I am banging on her bedroom door, yelling “Let me in! I want to see an Indian!” But the door stays closed. Behind it my mother’s sister María, whom I call Xin, is studying for her teaching certificate. In the pile of books on her desk is the one I’m after. It has a picture of Columbus setting foot in the New World. Behind him is the ship, the Santa María, and before him, emerging from the tropical foliage, is an Indian with red-painted face and a feather headdress.
But I don’t simply want to look at the Indian. I want Xin to show him to me, to pull me onto her lap, point with her manicured finger, make her voice go low and whispery, and tell me how he got those feathers. I want her to create a shadowy tropical forest for me to wander in, listening to the strange cries of unseen birds and looking out for jaguars.
Our Barcelona apartment held no TV, no pets or plants, no children other than myself. If there were kids’ programs on the radio, I never heard them. I was taken to the movies once a year, and today my collection of books and toys would be judged inadequate for any child’s intellectual development.
But I had Xin, who lived with us. She was an inexhaustible fount of entertainment and instruction. She could weave a story out of thin air, such as the one about the mosquito that lived inside her radio and whose whine (eeeeee!)I could hear whenever she turned the dial to find a new station. Thanks to her I knew about Robinson Crusoe on his island and Gulliver among the Liliputians before I knew my street address.
She recited Lorca until I could lisp lines of his most famous poems by heart. She even declaimed bits of Dante (selva selvaggia e aspra e forte che nel pensier rinova la paura!) in Italian, a language that I don’t believe she knew. But she spoke those words with such passion that they engraved themselves in my infant brain.
Xin was a couple of years younger than my mother, Francina, and I can understand in retrospect that she was in a lifelong struggle for dominance with her. But there was no competition between them in my heart, where I had instinctively assigned different areas to each. My mother was the rock and the majesty, a sort of cross between the Virgin Mary and God the Father, all loving, all knowing, all powerful—and extremely serious. Things were crystal clear with her, right or wrong, black or white.
But Xin was mischief, mystery, and play. Though less beautiful than my mother, she was more stylish. And she had those exquisite hands, which she waved about as she choreographed the worlds that she invented for me.
It was she who taught me to read, probably on a dare with my mother, at age three. I remember sitting next to her in the sun, on the steps leading up to the rooftop terrace of my grandparents’ farmhouse, holding a book with a picture and a letter on each page. In my next memory I am sitting on the same steps, and she is holding a newspaper. “Read this,” she says, pointing, and I do. “I told you it was easy!” she says, getting up. “Let’s go find your mother.”
My mother, my grandmother, and my other aunt are in the kitchen canning tomato sauce. “Listen to your daughter,” Xin says, and puts the newspaper in front of my nose. I read the words. Sensation! Cries of amazement and disbelief! The wooden spoon falls out of my mother’s hand and clatters to the floor, splattering her espadrilles. Xin: 1, Francina: 0.
In later years she launched me into the world of children’s classics: The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins, The Wind in the Willows, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom Sawyer (all in Spanish translation). Now that I could paddle my own canoe in the world of literature her influence grew less, but those early years marked me forever.
But there was one thing Xin missed: in her rush to get me reading, she forgot to teach me the alphabet. This didn’t hold me back much until I was in graduate school, doing research in the library stacks, and I got tired of retracing my steps trying to figure out if Flaubert came before or after Proust. So one rainy afternoon when my class was cancelled I sat down in one of the carrels and taught myself the alphabet.