Anna-Marie McLemore’s winning essay for the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writers Scholarship at the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference

I write because we cannot let our languages die with us.
By language, I don’t mean a difference in words or inflection. I don’t mean the distance between my family’s Spanish and the English of the country we have made ours. By language, I mean the way the things we touch come to mean the things we cannot. The way that, to my family, lemon blossoms mean reunion, because the tree outside my grandmother’s kitchen window seemed to bloom only when my older brother returned after vanishing for months at a time. The way that, as a child, I was sure that roasting poblano chilis invited el demonio into the house, because after a few burnt on the stove, my mother threw out the garden’s worth.
It did not occur to me then that to others, lemon blossoms were nothing but a first sign of bitter fruit to come. Not until a boy I grew up with taught me the language of his family. He laughed at the way my tongue, made for the trilling of ‘R’s and the blurring of ‘B’s and ‘V’s, could not mimic the softened stops of his family’s German, or the intricate ‘sz’ of their Hungarian. But more than this, he taught me how in the village his family came from, there was no greater sign of love than carved wooden roses; he often wondered at how marigolds to my family meant both death and joy. He did not understand why my grandmother taught me that too much cayenne in Mexican rice could mean a woman was in love; too much paprikát, his grandmother told him, meant nothing but that the cook was in a hurry.
By language, I mean the way these small things hint at the infinite, the way the ordinary stands for that which is so beautiful we do not speak of it. Sometimes passion is not a touch, but the way a lover sugars roselles for jamaica. These things themselves come from our childhood homes, our gardens, our cultures. But they are more than that. We learn them in ways no one else will. Sometimes fear is poblano chilis more than it is la llorona or the dark. But sometimes carved wooden roses, which first mean nothing to a girl who grew up among marigolds, come to stand for love in the hands of a boy who calls them rózsák.
I write because we cannot lose them. I write because, if we do not write, we will.

— Anna-Marie McLemore

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