Yafrainy Familia



Born in the Dominican Republic, Yafrainy was raised in Puerto Rico, and has lived in New Jersey, Spain and Peru. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Pompeu Fabra University, in Barcelona. Her work has been published by La Galería Magazine and The World of Apu, and she is currently working on her first novel. She also writes on the blog Conquistadora Books, where she showcases the work of women, Latino and diverse writers. 

Blog webpage: www.conquistadorabooks.com 

Blog Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/conquistadora.books/

How to Learn English in New Jersey


How is it possible to feel exiled
from a language that isn’t mine?”

Jhumpa Lahiri



First, you need a reason to leave the Caribbean and move to one of the Real States. Say: your parents are splitting for the millionth time and your mom needs a change. Say: your younger brother is hanging out with a bad crowd again and he sure needs a change. Say: you just finished high school and El Caribe seems too small for all the big things you want to accomplish so you, too, need a change.

Add all these reasons up. What do you get? Is this the new recipe for the American Dream?

Somehow, your top choice for a state to move in is New Jersey. You know nothing about Jersey, except that your older sister moved there a year ago with that half Dominican half Puerto Rican troll she has for a husband and their baby girl. So it’s your sister who sells it out to all of you. It’s she who plants the seed and waters it every day; watches it grow, until one day your mom has twelve boxes in the middle of the living room filled with the past nine years in Puerto Rico. And even stuff from before, from your childhood in Santo Domingo.

Leaving requires an endless amount of arrangements that challenge your desire to go. What to do with the house and the car? What’s gonna happen with your friends? Who is gonna help your dad at the restaurant? And the dog, ¿con quién se queda? Yes, it’s best to leave him, that way he can keep your dad company.

You take every step with nervousness and celerity, like the doctors when a hemorrhage comes up in the middle of a surgery. You learn that sometimes migration can be like this, everything happens quickly and without detours, so you don’t have time to think things twice.

When the date to leave approaches, you feel something strange, like a bitter excitement. Right now you don’t know the exact word to describe it. But even with this overwhelming sensation, you are convinced that moving to New Jersey is the solution to all your family problems. It’s a new beginning. It’s the change you all need..

The only thing that worries me is the English, says your mom, when you are in line to leave at the airport Luis Muñoz Marín. She says this while looking back, like a traveler who has forgotten her passport. The English and the cold, she adds.

Oh, that, you reply. I am not so worried about that.

You lie.

Once you arrive in Jersey, it’s time to make one of the most important decisions: where to live. Ideally, the neighborhood should be centric, tranquil, neutral. By centric you mean, of course, near your sister’s place. A un brinquito, like your mom says. On the other hand, the neutrality corresponds to the space itself and the people who live in it. It can’t be un barrio of Dominicans or Puerto Ricans, even less one where they both live together; that isn’t good for your brother. Besides, you are not that kind of caribeño. The kind that tries to stay in el Caribe even when they are outside of it. No, sir. You all have decided to immerse yourself in the American culture, whatever that means. But not so much, so it can’t be a neighborhood of blancos either.

Your sister lives in the Ironbound. Here most people are Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Portuguese. The Ironbound sounds neutral enough. In terms of tranquility, you are in Newark, and no area here can be considered “tranquil”. But the Ironbound almost is. Besides, it could be worse. It could be a neighborhood of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.


Level 1

As soon as you kind of settle in, it’s time to register your first English course. The program has an official name: English as a Second Language better known as El Temible ESL. Your Plan A is to do this program at a Great American University with extensive green spaces, where you will lay to read Austen and flirt with tall white guys with full pink lips, like in the movies. But soon you discover that the universe has another plan for you: The Plan of Reality. The cost of ESL programs at big universities exceed your family’s economical capacities, so you end up going to Essex County College. At the ECC, the students are mostly Black and Latinos. The ECC lacks extensive green spaces. The ECC doesn’t seem to fulfill your expectations of the American Dream.                       

It’s just for now, you tell your mom when she drops you off the first day. I will go here for now.

The first thing you face at the ESL program is not the language itself, but a mixture of people. There are all kinds of colors, flavors, ages. You feel as if you were in a limbo between the United States and the rest of the world. English as a Second Language is the purgatory of immigrants. On that first day of ESL classes, an idea is established in your mind: there is nothing American about any of this.

In the rounds of presentations, you discover that you are the youngest student. Seventeen years old. You shouldn’t be here. You should be lying at Rutger’s gardens, reading Austen, and flirting with guys. People ask what is such a young girl doing at ECC’s ESL program. “I moved to Jersey a month ago,” you explain. “I have been living here for the past thirty years,” says Adolfo in Spanish, the Cuban man who sits behind you. Adolfo is bold, short, with eyes as blue as the ocean he crossed to make it to the US. Instantly, Adolfo causes two things in you: admiration and terror. You admire him for being at a classroom from Monday to Friday, six to nine. But it terrifies you to one day have thirty years in Jersey and be like Adolfo. For this reason, the next day when Adolfo says “Hola chica,” you respond, “Hello Adolfo, how are you?”

It’s the purgatory, and you are convinced to get out of here as soon as possible.


Outside of the classroom the cold begins to envelop the city, biting the backs of newcomers like you. Your mom asks you to tell her what you are learning in school. She, too, wants to learn English. It suffocates her to not be able to communicate with others. But it will have to wait. Right now she works at an Ecuadorian beauty salon where she does way more work than what she gets paid for. She gets home with sore feet and sore hands that are good for nothing at night. In Puerto Rico she had her own beauty salon. In Puerto Rico she had a husband and a house of her own but there was something missing and she came here to find it.

Your brother has decided he doesn’t want to study at ECC. Since he can’t find a job, he spends his days hanging out at the barbershop where he cuts his hair. This place is in a corner on Broad Street. That’s where Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who greet each other saying “what’s up nigga, ¿qué es la que hay?,” while hitting their backs with their long arms, go to get their hair done and buy drugs. Your brother comes home repeating that stuff. He has called you nigga a few times, as if you were one of his boys.


December arrives and you have officially survived the first four months in New Jersey. Level one is almost over. You feel great. You are the youngest and the fastest learner. You are the goddess of the ESL program. Your professors adore you. But outside of the classroom the world is your enemy. You can’t understand people in the streets. You don’t comprehend the words to the songs on the radio. You only function with the written words and the magical pronunciation of your ESL professors, who speak English with such clarity you feel like they are dictating their classes in Spanish. But outside you don’t exist. Nothing comes out of your mouth when you want to order coffee with milk at ECC’s cafeteria. The words lose their meaning. They get tangled in your tongue. And you forget even the simplest of things, like apple is manzana, or that the name for the sadness that gets drawn every morning on your mom’s face is a word that begins with d and sounds almost the same in English and Spanish.


Level 2 (aka 3)

January arrives and two things happen. The first is that your mom decides to visit your dad in Puerto Rico, just to make sure he is okay. The second is that your ESL professors conclude you are ready to skip a level. In other words, they save you four months in purgatory.

This semester, all your classmates are strangers. Your professor of Reading and Writing is a tall, round man named Fitzgerald. No one can pronounce his name so you call him Professor F. Professor F greets you with a wide smile and a pair of cheeks that are usually red for no apparent reason. He is a charismatic and amicable man with a deep voice that resonates throughout the entire classroom. Professor F is filled with questions: Where are you from? How long have you been in the United States? Wow, so little time? Can you repeat your name? What are your future plans? Are you guys excited for the Super Bowl? You don’t know what the Super Bowl is?! He says you need to answer all these questions with confidence and fluidity. Oh, and he urges you to pick a football team, extra points if it’s the Giants. You are in America now, he reminds you. As if it was possible to forget it.

For the reading course, Professor F. assigns you The Rainmaker by John Grisham, and The Notebook by Nicholas Spark. You don’t understand why they make you read this duo for an ESL class. You don’t comprehend that they are colonizing you from the inside.

Sometimes you read stuff on your own. There is nothing special in what you read, except that it is all in English. You haven’t touched a book in Spanish since you set foot in Jersey. You have prohibited it to yourself as if you were a devoted Catholic and reading in Spanish a capital sin. It doesn’t contribute to your development. You could end up confused. You could end up like Adolfo. Besides, you are in America now.


Little by little things start to get better. At ECC’s cafeteria you always want that coffee with milk. Before you wouldn’t dare to order it. Now sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. But that’s something. Your mom comes back from the Caribbean vigorous and tanned. She tells you she had a marvelous time. Everything she saw amazed her. “¿Quién diría que hace tanto calorcito en el Caribe?,” she asks with sparkling eyes.  She tells you how great it feels to go to a restaurant and be able to order your own food. She says she talked for hours with friends, and even with unknown people. She would just talk and talk. Bad news: the dog is dead. Your dad is okay, but he felt better with her company. He has asked her to go back home. He has said he is waiting for her. “¡Qué ideas tan locas las de tu padre!,” she concludes, staring at the bottom of her coffee cup. Avoiding with her entire body the look in your colonized eyes.


Soon, you surprise yourself thinking in English. At first it’s just short sentences. Simple phrases. But later it lasts longer. It’s like a superpower that you begin to develop. Sometimes you spend entire mornings talking to yourself in English. But it all happens in your mind, since you still have trouble externalizing the language. This bothers you. You wonder how long it takes to dominate a new language. You don't understand that languages are not dominated, that you have to treat them with love and subtlety. That for things to work you have to develop a trust relationship, like the therapist with the patient.


Life sets forth a test on a day you least expect it. You are at the Bronx with your mom and your brother visiting cousins. This is the farthest you have been since you arrived to Newark. Everything goes well, until on the way back the signs begin to direct you to unknown places. It’s late at night and you have no idea where you are. You finally stop at a gas station. There is a man talking on the phone and drinking a Red Bull while he puts gas on his truck. Your mom gets close and lowers the window.

“Ask that man, he probably can help us,” she says to you in Spanish.

“I can’t,” you reply in a very low voice.

“What do you mean you can’t? Do me a favor and ask that man how we can get to Newark.”

You panic.

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” you conclude flatly.

“That’s what you study so much for?” This comes from your brother, laughing, in the back of the car.

You want to prove them that you can do it. It is easy. Excuse me sir, could you please tell us how to get to Newark? The words swim with fluidity in your mind, the problem is that they drown when they reach your throat.

Your mom’s eyes irradiate exasperation.

“If I knew half the English you know, I would throw this country in my pocket. What wouldn’t I do...”

And that’s when it happens.

Your brother opens his door and yells, “Hey nigga, what’s up? To Newark, we goin’ to Newark.” The man comes close, looks confuse at first, but finally figures out what is happening and explains how you can get there. You translate. Your mom nods her head. Your brother says, “Thank you bro,” and closes the door.


Level 4

            In this level, the main focus is oral communication: just what you need. Your professor of Speaking and Listening is a Colombian named Elena. Professor Elena is forty five years old and represents all you want to be. She is a successful professional. She knows about books. She has traveled around the world and, above all, arrived in Jersey at your same age and was able to overcome the language barrier. For this reason, since the first day of classes her word is the law. You tell her about your problem. I can write and read well, you say, but I have trouble speaking.

            Lucky you, Professor Elena is full of answers. She tells you why she came to New Jersey (political reasons that almost no one in class can understand). She recommends books to you. Gives you a copy of The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, and suggest you read it for next class. She says she married a white man and that has made all the difference. You take note: date a white man. She talks about the delicious gluten free cakes she bakes for Thanksgiving. She describes her home, her garden, and the wonderful backyard where you will all have a brunch once the semester is over. She suggests you get a job. Expose yourself to the world. Make mistakes. You have to go out there and talk, talk, talk. Just like her. This is the only way you will be ready to begin your college career. Ready for life outside the purgatory.

            You decide to do as professor Elena says, so you apply for different jobs: Old Navy, Marshalls, Toys R’ Us. These places are good for you. Three weeks pass and you only get called for one interview: Toys R’ Us. It’s October and they are hiring people for the Christmas season. You go to the interview. They offer you a position as a sales associate. You don’t know what that is but say yes without thinking it twice. Welcome to the World of Retail. You have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into.


There are some days when English comes out of you like it has always been there, and others when you can barely pronounce a word. The afternoon a cop shows up at your door and asks if someone who is named like your brother and who looks just like your brother lives there is one of those days. “Are you okay miss? Miss? Miss?,” says Officer Parker. Simultaneously, your mother yells from the kitchen, “Who is there, Arlene?” You know this is the moment to act, but instead you stand still in the frame of the door, petrified as a shield, without being able to say a word.


In your second month working at Toys R’ Us (AKA Retail Hell), a white boy (Italian) asks you out. Great job: you have killed two birds with one stone. The Italian only speaks English and says he likes your accent; that it sounds sexy. You take him home to meet your mom and she makes lasagna for him. How appropriate! The Italian has charisma. He makes you laugh and your family too. He communicates with your mom with gesticulation and smiles. You begin to trust him. The two of you converse with fluidity. You feel how English begins to flow better through your veins.

You begin to feel like two people: the one who speaks English, the one who speaks Spanish. These two girls think differently. They speak differently. They walk differently. You have disintegrated into two languages. You swim in their waters. Live in two worlds at a time. Now you are more ambiguous than ever. Indefinable.


Level 5

Congratulations! You have made it to the final level of ESL. By now, you hate the program and feel like it’s never gonna end. Never mind these thoughts. Ahogarte llegando a la orilla has never been an option.

As consolation, you buy a pair of Ugg boots; these things are good for your English. You wear them to go on a date with the Italian boyfriend. At the restaurant, you ask him stuff about Italy. Stuff you know he can’t possibly know. He smiles a charming smile and says nothing for a minute. You wait. “My parents are Italian but I was born here in America and don’t know much about Italy, never been there before,” he finally says. “Oh, of course,” is your only answer.


This semester you have a vocabulary class. Here you learn strange words, necessary words, and words you will possibly never use outside of the classroom. Of the strange words, there is one that sticks with you. Ambivalence. In class you don’t dare to pronounce it, but when you are alone, in your bedroom, you savor it out loud. Am-biv-a-lence: the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas. You succumb to this word. It’s what you felt just before you left. It’s what you feel right now.


February arrives and you receive an orientation on the professional careers offered at ECC. You have the option of staying and earning an associate’s degree or you can fulfill that old dream of studying at a Great American University. Before, you wouldn’t have had to think it twice: “Rutgers, here I come!,” would have been your answer. But now it isn’t so much. You have learned to love Essex County College. Its people and their colors. Its lack of green spaces. For your surprise (and shame that it took you so long), you have come to the unexpected conclusion that there isn’t anything more American than an ECC classroom packed with ESL students. So it isn’t so simple to take the next step.

You have options now.

But before you decide where you want to begin your career, first you need to pick one. You think, research, analyze, until finally you lean towards psychology. You have read some information on Google and feel like that is the correct field for you. Freud, Jung, Pavlov sound like the kind of people who can answer your questions. Questions like: Is the sun good for sad moms? Yes, Freud sure can help you.

You begin to feel stuck in the sentimental arena, so you decide to argue with the Italian boyfriend. This, too, is good for your English.  You tell him you hate his music. You hate his clothes. You hate the gold things he wears to go out. You tell him he lacks ambition. Ask when he pretends to go back to school. Push him to his limits. Come to the undeniable conclusion that you want different things.


Spring arrives and the ESL program comes to an end. Suddenly, you wish you had a few more days left.

To celebrate your exit of the purgatory, your mom invites you to have lunch at Tops Diner. By now you are officially bilingual, but some days you are more than others. Today is a good English day, so you order your food and your mom’s with precision and fluidity. She stares at the waiter and says, “Yes,yes,yes”, proudly, while he repeats the order. Whoever sees her from afar would think she understands everything perfectly.

During this lunch, your mom tells you two things. The first is something you already know: she has realized that she hates the cold and English doesn’t get “into” her. No me entra, she says, as if all this time in Jersey had been an experiment just to come to that conclusion. And the second thing, the second thing you act like you don’t expect it even though you have had your suspicions about it since the first day: she wants to go back to Puerto Rico. “Sometimes we need to risk it all, go far away, in order to value the life we already have”, is her only explanation. You debate whether to ask her questions or save them for Freud.

She tells you she is thinking about bringing your brother with her. He is hanging out with a bad crowd and could use a change of scenery. Besides, he is a young man now and can work at the restaurant with your dad. To this you reply, “Yes, yes, yes”.

The conversation reaches to the point you have been threatening. Things are quite simple: what do you want to do? Before you say anything, your mom drinks water from her glass, as if to pause time for a second, and then, with a pair of hopeful eyes, adds a new alternative to the table.

You have more options now.








© The Acentos Review 2018