The guitar is a small orchestra. It is polyphonic. Every string is a different color, a different voice. – Andres Segovia, Spanish classical guitarist
In the corner leaning against the wall, you would have found my mahogany Spanish guitar and its case on the floor, dusty and worn, and you would have thought nothing of it. You would not have been surprised, either, when I sold it for only forty bucks.
I was raised near the beach in sunny California by immigrant parents from Argentina. Spanish anything was part of my daily existence. Argentine beef empanadas, flan, asados on Sundays, and alfajores were all a part of my upbringing. So were festive holidays with turkey or a large ham, thinly sliced cheese, egg, tomato, and green pepper sandwiches that Argentines would die without, and chimichurri – can’t forget that – something my mom made that would make everyone’s mouths water.
Dad loved listening to classical Spanish guitar like Andres Segovia or Narisco Yepes. On Sundays, when friends were at the house to partake in asado and drink cognac, one of our guests usually played Spanish guitar. Sometimes it was flamenco similar to Paco de Lucia. I’d hear the music from the room I shared with my siblings far in the back of the house. It made the spirit in the house come alive and Dad feel at home in his new country.
We were the Reynosos. We were immigrants. Dad, an Argentine-Spanish-speaking permanent resident with no command of the English language, was always at work. He worked evenings and slept during the day. When my siblings and I were in school, dad slept. After school when we stumbled in the house, Dad had already left for work. When we were too loud, he struggled sleeping. Dad didn’t talk to us unless he had to. He never talked to me except to ask me for the millionth time why I didn’t like cheese.
As a Spanish-speaking immigrant, Dad secured a job at a bookbinding company. Part of an assembly line like most factory workers in the U.S., he fed pages into an industrial machine that spit them out as books – he did this all day, every workday. The factory was loud, the air was sticky, and some California summers were sweltering. Like a gadget that does one thing over and over again, Dad became that.
We were the working poor living in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with mostly white people. I was the only Hispanic little girl in grade school. My parents paid for twelve years of Catholic school for me and my siblings because, well, that is what you did if you emigrated from a country whose government does not know the difference between church and state.
(A notch against Spanish guitar.)
When the Argentine Dirty War (La Guerra Sucia) begun and my cousin Ricardo went missing, Dad had finally become despondent and a full-blown, quiet alcoholic. It was then that Mom made me take guitar lessons at the Catholic grade school I attended. Yes, guitar lessons but not Spanish guitar. Instead, I learned to play English guitar: “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “Little Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” and “I Wish I Were a Mole in the Ground” (not a religious song, but I liked it, anyway). I played my guitar and sang at mass in my red, white, and dark blue, dorky school uniform with the white, Irish kids, especially on Easter and Christmas.
I don’t remember if it was fun or not.
Once, I stood outside the small recital room for over fifteen minutes waiting to enter and bit my nails in one hand and held my guitar with my other. I was late for practice. Terrified, I wanted to avoid all eyes on me and having to face Sr. Nicki about why I was late. I wanted the ground to swallow me up whole. Me and my guitar.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to grow up as an immigrant.
It is like living in two words – two worlds, as a child, you are forced to live in. Making sense of it can take a lifetime. It’s like watching the sky turn white when you are not ready for it to change; there is nothing you can do to stop it. It’s like being thrown into a lake when just yesterday you learned to swim: “I’m drowning, I’m coming up for air, and I’m struggling. Help me.” It’s like looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror at a carnival turning fat or skinny knowing that is not really you. You are not sure who you are, who you are supposed to be. You are not sure how to be, how to act, or what to do. You live in two worlds. You are the weirdo in school.
You are a weirdo in life.
You want your life allegro, but it turns out andante. It’s when you want your life to be a melody, but you are stuck in dissonance.
You are the one who has to translate for your parents. “Call JCPenney and order four pairs of large underwear and two pairs of pants for your Pa. Here are the pages from the catalog and the sizes,” Mom would say. As a seven-year-old, the lump in my throat and my heart raced as I dialed the number, and then came the person on the other end of the line who only spoke English – I breathed a sigh of relief every time I hung up the phone. (Is it any wonder that my first job in high school was in customer service at none other than JCPenney? Life has a way of being funny that way.)
Then there was the contempt, the ignorance, the bullying, the laughing behind our backs, the assumptions, the racist comments, the stupid questions, the few friends – and no one who looked like me. “The other people – the Mexicans,” they would say. (We weren’t Mexican, but that didn’t matter.)
This is the life of the immigrant.
The nights spent with Mom learning English words from picture books, the struggle in learning to read in 2nd grade, and the juxtaposition of Spanish guitar at home and English guitar out THERE.
Watching Dad come home exhausted and frustrated. Angry like the time he slapped Dito at the dinner table and then kicked him as he tried to stand up (he barely could walk). Angry like when Dad started drinking and watching TV during all of his spare time, which wasn’t much. Angry like when he laughed at me when I tried to drive his car for the first time. Angry like the time he hit me across the face at the department store because I rolled my eyes after Mom asked me where I had left the bags of the shit we had just purchased.
Like the time when Dad yelled at Mom for making me cry because I didn’t know how to properly wrap a gift.
(Mom used to tell me Dad used to be happy, fun-loving, and the life of the party. I don’t remember Dad this way, ever.)
Angry all the time. All the time at home. All the time at work.
And speaking FOR Mom on the phone or at the door or out in public. Always speaking for Mom. Always embarrassed, always anxious. ALWAYS WANTING TO HIDE AND GET SUCKED UP BY THE EARTH.
I hated Spanish guitar.
We all have guitars. We all have strings. The strings of our lives define us. The music they make can either make us or break us. They can bless or curse others. Making music, like Spanish guitar, depends on your willingness to understand and fully see how your childhood strings chimed, what melody they played, where they screeched, and where they were out of tune.
And the willingness to let go of those strings. All of the guitar.
Why is it always later in life when the world has already sucked us dry that we realize these things? They say what you regret the most, you need to do. They say the person you think about most is the person who has had the most influence in your life. The person who hurt you the most made you who you are.
“I just go where the guitar takes me.” – Angus Young
Every chord progression, every melody, is a piece of the past. Every string on the guitar is a memory of the pain, of the changes, of the life struggles. Classic or Spanish, the neck holds it all together. All the pieces of childhood come together to create the people we become. The melody we learn to play depends on what we learned and how we choose to interpret our experiences.
Dad died on April 5, 1994, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. He never got the chance to meet his grandkids; he never saw his children grow into who they became; he never knew me. He didn’t know much about my life, but his dedication and sacrifice are the reasons I am here today. He died too soon with Spanish guitar in his soul.
So, yesterday, when I found the Spanish Guitar Mix on Spotify, I listened. This time, I heard all the memories, the hardships, the misery, the anxiety, the confusion, the abuse, and all the love, too, and decided all things Spanish were good. All things my childhood were …
They were Spanish guitar.
4 replies on “Spanish Guitar: A Story of an Immigrant Growing up with Melody and Dissonance”
Wow! This is definitely one of your best works!
Muchas gracias. I will stop there, hoping that Spanish is the language of your home country.
First, you applauded my response on Medium. Thank you so very much. Because of your generosity I felt compelled to look you up.
Oh my, a Californian like myself for my first 24 years. Venice HS, in West LA. I can still hear the sound of waves, jet airplanes, horns and ambulances, and the smell of fresh Mexican food. And the sound of the guitar which I learned to play fairly well.
There is nothing like the music produced by Spanish guitar. Concerto de Aranjuez, Requerdos de la Alhambra and dozens more. The music returns me to one of the few joys of my youth. My beautiful mother was the pianist who taught herself a little bit of guitar. My father the bully. Music was my retreat. First Flamenco, then Spanish classical. The before mentioned Concerto de Aranjuez is my life story up to my early 20’s. So many emotions. Smiles to tears and finally acceptance.
Now 68, a white boomer male living in Missoula, Montana, la musica de espana’ (?) is part of me. It is too technical for my abilities, but such life for my soul.
Thank you so very much for this beautiful yet sorrowful essay on such an affirming aspect of YOUR life.
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Thank you for your thoughtful comment!
Wow, it is a small world, isn’t it? I went to St. Bernard High – are you familiar with that school? We would always talk about what the crazy kids at Venice High were doing! LOL. I spent some time in Venice, the beach, the boardwalk, and at Tito’s Tacos. Do you remember that? We would drive from Playa just to eat there. I had a boyfriend that lived in Venice also.
I am just now starting to like Spanish guitar. I was listening to something that reminded me of my father, so I had to write the essay. It’s amazing how one thing can bring back so many good and not-so-good memories at the same time. I’m glad I was able to bring back your memories with this essay. We never know how you will touch someone with the words we write.
Music, many times, took me away, too. I loved classic rock back then and wouldn’t have anything to do with Spanish guitar, lol. Now, I love both. We grow up and we evolve.
Thank you so much for your compliment for following my blog. I hope you have a great weekend.