As a small child, I knew plenty of Portuguese. ”Cat.” ”Food.” ”Merdinha.” All the important stuff. I should have grown up to be sort of a lusophone, or speaker of Portuguese. The problem is, as I grew up, my Portuguese vocabulary stayed exactly the same. Exactly. And I concentrated on English and then I got funneled into French classes as a pre-teen. And though I loved talking to my barely English-speaking grandmother, I never could surpass the pinnacle of Portuguese knowledge that I reached singing Fungaga records at say, two years old.
Instead of learning new and interesting, nuanced words, I am stuck with conversation finishers like “toejam.” I can’t go to Lisbon and say, convey to someone that I would very much like to buy some maraschino cherries. Or that even though I’m an American of Portuguese descent, I truly have nostalgia for the Blair years in the UK, mostly because I heart Britpop. But I can tell them why my socks aren’t so clean. In a TMI kinda way.
And now, my last person with whom I spoke any Portuguese has been gone nearly a decade. So I come to a crossroads: do I just forget, since I no longer have the threat of watching my grandmother cry as I try to piece together a barely intelligible sentence, or do I keep going and learn more because I know I’m supposed to believe it’s never to late for learning?
It’s always been a dream of mine to make a documentary about my grandfather, and I can’t do that if I just forget who I am.
In 2010, I got it together and I enrolled in Portuguese. And I remembered why it’s insufferably hard, and why those columns of past tense verbs always felt so oddly healing in their own way.
So now you might be saying, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about Portugal. Why should I read this woman’s essays about why she is pissed she can’t go on vacation there? I haven’t had a vacation in ages!”
And I say there are two reasons: one is, just because Portugal has the worst worldwide PR ever doesn’t mean it isn’t just as loveable as its neighbors, and two, this is a human story, not only a celebration of all things lusophone. Oh it is all about celebration and a bag of imported chips you drove 30 minutes to buy at the Portuguese store, but remembering who you are is a path we all have to walk.
For my Scottish uncle, for example, it means tattooing Pictish drawings all over himself and then realizing per a DNA test, he’s as Pictish as my Chinese-made tupperware. For me, it means this blog, and obsessively photocopying books about imperialist journeys in the UC Berkeley library.
My greatest hope, besides better luso-PR, is the hope it leads you go to out, one day, and tell the world your story. Your story is no less important than anyone else’s, and all our stories are bits of thread in the tapestry we call humanity. Don’t forget the past, or they’ll be a hole in our pretty wall rug.