Las Lenguas: What We Wish We Could Say

Michelle Guerrero Henry



  1. Oropel de aurora

Soñé contigo. Our souls travel to meet, speak, show what our earthly consciousness misses. Sabes con quien soñé? I tell my mother. She waits, quietly, breathing into the phone, in anticipation of the message received. At different points of exhaustion and despair, usually involving decisions her husband or children make she doesn’t agree with, she dreams of her dead father or tells me she feels his presence. When she whispers, Mi papá me va a llevar, I wonder if she’s being melodramatic or if it’s a supplication. She is the picture of the Sorrowful Madonna, her large brown eyes looking up, begging hands clasped close to her chest, short blond hair a slight gleam of a halo.

I haven’t told her that as I slept, I took my husband to Ecuador, to the house in Machala. The apartment downstairs was rented to people I didn’t know but needed to ask them to open the door. When we went in, I pointed to the tanque de agua. Told him how a truck—similar to the one that delivers the oil to heat our home now, in New York—would come to fill the water tank. Abuela was upset because of my long showers, communicating the displeasure indirectly through my mother. The memory provoked a warm pinch in my chest, embarrassment because I didn’t know some homes needed water delivered to them by truck. I didn’t see her that night in my sleep, but I felt her there; the weight of a matriarch’s presence, my shortness of breath, the warmth of her spicy perfumes. I saw her silhouette in the living room; the wood there and in the kitchen looked darker, grander. It was a better match for the old grandfather clock en la entrada that, as a child, seemed out of place to me. Walking around, I saw the maroon bathroom with the putrid smell—maybe because of the canal nearby—where my tía bathed me with avena when I had the chickenpox. In the dream, you couldn’t hear all the glass panes shake with each step, but felt the vibrations in your body as they did. It’s while I’m awake that I wish I had looked for Abuelo.


For Christmas, I make copies of a poem I found by Abuelo, typed on onion skin paper, dated Noche Buena 1973 for his three children living in New York. I frame it for them in hopes they see what I struggle to say, despite offering: This beautiful Christmas poem he wrote resonated with all the sentiments we hold as we search for a place in the world to call home, the struggle and sacrifice of migration, and the love you are able to carry with you wherever you go.

I attach a letter that in part reads: No sé cómo tocar el instrumento del idioma para usted. Esto es para decir, I’m sorry que tengo que escribir esto en Ingles.

Because it’s true, I am sorry that I have to resort to English. Language can sometimes be like a familiar melody you can’t quite name, a tune with accompanying words you can’t remember. I explain I’ve found Abuelo’s poems are windows into who he was and how he saw the world. How I imagine that someone who uses words like oropel de aurora is someone in love with language and all it can evoke. I tell them I see how he wanders around on the page and remember him looking simultaneously grouchy and tender, riding around with a straw hat and greased hair. He passed away before I was old enough to ask him about himself, his childhood.

I use Courier New because the font reminds me of how I played with Abuelo’s black typewriter as a child. I include details about music and movies from 1973—The Sting won best picture at the Academy Awards, Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” was released and isn’t it funny how the first time I heard that song was in the 90s while vacationing in their hometown. I do this to show them I care about our connections, I’m curious about their lives and their histories. I do all of this because I don’t know how to ask them if we can please be together for Christmas. It’s understood we won’t be. No one talks about why exactly. About my sister leaving her husband for another man, about their opinions of what that means, about what kind of mother they believe her to be.


  1. Naufragio

The waiting room for hematology/oncology at New York-Presbyterian goes through phases of noise and silence. A large room with high ceilings, good lighting, pleasant yellow wall color, and little sections with televisions, I distract myself by wondering why it’s designed that way. My father stares at the television as my mother points out the coffee and tea they offer for free, almost as if to reassure herself of something. I smell the mix of her perfume and body cream, stare at her skin and am fascinated by its smoothness; bruising easily, the tape used for the lymph node biopsy under her arm will burn her upon removal.

A nurse calls out my mother’s surname, Guerrero, walks around looking for its owner. The nurse makes a comment about the annoying effort it takes to say it, and I get irritated. Say it: Guerrero. Meaning: warrior. Like guerra. Put the tip of your tongue in the back of your front teeth, breathe life into the rr’s. It doesn’t matter if you can’t roll them. Yes, in English the frenulum stiffens in discomfort. But my childhood was flooded by my mother’s insistence, Piensan que uno es bobo. She would open her mouth and speak her native tongue, the sun spilling out even if met with disdain. Being here whittled her, a piece of clay from her land, into sharp edges como lanzas.


The oncologist—dark cropped hair, petite and with a voice to match—places her chair close in order to explain to my mother her second cancer diagnosis in three years. I know she intentionally keeps us calm so that we can unravel later. But I can feel the intention. I observe where she holds back, how deliberate her language is as she uses words like rare and lymphoma. I hear the length of the pause between explaining options and reassurances, the smile, the conscious decision of how to hold her posture; forward, slightly back, leaning forward again. I will appreciate it all later when it’s my turn to explain, through bad reception and emails, filtering the niceties, to aunts and uncles in Ecuador.

I had to explain to my father what the doctor said. He stayed in the waiting room the same way he stayed in waiting rooms when all three of his children were born. He puts his sunglasses back on, reminiscent of how he looks at a funeral. They are a month and a day away from their forty-third wedding anniversary. I imagine what goes unsaid are the regrets and the wishes, the grieving of expectations. We stay in the waiting room for at least another hour talking about medicines, symptoms, and clinical trials, waiting for something to solidify. We sit and watch people come and go, don’t hear what names are being called because it doesn’t matter. I try to think of questions I have for them, as if running out of time. Flojo, de donde sacaron esa palabra? I ask my parents the origin of a word as if they invented it, a word used to describe feeling weak. I think about what word they use to describe the opposite, making sure it makes sense in my head. Fuerte, strong, like the collar of my father’s shirt that I happen to touch. I feel their language growing more foreign to me, the words causing discomfort in my mouth, my tongue swollen. But I smile and tell them not to worry, reassure them I took the day off from work so I don’t have to rush. There’s a packet of Sugar In The Raw in my burgundy coat pocket from my stop at Starbucks earlier that I will rub like a talisman and keep there until the next Fall.


I will wake up at 4 AM uncomfortable. Stomach pains, an unhooked bra still on, fully dressed. I will find my phone under my stomach, feel my way to the charger by the bed. The bright glow of the screen will have eleven text messages from my First Husband saying he gives up and doesn’t want to hear from me or our son again. We are five days away from my son’s eleventh birthday. For a split second, I will forget about my day before it all comes back. I will remind myself to not mention any of this to my mother. I try not to talk to my father about my First Husband.


  1. Musica silente

Abre la boca. What my mother and tía would say to me when I refused to eat during our summers in Ecuador. Though it reminds me of my curiosity. How during one of those summers, I crossed the street to grab what I thought were tiny carrots, but were hot peppers and I ran back to the house, kicking up dirt, crying from the burn. The youngest, I was a quiet observer; I’d gather information, spread gossip, and then the opposite would be asked of me: cierra la boca.

Watching everyone baffled by my mother’s inability to relax, I observe her frustration at not being understood. Her boiling anger at what I have come to assume is a loss for words. It probably feels like words competing for attention. Where I can pull out metaphors and idioms, quick and with ease when speaking in English, I can’t in Spanish. I don’t have the same reach, the same word bank. I imagine she struggles with the same. I watch as she sits in a doctor’s office, trying to explain her anxiety at how tired and nauseous she is; sitting on the edge of the seat, leaning forward, hands on her lap as if begging, she’s met with, But this isn’t the kind of cancer that will kill you. As if there were only one kind of death. Quiet and defeated, I know the missing words because she’ll share them with me later: Quién soy yo si no puedo hacer nada? Defined by what she does for others, feeling responsible for everything—the perfect gifts, the daily balanced meals, the holiday feasts, the money, her children and grandchildren. I cannot find or mimic the tone of Abuelo’s letters or poetry to console her. I’m unsure of how to translate comfort without sounding trivial or childish, so I don’t say much. I say, I know it’s hard, but fall short. I wish she could see my thoughts magically projected.

One night years ago, as I sat in the living room watching television, my mother fell off the kitchen chair, straight on her face. I heard the thud on the ceramic tile, ran to see what happened, and laughed. I don’t know why I laughed when I was really annoyed and worried. Why do you do this? I asked as I helped her up. She fell asleep while writing invoices for the hardware store she owned with my father. But I spent a lifetime watching her nod off, head slumped over books while she helped us study, over bills, over dinner tables; she would sometimes mumble unintelligibly, crumbling forward and I’d alternate between laughter and annoyance at her exhaustion. I didn’t understand why she didn’t sleep. But as I helped her up, telling her it’s bad to push so hard and not rest, she asked me not to tell anyone. Later, she will tell me she is just like her father, like Abuelo. So I look for him everywhere, trying to understand her. I sprinkle words I learned from his poetry—oropel de aurora, naufragio, musica silente—hoping to learn his cadence, collecting words like fishhooks, trying to reach his children. Hoping I can find the language for us to understand each other, our choices, our pain, and our joy.


Michelle Guerrero Henry is a Cuban/Ecuadorian writer living in an old farmhouse just outside NYC. She is a 2016-2018 Think Write Publish Fellow, 2017 VONA Fellow, and Writing Our Lives alum. Her work has appeared in Longleaf Review, Hispanecdotes, Entropy, and trampset. She is a current MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Randolph College and a Nancy Craig Blackburn ’71 Fellow.