Dear Julia Alvarez…

I am a Spanish-speaking chica, born and raised in Panama, one among dozens of primos, tíos and tías, role models when mothers failed and fathers died—a world I left and haven’t left. 

My own book is about to be born. It’s an expression of me—an excavation of memory and return to the soil of “la familia.”

I have stories to tell. I know you will understand.

I feel close to you, Julia—as so many writers do, and women of Spanglish, and hybrid people of all kinds. You opened a door for us, as did other Hispanic and Latino writers like Sandra, Margarita, Esmeralda and Marie. I am grateful for the sheer beauty of your words and the worlds you brought to life that I recognize.

I read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. I can hear most clearly the sound and rhythms of Spanish in this book. I am soothed by the Spanish cadences in all of your books.

I feel close to you because, like you, I was raised in a small, tropical nation and emigrated for los Estados Unidos, 15 years old to your 12, to years of boarding school life in the East. When I arrived at school, I was drawn to girls from other Spanish-speaking countries that I knew little about. In my tiny isthmus, bordered by two giant oceans, we looked to Europe for culture and to the United States for excitement—our neighboring countries deemed irrelevant. I was una panameña trying to find my place, confused as to how I fit in this land of immigrants and those who believed themselves proudly American, held comfortable by their long and broad roots in the American soil.

Like you, I remember Scheherezade’s tales from las mil y una noches, though what remains imprinted in my little-girl heart are worlds peopled by genies and spirits, robbers and evil men. “Alí Babá y los cuarenta ladrones,” “Aladino y la lámpara maravillosa” are boys’ tales of adventure. I don’t remember the wily feminine raconteur. I learned just enough English in my daily clase de inglés at the nun’s school I attended in Panama to be daring with Nancy Drew and to walk in The Secret Garden in wonder—my first English-language books just before I left for the United States.

Though you were Catholic and from an educated family, and I am Jewish, we were both citizens of colonized countries with Uncle Sam in the North—the source of magical toys like Pogo Sticks, Hula Hoops and Barbies; television and comic books. American words would creep into my Spanish lexicon. Mozo became “weiter.” “Parqueamos” el automobil y cerramos “el closet.” 

For you and your family, the U.S. became a refuge from Trujillo, “El Jefe.” For Spanish Jews, the U.S. was seen as haven of religious freedom, should our safety as Jews be imperiled in our Catholic homeland, and with memories of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal under the surface of our complacency. (Though in truth, Panama was and is richly diverse and inclusive.)

Like your mother, my mami went to an American boarding school for two years, then called a “finishing school” for women. My family was comfortable in English, having sojourned in the Caribbean when some of the Virgin Islands were ruled by the Danes and the English. My ear was exposed to the snappier sounds of English during my childhood, though I was raised in Spanish. Already I was a half-breed—the hot tropics, the language and the people defining me, and the Jewish part of me holding me ever slightly apart.

In the United States, there were others living between cultures, though I felt alone here in a mixed up sense of myself, registering that there was a place for me within the permeable skin of this nation, more room for me than in my native Panama where the options for a woman were marriage and babies and little else. I felt this then. That, too, has begun to change. In the United States, I found work I liked and discovered skills and the need for self-invention. There were no obvious models. It was hit and miss until the pattern of my footsteps emerged. Enough ground covered, enough times, and there I was.  

In La Quinceañera and A Wedding in Haiti, I have watched you engage with your Dominican roots and with the now-dizzying mix of Hispanics in the United States. You care about girls caught in an over-sexualized world. You’ve accepted responsibility for changing the world. I am at the stage of my life where I too feel the impulse to give back. Latino women are family, and I feel responsible for their well being.

In Something to Declare, you write about the hybrid person you’ve become, not to be called in Vermont before 2 p.m., vanished into the world of words. You’ve said that writing “knits us together as a human species.” Of course, you are right. I feel this deeply. I have stories to tell.

Gracias querida Julia.


Marlena Maduro Baraf is a cultural hybrid. She immigrated to the United States from her native Panama. Her memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, is the story of an insider/outsider life and slow acculturation to the United States.