it’s a language, or a dialect, that I understand but I can’t speak
My family packed it up in a suitcase and boarded a boat that only the men were enthusiastic about,
tu vuò fà l’americano… so you want to be American. My mother would hear it hurled at her like an insult when she strutted to the dinner table in jeans with her short hair.
She wanted to be a blonde Americana, to remove little pieces of Naples from her curly hair, and olive skin, and her thick Neopolitan tongue.
So she didn’t teach her only child that bastardized dialect, she went along picking and choosing what she was proud of and what she was not
She sang me lullabies and taught me dances. She put a stool by the kitchen counter and let me help her cook with tiny clumsy fingers.
But I never learned that language. I hear it and process it but my tongue gets tangled and muddled when I try to choke it out with my Bronx accent
I understood my grandmother’s stories about picking tobacco in the hot midday sun
Whenever I had a complaint, a hardship, it was crushed under the weight of yellow callused hands and a boat ride that was way too long; under immigrant papers, greencards and passports; no one suffered more than that woman.
She fought the USA with every bone in her body, stubborn and proud,
Her daughter would not wear jeans, would not wear makeup or put studs in her ears
And I have to.
So I’m la Americana, the white girl at the dinner table in skinny jeans, with too many piercings and funny hair,
And I’m a little too independent, and a little too thoughtful and a little too quiet
So I’m la Napolitana when I walk outside, when friends talk about their childhoods and it’s clear
Everyone spoke English, and they learned to speak back.
And I know I’m going wild right now, speaking my mind, because when I’ve got something to say at the table no one can understand
I speak so little they’ve forgotten I know all their curse words, and gossip, lo capisco your stupid Napolitana.
When I’m homesick, I can’t even speak it to myself for comfort.
One day it’ll die out, and that little Napolitana inside me will fizzle, and I’ll really be American.
And hopefully I’ll know how to talk back when that happens.