María Elena Montero



María Elena Montero is an essay and short story writer based in the Washington, D.C. area.  She is Afro Latina of Cuban and Dominican descent and a serene, peaceful human being on other days (not many).  She received an MBA from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

T like Tom

My Mami’s full name is María de la Caridad Montero.

But she goes by Caridad Montero.

She told me she shortened the name to Caridad because having three first names – or four, depending on who you are and how you’re counting – wasn’t American and wasn’t Washington, D.C. in 1959.  Caridad, she said, at least means charity, something easy to explain and understand in any language. 

That’s the gospel according to Mami.  An Apocrypha existing only under her canon.

I always wondered why she kept Caridad and not María. 

I’ve never met any other Washingtonians, or any Americans for that matter, named Caridad.  And, I’ve heard more than my share of Cari-who’s and Cari-what’s over the years.  Ears and faces strained to hear again a name they hadn’t heard before coming from an accent they didn’t expect from the coffee brown woman in front of them.  Mami always seemed to accept their confusion as an invitation to spell her name, which took her roughly five minutes.  And, of course, she was obliged.  Her demonstration of the alphabet, in English, would not go unnoticed or unheard, as the annunciation of each letter was louder than the one before, complete with a spelling alphabet invented by her.

When I was younger, I thought she spelled it out because the name was exotic and most needed the spelling bee simulation Mami gave them to get it right.  Surely no one could figure it out on their own had it not been for Mami.  If you weren’t one of us, or Cuban, or Dominican, you could not spell Caridad or Montero, by yourself. 

C, like Consuelo.

A, like Adriana.

R, like Reynaldo.

I, like Inés.

You get the picture.

And, that’s why it took five minutes. 

Her spelling alphabet did not handicap language, at all.  If there were no Washingtonians named Caridad, there had to be even fewer named Consuelo, Adriana, Reynaldo, Inés, and so on.

And, at the end of it all, she’d repeat Caridad, like it was a mantra, making the listener commit her to memory.  If they didn’t remember the name, they weren’t going to forget Caridad Montero.

Caridad.  Caridad.  Caridad.

I would revel in the live entertainment.

Mami held on to Spanish and to all things she deemed Cuban with a clenched soul, as if with contempt she had to be so far away from both.  And, if you refused to understand her accent and her all-things-Cuban, it was you who was foreign, the unreasonable outsider, the unfamiliar.

The entire staff at my elementary school softball sign-up lost their collective minds one season because Mami wrote MaElena in the space for my first name.  Everyone, Mami told me, knows Ma is the abbreviation for María. 

Salvajes,” she whispered to me when they rushed over to the registration volunteer who must’ve thrown up a signal requesting aid.  Mami and I sat in metal fold-out chairs facing the frenzy, both of us knowing they’d simply come to my name and were in crisis mode to decipher, no Spanish-speaker – no Cuban – among them.  I sat watching them, twirling my pigtails, wanting to stand up and shout, It’s me!  It’s me!  María Elena!  Mami sat next to me with purse in lap, her smile camouflaging the flank assault she would have launched had the team of them messed up my name. 

“Montero!” one of them finally dared, in English.

Mami protested with relaxed shoulders and audible exhale, “Humph.”

She’s an intelligent woman. 

Mami had to know she didn’t make it easy.  She had to know if three middle names was confusing, then choosing the least common had to be more confusing.  I know she understood MaElena is not María Elena to the average anybody.  It just looks like a capitalization error, or bad penmanship, not María Elena.

She’s never told me as much, but I suppose Mami calculated she’d already given English and America and Washington, D.C. enough of everything.  She certainly gave them her children with accent-free English.  And ballet class.  And music lessons.  And Catholic school.  Because that’s what good Americans do.  They buy homes in suburbia, finish their basements, have two-car households and own German Shepherds, named Lázaro (and dare the vet or any of his assistants to get that wrong).

And she gave them herself, far from everyone, except my Grandmother, who came to Washington, D.C. with María de la Caridad.  Mami gave her absence from her father and an empty seat at his funeral.  She sacrificed her brothers, only one did she see again when he floated over to a new world, too.  Addicted.  Mentally ill.  Far from her still.


If a name or an accent or an abbreviation was all she was allowed to hold, she would.  With aplomb.  Mami chose when and how she would comply to orphan pieces of herself.  I never begrudged her.  And neither did anyone else.

Only when Mami became a recruiter for the County’s Head Start Program did she adopt a different accent and a different alphabet.  As if in enlisting others to conform, she suddenly lost a bit of her mutiny.  She at once decided that, by example, she would show others how to become American.  Mami reduced her fire to a nonthreatening flame.  Her deliberate exaggerations of the letter r were gone.  She navigated ch and sh now with no effort, clearly, and you could fully distinguish her b from her v. 

Even the timber of her voice changed and was less.  Cuban.

Her alphabet changed, but only a little.  Most of that rebellion she kept for herself and selfishly I told myself, for me.  

It didn’t escape me.  I always tried to copy Mami’s singsong, even when she accused me of mocking her or worse, by her estimation, sounding Dominican.  I always wanted to capture some of those embers in her voice.  Maybe I could learn to extinguish her rage and her pain.  Never her accent.  Never her Spanish.  And never her Cuba.

The alphabet was reserved now for her last name.  Only for Montero.  Caridad was Caridad.  C-A-R-I-D-A-D.  That’s it.  If you didn’t get it, or the name was so strange that you missed its immediate spelling, she’d say and spell it again, then again, more quickly every time, like a military drill.  Our last name I always thought was the easiest to grasp, the most accessible, because of all the vowels.  You could at least sound it out, phonetically.  MON-TE-RO.  Easy.

But not if Mami was going to spell it out.

Five minutes.

M, like Miguel.

O, like Ofelia.

N, like Nestor.

T.  Mami’s voice would dip a little.  I watched her when I was close to her.  Sometimes she’d scan the area to see if anyone who could recognize was listening. 

T, she acquiesced, for Washington, D.C., for America … T like Tom. 

The first time I heard the new alphabet, I remember staring at Mami as if she was truly alien.  I think I was looking for a rescue path, because my Mami was still in there and I could save her.  After that day, I made no other effort to copy her cadence, to exaggerate the letter r, or to deliberately falter on ch and sh.  My English was at once perfect.  My Spanish failed.  I didn’t even attempt to assume my Papi’s Dominican melody instead and my Cuban left altogether.  Because if Mami decided to die, I was going to do that, too. 

With no accent. 

Just like suburbia and finished basements wanted her – us – anyway. 


Things are different now. 

The suburbs, Washington, D.C., America and American have changed.  And, it’s not 1959 anymore. 

In some spaces. 

Mami’s neighbors to the right are Senegalese and to the left, Honduran.  Retired now, she calls me with the giddish fervor of a child to tell me she’s learned a new sentence, in French.  “Of course,” she reminds me, “I taught them how to say it in Spanish.”  And the Hondurans, she tells me, now speak Cuban.

Mami free-burns again. 

She mysteriously forgets how to say the simplest things in English.  “Cómo se dice …” she turns to me randomly in grocery stores and malls.  I smile and turn away.  Her house, she says, is a Spanish-speaking house; therefore, when you enter, you will speak Spanish.  Her Granddaughter will speak Spanish, or at least understand it completely if she doesn’t get enough practice at home with her own Mami, me.  Mami’s accent is thicker than it has ever been.  And her voice is loud again.  Loud.  Loud.  Cuban.  Again.

And Mami has reinstated her alphabet; an abridged version, anyway.

It seems, to me, she’s refusing to let go.  This time.    

When I’m with her, she finds a reason to have a conversation with someone – anyone – in English.    I listen on purpose.  She complies on cue. 

She scans the area first to be sure I am there.  Because I recognize. 

Of course, she is asked her name.




Her tempo decelerates and her voice towers as the annunciation of each letter is louder than the one before.




T.   Like Tomás.




I am Spanish.

I am Cuban.

I am American.

I am Mami’s child.

I am MaElena.


© The Acentos Review 2016