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Newborn Spanish Mishaps

So, even though I am Cuban, I didn't grow up speaking Spanish. I learned in school, taking all the classes the community college offered. I took a Medical Spanish class, trying to fill in the spots regular classes couldn't touch. However, it took a LONG time before I spoke fluent OB Spanish.

Even though my Spanish wasn't perfect, I wanted to work with the migrant women in San Diego, so I started volunteering at Planned Parenthood in their prenatal program. I nudged my way into a doula position because I was willing to come to the clinic, meet the women and then go with them when they went into labor. Initially, I told the hospital I was a translator. I explained it that I was not only translating Spanish & English, but that I was translating Medicalese. Over and over, I helped women have their babies in the hospital. I racked up a great number of births this way, learning so much along the way.

With my very first Planned Parenthood client, I was very nervous, but I pretended I wasn't. I sure-footedly walked into the triage room, sitting with the mom who was in kickin' labor. The nurse came in and asked me to have the woman move her bottom towards the end of the table so she could be examined. Whew! I knew these words! "Por favor, muevate tu culo mas abajo." The woman, in the middle of a contraction, sat bolt upright and said, "COMO?!?" Baffled, I repeated what I'd said and she just rolled her eyes at me and went on through her labor. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I *knew* these words... of all the words I knew, I learned these as a child. "Besa me culo!" my family would shout at each other. "Kiss my butt!" I labored with her, am guessing I didn't make any other disgusting comments because she held my hand as I breathed with her the rest of the time.

The next day, back at Planned Parenthood, I began telling the birth story, starting in triage. I told them I wasn't sure what happened, but when I said, "Por favor, muevate tu culo..." and the room ERUPTED in laughter. What had I said?! They couldn't stop laughing, tears streaming down their faces. Finally, while I sat there totally embarrassed waiting to hear what was so funny, someone wheezed, "You told her to move her fucking ass down to the end of the table." HUH?!? Apparently, "culo" is a vile vulgar word in Mexican Spanish. When I went to go see her postpartum, I apologized profusely, in my broken, embarrassed Spanish. She laughed and let me know it was fine.

In my quest to learn obstetric Spanish as well as get a foothold as a midwife, I went to Casa de Nacimiento in El Paso, Texas for 3 months in 1993. I learned quickly and learned a LOT. It was great! I began dreaming in Spanish and the words came to my tongue quickly from my brain. After Casa, I worked at the Farmworker Association of Florida (in Orlando) under a CDC Grant to teach Hispanic women HIV/STD prevention techniques. Allllll in Spanish. Feeling better about my language skills, I could feel there would be gaping holes still lurking. Whenever I began a class, I told them my "culo" story, bringing them to hysterical laughter, but it illustrated the point that if I said something stupid or rude, it is because my Spanish sucks, not because I am a jerk.

After several years in Orlando, I headed back to San Diego, where, once there, I spent a little over a year (total) at Casa to gather education, experience and numbers so I could eventually sit for the license in CA. I would come and go from El Paso, but it didn't take 48 hours there before I was once again dreaming in Spanish. I was more fluent than I ever imagined, being able to do complete prenatal and postpartum counseling as well as speaking to the family, no matter where they came from around Mexico.

So, it was amusing as crap when I was talking to a father who'd stepped out to let his wife deliver the placenta and be sutured. He asked if he could go back in yet and I said a phrase I had said at least 100 times before: La partera esta cocinando la vagina. The husband turned his head sideways and asked, "Cosiendo?" and I nodded happily. ("Wasn't that what I said?" I said in my head.) And I was off shift and went on my merry way.

2 hours later, I am in the kitchen where the interns all hung out and slept and I was making Rice-a-Roni... standing there... saying to myself, "Estoy cocin-an-do..." OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!!!!! All those years I was saying the midwife was COOKING the vagina, not SEWING the vagina! I fell on the floor laughing and could barely stop until I saw that family again 2 days later. I laughed and laughed, telling the husband how many DOZENS of times I had said that to a husband and NONE of them corrected me! I thanked him profusely for getting the vagina out of the kitchen.

Another smaller gaffe I have done is with the words "estrella" and "estrilla" - very similar in English, but words apart in Spanish. I would have a woman lying on the table during her prenatal and rub her stretch marks and tell her how BEAUTIFUL her estrellas were. Uh... estrellas are "stars" - estrillas are "stretch marks". I could always get a chuckle from women as I told them what a beautiful night it was, the moon and all those stretch marks in the sky.

Even now, many, many years later, I am always wary of the words that might spill out of my mouth. Are they colloquial? Did they come from my family? Is the woman Mexican? Puerto Rican? All of these different aspects come into play, just as if we were working with a woman from Canada, Great Britain or Georgia.

I love that I speak Spanish, but I also love that I can laugh at my second language skills. Always triving. Always striving.

 My Grandmother Almerinda "Mami" holding my dad... la Havana, Cuba... 1940.

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Reader Comments (14)

"Always triving." Ha!

You'll appreciate this one. In Spain, my friend and I went with a girl (who had just come out) to a lesbian bar. The three of us were sitting at a table and a woman walked over, spun the chair around, straddled it and asked, "Es viernes?"

I said, "Pues, si, claro." My friends jerked their heads around and stared at me. I looked at my watch and realized I was wrong. "No, es sabado."

She had asked "Sois lesbianas?"

No one there pronounced la "s" and in a noisy bar, I was positive that she wanted to know the day of the week.

Whoopsies. It's Saturday and I'm not gay. Lo siento.

June 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJill

*lol* thanks for sharing that! it gave me a much-needed giggle for the day! :-)

June 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAimee

Loved this post!

June 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Clear

I thought that was an old picture of YOU until I read the caption.

June 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersara

omg! Thank you for sharing & letting me LOL tonight!!!!

June 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCristina

Wonderful! Thanks for the smile!

June 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHolly Noelle

I am LMAO with this post. It makes it even more funny because I am Cuban and I am getting a mental pic of you LOL

One thing I am wondering though. To me stretch marks have always been known as Estrias. I looked in the Dictionary of the Spain Real Academy and I cannot find Estrias or Estrillas. Now I am baffled.

June 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYasmel

I once told a new mom to "eat her baby" in Spanish, instead of "feed her baby." She must of thought I was Muy Loca.

June 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterReality Rounds

Hysterical. Plain and simple! HYSTERICAL!

July 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

On my way to Casa in 2 weeks. Oh I am so screwed. Mi espanol es muy, muy mal....

August 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChristy

I LOVE this post! I am working on getting my doula certification and I intend to learn spanish also so I can work with the hispanic population here. I know now to be verrrry careful.

August 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermarie

I'm a teenager and not over wieght but I can't seem to get rid of the cellulite on the back of my legs?
Are there any specific workouts that target that area. I need to know how to get rid of cellulite on thighs explained here.


September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterempotaBem

My disability office has a lot of Spanish speaking claimant's from the Bronx, and almost no one here speaks Spanish. We have a telephone translation service, but it takes a while to get them on the line. So we have to try to get the people to understand that they have to wait. Various people have written up things for us to try to say. One thing we were told to say was "No cuelge" which was supposed to mean "Don't hang up." A friend of mine tried this, and when the translator was on the line the claimant told him "That lady told me 'Don't hang yourself.'"
It made us all nervous to say anything at all. We try saying "interpreter" and saying "Wait" loudly in English as if that will make them understand. About a third of them hang up on us.
I think that if they are going to assign the Bronx to an upstate NY office they ought to have mandatory inservices in Spanish. But no...
So if you have a good idea how to say "Don't hang up, I am going to get a translator on the phone." I would appreciate it.
Susan Peterson
I hope this is more relevant than asking how to get cellulite off my thighs!

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Peterson

Moe-ment-oh pour es-pan-yole (Momento por espanol.) "One moment for Spanish."

Hope that helps!

August 24, 2010 | Registered CommenterNavelgazing Midwife

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