by Carlota Holder
Soy Panamena. I’m a first generation Panamanian American. I’m from here, but not from there. Soy de aqui pero no de allá. Here I’m too brown and there I’m too gringa. I always felt like I didn’t fit in.
I began kindergarten as an English language learner. Prior to beginning kindergarten my mother decided to visit her homeland. It was the first time in 5 years. She took my brother and I with her. We would visit for six months. Six months prior to me beginning kindergarten. I remember us leaving and my father taking us to the airport and gifting us with some of our favorite things as he had to stay behind and work. I got a brown doll (more brown than myself) and my brother got a big Raphael ninja turtle. My own sons play with him now when we visit abuela’s. Daddy would join us in Panama for our last month and we’d come back together as a complete family.
At the time my brother was 3 and I was 5. I don’t recall my mother speaking to us in her native tongue at her new home, in Indiana. What I do recall is speaking nothing but español for our visit to her familia because no habia otra razon. No one else in our family could speak English so it never made sense to bother. We blended in with our Spanish and our brown little bodies for five months. Then my father arrived. Low and behold Carlotita could not speak English. She could understand her father’s English perfectly, but she could only respond in espanol. This would continue until I began kindergarten.
I began kindergarten in Batesville, Indiana in 1991. Batesville Primary School had just opened. Brand new school, brand new teachers, brand new student who does not speak English (Soy yo!). The only student who does not speak English. What’s a mother to do? My mother panicked. She quit talking to both my brother and I in Spanish. She didn’t know what to do and there wasn’t anyone to help guide her either. My mother learned English from a nun, sister Joan Elise Smith (Rest in Heaven). As for me there was no ESL teacher. I was “special” so special education it was to teach me English.
While I regret so much of these mistakes that were made, so much good still came out of them. The lady who pulled me out to teach me English became an extremely close family friend because she also knew Spanish. My best friend (even to this day) helped me learn English. As I compare myself to our students, Carlotita did not have a choice. There was no one who could save my mother tongue other than my own mother, but she and the adults guiding her didn’t know any better. I’d suffice to being a monolingual student, until every other summer or Christmas we would spend abroad in Panama and I’d fall in love and in sync with mi espanol y mi cultura.
This is how my story begins.
Carlota Holder is also the creator of New-ish, a series on YouTube for creating a pathway to greatness for English Learner Newcomers.