The Cold War Between My Ears — SJ Pearce

“…despega (¡pega, pega!) lo que puso el ruso en el discurso.”

“5.3.7. CUBA,” Orishas

My Spanish teachers in school were a Midwesterner who had lived much of her adult life in Argentina and a Filipina whose family had immigrated to Bilbao when she was a child. My school was located in San Francisco and so the Spanish I heard on the streets was largely imported from Guatemala and the southern states of Mexico. The only Spanish-speaking country I’ve ever lived in for extended periods of time is Spain, where my professional life continues to take me several times a year. This is all to say that while I am fluent in Spanish, my accent belongs nowhere in particular.

In the US, in San Francisco and in Neuyorico, people tell me my accent sounds Spanish, castellano. In Spain I am often met with the question: ¿De dónde en el caribe vienen tus papás? What part of the Caribbean are your parents from? They make me as a non-native speaker but I don’t sound American, either; so they try to place the strangest features of my language not in a particular place in the world but in the mouths of Caribbean-exile parents.

The closest I can come to a completely honest answer to that question is a sardonic one: my father is from Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn. When I don’t mind having a long conversation peppered with skepticism, I explain that I learned Spanish in school and not at home and, no, my parents aren’t from anywhere in the Caribbean, and that yeah, I guess I’m just good at languages.

It is not the only circumstance in which I regularly find myself trying to convince people that my language background is less interesting and less rich than they imagine it to be. I have babushkas. Russian grandmothers, interchangeable-to-me strangers, regularly approach me on the street and speak to me in Russian, no matter where I am in the city or in the world. To a one they refuse to believe me when I protest that I do not speak Russian and so I move from frantic gesticulation to resigned smiling and nodding as I politely fail to understand. (Only once did a babushka switch into English; she must have really needed directions to find the place where she was going.) Russian grandmothers identify me on sight as one of their own. Perhaps it is my high cheekbones, perhaps my dark hair, or perhaps the blue eyes that are proof, as my aunt likes to say, that Cossacks once swept through the ancestral village. The burden is on me to convince strangers that my mother tongue is English.

Where Spanish is concerned, where I can respond in kind and in language, I have a harder time explaining and am not always inclined to try. I am not always eager to counter the skepticism and to claim my place in the world as one more Anglophone American. So when I wish to pre-empt that conversation, when I do not feel like offering long explanations or working so hard to make my life seem a little bit more dull than it might, I answer with a half-lie: Cuba. I am estadounidense, youessian, but with a Cuban mother. The family into which I was born was, over a hundred years ago and according to border lines that no longer lie where they once did, Russian; the matriarch of what was, for a long time, my family by choice was not herself a generation removed from that Caribbean island donde crece la palma.

My surrogate mother was a small-c catholic in her tastes and ecumenical in all things. Her life lived through literature and good food made her the parent I needed at a moment that I needed one. She knew how to help me and what I required before I ever knew; she nourished me and taught me to nourish myself. To say that she saved my life is only a very slight exaggeration of the truth. But the Spanish language was mostly not a part of our relationship. I heard her speak Spanish on the phone to her parents; to shout at a Cuban colleague with whom she agreed wholly about island politics but disagreed — vehemently, loudly, and usually in their shared first language — about every other matter of principle and practicality; and sometimes in the kitchen, especially if her aunt were there cooking with us, very sometimes, to talk about ingredients or recipes just enough that I know how to make quimbombó without having it come out slimy or calling it by any of the ridiculous European names that obscure its origins in west Africa. But really, almost never. Whatever connection I have to Cuba and its diaspora through her is separate from the Spanish that I speak. However many times I explain my language through this matriline, it is not a particularly true answer. The Spanish of Don Quijote, one of her most treasured novels, was a language we shared. But modern Spanish was a school language, a work language, a memory language, a history language, and English the language of her home and of mine.


Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a pan. Add salt and black and red pepper to taste. Wash and pat dry a large handful (both hands) of quimbombó. Do not call it okra. Add to the pan and drop the flame. Pan-fry until the ends and the sides just start to burst. Quickly add the juice of half a lemon or some red wine vinegar, just enough that it deglazes the pan before evaporating. Remove from the heat and serve immediately.


All the same, on my first visit to Madrid, after my junior year of college, I had asked for directions to a certain bookstore and was told to take the subway from the Plaza de Callao. The plaza — although I didn’t know this at the time — takes its name from an 1866 naval battle fought on the waters at Callao, Peru, a colonial port city named for the callaos, the smooth ballast stones, that line its beaches. But trying to catch my train I went looking for signs reading “callado,” quiet, mentally hypercorrecting for a Cuban accent I don’t have.

Spanish doesn’t say “still waters run deep,” but rather, “quiet waters run deep”: Aguas quietas calan hondo. Aguas quietas calan. Aguas calladas. Callada. Callado. Callao. Quiet waters run deep, tumbling stones and words smooth.

My ear is plastic. The more time I spend in Madrid the more my speech subtly y acaso sin quererlo takes on certain features of the local dialect: certain vowel patterns, certain elided consonants, certain cadences, certain interjections, certain lexemes, all characteristic of the Spanish of Spain and Madrid and nowhere else. I like the convenient efficiency of the verbs apetecer and coger. When I speak Spanish in America I miss the vosotros form of verbs: Spain’s informal second-person plural conjugation that feels so natural when talking to friends. My toolkit of shock now includes ¡ostras! And if I have to stall for time, the phrase “mira, es que…” (look, it’s just that…) collapses inside my mouth and emerges as a horizontal, madrileño “ehque…” They are all little things that make my Spanish, overall so obviously not a local product, harder and harder to place anywhere else: not of the place, but — venga, you just said that thing the way we do.

Sometimes I think I should give in to the inexorable slide of my ear down my tongue and take on the big and obvious features of Spain’s language: the so-called “thetheo,” the pronunciation of the soft letters c and z like the th in our English through or thought, the feature that foreigners often misunderstand as an oh-so-comical lisp; and the fabulous second-person familiar plural form that disappears by the time the language arrives in the Americas. Doing so would make my language more coherent: It’s strange to say the word zumo, a Peninsular word for juice, with the American pronunciation /sumo/ rather than the Spanish pronunciation /thumo/. The time has come for me to make a choice between saying jugo like an American or zumo like a Spaniard. To adopt these big, characteristic features of the language as it is spoken in Madrid and in the central state of Castilla-La Mancha would make my language more coherent, but I would lose a sense of identity within it. The minute I make those changes I will never again be mistaken for anything other than an American with unidentifiable Russian ancestors and learned Spanish. I will cease to be the fictitious daughter of a Cuban-exile mother.


The first time I went to south Florida I was just passing through. A confluence of everything that can go wrong at a European transportation hub had gone wrong at Barajas Airport (MAD) the day I was scheduled to leave: an electrical storm, a flooded runway, a baggage handler’s strike, and some kind of vague terrorist threat. When operations resumed twenty-four hours later, I was rebooked onto a flight back to New York, not direct, but via Miami. As I got off the flight from a Spanish-speaking country into a Spanish-speaking city, people kept speaking to me in Spanish. And why not? I loved it.

My second visit to south Florida was to see a college friend, the American-born son of marielitos who somehow managed to acquire for himself a classic car and drive it terrifyingly through the streets of Miami. He took me to his favorite spots for ropa vieja and pastelitos and we hit all the good Spanish-language bookstores before a quick stop at his house before our next outing. Standing in the kitchen with his mom, I answered the usual questions, but unsatisfactorily: — You speak Spanish so well! Where are your parents from? — New York. —No, but where are they from? — They were born in New York. —Where are your grandparents from? — New York. — [Raised eyebrow.] And before that? — Their parents came here from Russia before the turn of the century. — [Aha!] She shouted to her husband in the other room: “¡Oye, Rey! ¡Es rusa y habla perfectamente bien el español!

At the time my younger self, possessed of a more one-dimensional understanding of the world and the role of history in it, chalked it up to the idea that perhaps my friend’s mother, as an immigrant — an exile — couldn’t understand that a person could see herself as being from America and having no meaningful ties to the land from which her family fled. That perhaps she didn’t realize that not every homeland is a Jerusalem and that America is not always a place only for exiles but also a home. More than a decade later, after a college course on Cold War history, after learning to listen more and better, and after eating an unexpected ensaladilla rusa at a Russian restaurant in Havana served on small plates by ethnic-Russian Cubans, and I return to that moment wondering whether perhaps there wasn’t more there.

During the Cold War period, the Soviet Union was the single largest trading partner with Cuba, accounting for something like 85% of the island’s imports; and it was Cuba’s main support in the fight for world socialism. That kind of economic partnership and political alignment inevitably bears upon cultural development. Russian literature and television programs flowed into Cuba and university students who went to the USSR to study sciences and engineering brought back Soviet academic sensibilities as well as a love of Slavic languages, a taste for eastern European foods, and, sometimes, a Russian wife. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden disappearance of its cultural and economic products, a Spanish-speaking Russian criollo class — the children of one Russian and one Cuban parent — grew up to reconcile the place that no longer was with the place that perhaps never was.

Cuba is where I learned that ensaladilla rusa really is what the name suggests — a little Russian salad — and not, as I had incorrectly assumed every time it was offered to me in Madrid, a lightly vile dish that Spaniards invented and bestowed with an exotic, eastern name meant to evoke the dignity of one of the other great historical European monarchies. Cuba is a place where you can look so Russian that little babushkas don’t believe you can’t understand them while still looking like a totally plausible hispanohablante.

And my very particular Cuban America, where I mostly speak English with the people I love as I weep with them on the shores of our Babylon, is an unreal place outside of geography and at the fringes of time, an ahistorical accident where looking Russian, speaking Spanish, and bearing witness to the consequences of exile makes sense.


I am finally learning Russian to be able to read Don Quijote.

The professional life that always brings me back to Spain is that of a scholar, a historian of literature: someone who asks how the people who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages understood themselves through stories. Right now the question that preoccupies me is how modern readers look back at the medieval period to understand what it means to be a citizen of the world. I am reading the work of twentieth-century poets and literary critics implicated in their own nation-building projects and looking at the ways in which their impressions of national identity in the Middle Ages helped to inform their literature and their politics. One of my subjects is José Martí, poet, journalist, uniting father of the nation, and author of a canto that likens the desires of Cuban anti-imperialists to the crypto-Muslims of medieval Aragón, all seeking to stake out their own territory against an encroaching force that considered itself modernity. Another is Hayim Nahman Bialik, statesman, national poet of Israel, and translator of Don Quijote into Hebrew.

Far more than being a children’s story of a book-mad petty aristocrat who invented the concept of tilting at windmills, Don Quijote is a complex narrative about storytelling, language, religion, origins, and identity.  After the hidalgo — hijo de algo, the son of something or other — Alonso Quijano loses his mind and comes to believe he is a knight errant as in his favorite chivalric romances, we watch his mistaken exploits until he raises his sword against a Basque fighter and the story suddenly ends. We learn that all along the narrator has been a fictional bibliophile named Miguel Cervantes, who goes out into the city of Toledo in search of more pages of the story. He finds them in an open-air market only after noticing some pages written in Arabic characters about to be sold for rag. He commissions a transcription of those pages from a young aljamiado boy, by appellation a speaker of Romance languages but always a foreigner in his own land. Angle the description a certain way into the light and the young translator is a crypto-Muslim, the son or grandson of forced converts to Catholicism who missed the old ways that he himself never knew and kept them alive by writing and reading his Spanish in Arabic letters. This is not merely the tale of a madman conjuring up giants, but rather a story about writing literature and cloaking identity in plain sight, each act recognizable only to those who know how to see it.

By the time Bialik transforms the novel into Hebrew, not from the original Spanish but rather via a Russian-language intermediary, it is no longer that. Everything meta-literary and everything about the place of a Spanish-speaking crypto-Muslim in an incipient modern state haunted by its lore is gone, stripped away. A national poet has stripped the nationalism from the paradigmatic novel of another nation that is subtly undermined by its own text, perhaps without realizing it. Reading Don Quijote in Russian will help me to see where — in what language, in what script, and crossing what body of water — the nation was lost. If nothing else, the process will inevitably help me with the babushkas in my life.

My surrogate mother, the enthusiastic omnivore who believed almost more than anything else in good food made with fresh ingredients cooked simply, spent years trying to convince me that the most authentic way to be Jewish in Spain was to eat all of the pork products that make up the local cuisine. As the Spanish Inquisition tried to discover the true identities of Jews, Judaizers, and Jewish converts through a hermeneutics of deep suspicion, the best way for Jews to prove themselves beyond reproach was to make a public show of eating ritually forbidden foods. When the reader of Don Quijote learns that his love interest, Dulcinea del Toboso, is described in the recovered manuscript as having “had the best hand for salting pork in all of La Mancha,” she is meant to understand that Dulcinea is a judíoconversa, the daughter or granddaughter of forcibly converted Jews who hides the impurity of her blood in order to remain a part of her nation. Ultimately, the Inquisition faded but the swine remained a staple. Both traveling in Spain and learning to cook, Dulcinea del Toboso, the fictional conversa ferreted out of the novel with the two of us as her inquisitors and her familiars, was to be my archetype.


I do not know a recipe for salt-cured pork.


¿De dónde en el caribe vienen mis papás? From what part of the Caribbean did I myself spring? Not from the isolated island where the palm tree grows, not from the Soviet footprints there, but from a singular spot de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, where a girl can look Russian but speak Spanish; and where Miguel Cervantes’ literary imagination of what it means to speak belonging can be found and lost in Cyrillic letters by the Cossack almost-daughter of a beloved exile from its Jerusalem-on-the-Almendares: Havana.

S.J. Pearce is an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Literatures at New York University, where she writes about religion, identity, and language choice in the Middle Ages and lives them in the modern era. You can find her on Twitter at @homophonous.