Written By: Katherine Perez (Previously posted on the authors tumblr blog.)
On my first day of kindergarten I peed my pants.
It was during recess right after lunch. The urge to pee took over quickly. Across the yard, I spotted one of the lunch monitors and ran over to them. It was only when I tapped their arm to get attention that I realize I hadn’t learned how to ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
I had only lived in the United States a total of 2 months and didn’t really know any useful phrases. I could sing the hell out of the Barney theme song but that wasn’t going to get me anywhere, definitely not to a bathroom.
I knew I couldn’t leave the yard without permission, but I hadn’t figured out what the magic words were to unlock that particular privilege. I was too embarrassed to attempt a “pee pee” dance. It was hard enough making friends; I didn’t really need that kind of attention.
What happened next still plays in my mind like a bad dream: while standing in front of the lunch monitor, I lost control of my bladder and peed on myself.
Now, 20 years later, I speak more English than I do Spanish.
My sister and I pulled our weight in the family by acting as translators with creditors, in emergency rooms, and at parent-teacher conferences. We witnessed our guardians at their most vulnerable. We learned to withhold judgment because we knew how hard they had it.
My ability to switch between languages served a necessary function. Because of that function I never fully developed a presence in the language that I was born into.
As an adult with a lot of opinions and a love for conversation, I struggle to communicate with the elders in my family. They want to know me and all I can offer is an attentive ear. I quietly listen to my dad talk about his day, trivia, or history (he basically knows everything). I patiently listen to my grandma tell me how she thinks I should live my life and with every pause in the conversation, I make small gestures to indicate that I’m listening and that I understand.
On my good days, I can respond with a relevant story or clinically explain why I agree or disagree with what they’re saying. It does take a little time. Sometimes I attempt to bend English words, saying them with a Dominican accent and hoping whoever I’m talking to will catch my drift.
It’s in these moments when I feel like I’m back at recess on the first day of kindergarten. I’m desperate for them to know the person my friends and coworkers get to know.
So while I do speak Spanish, I still haven’t found a way to translate Katherine into Ka-te-rin-e.
About the author: Katherine D. Perez is a Santo Domingo born, New York City raised Afro-Latinx media maker. She grew up in the Chelsea neighborhood but has lived in Staten Island, El Barrio, and Inwood. Katherine received her BA in American Studies and Jewish Studies from Colby College (Waterville, ME) and has a Masters in Media Studies from The New School (New York, NY). Katherine actively produces media that explores complex identities and critiques popular culture. She loves exploring the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how media literacy can empower people of color. Her goal is to create safe spaces for underrepresented and oppressed voices to tell their stories. Katherine runs the Latin@s Be Like tumblr, a space where Latinxs from all over can share how they experience their Latinx identity. She is also the co-creator and co-host of the weekly Truthful Trolling podcast, a feminist skewing show lead by 3 Latinx women from NYC and LA.