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: I hear her
once upon a time—reading picture books
over my shoulder at bedtime, both of us learning
English, sounding out words as strange as the talking
animals and fair-haired princesses in their pages.
I taste her first attempts at macaroni-n-cheese
(but with chorizo and peppers), and her shame
over Thanksgiving turkeys always dry, but countered
by her perfect pork pernil and garlic yuca. I smell
the rain of those mornings huddled as one under
one umbrella waiting for the bus to her ten-hour days
at the cash register. At night, the zzz-zzz of her sewing
her own blouses, quinceañera dresses for her nieces
still in Cuba, guessing at their sizes, and the gowns
she’d sell to neighbors to save for a rusty white sedan—
no hubcaps, no air-conditioning, sweating all the way
through our first vacation to Florida theme parks.

To love a country as if you’ve lost one: as if
it were you on a plane departing from America
forever, clouds closing like curtains on your country,
the last scene in which you’re a madman scribbling
the names of your favorite flowers, trees, and birds
you’d never see again, your address and phone number
you’d never use again, the color of your father’s eyes,
your mother’s hair, terrified you could forget these.
To love a country as if I was my mother last spring
hobbling, insisting I help her climb all the way up
to the U.S. Capitol, as if she were here before you today
instead of me, explaining her tears, cheeks pink
as the cherry blossoms coloring the air that day when
she stopped, turned to me, and said: You know, mijo,
it isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where
you choose to die—that’s your country.