My Broken Language: A Memoir
The reviews are in. Vigorous. Exuberant. Boisterous. Energetic. Not the usual words used to describe coming-of-age-poor memoirs such as My Broken Language.
But when the author is Quiara Alegría Hudes, the Philly-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Water by the Spoonful and In the Heights, the latter a Broadway play sensation and a movie set to be released in June 2021, the drama-evoking words begin to make sense.
Because what Alegría Hudes delivers with My Broken Language is a play of a memoir, a dramedy complete with memorable scenes that powerfully replicate the themes of family separation and cultural alienation. Of urban poverty and the dispiriting struggle of living between two worlds, but never fully belonging to either.
To achieve all this, she begins by recruiting a large family of memorable characters: her own. Then she situates herself in the best possible vantage place for narrating what she remembers, what she discovers: childhood. That is how we learn to know these people she calls family, their secrets, their failures and successes as they try to figure out the mysteries of multigenerational life in America.
It’s a lookout post familiar to many an intelligent, and so, curious, and so, precocious, child. Growing up listening in on grownup conversations, absorbing adult pains, adult failings, adult worries, creating worlds to escape the one that seems to want to permanently exile them from their own childhoods.
“It had been another afternoon at Abuela’s. I was lounging on the plastic-covered sofa as Looney Tunes played—one of two VHS tapes Abuela owned. Flor was upstairs giving Danito, her youngest of three, a bath. Suddenly Danito started wailing deep and fierce, a baritone cry no toddler should know. Flor shouted IF YOU DON’T SHET THE FUCK UP! Then, a series of thuds. I knew it without seeing it, just from the sound. Danito’s skull had met the bathtub. Cuca flew up the steps to intervene, four at a time, superhero-like, the way they say a granny can lift a car off a kid. Looney Tunes played on. I dared not move from my spot on the sofa. I homed in on Bugs Bunny and bit my lip. I became a statue facing the TV, shut my eyes when the ensuing mayhem bled into my peripheral vision. But I had no way to stop the sounds. The rotary phone clicked in a frenzy of spins. Abuela wept and whispered psalms. Cuca told Flor to get the fuck out. Don’t let the door hit you. I heard the screen door’s spring expanding and contracting, arriving footsteps on linoleum, decisive voices. Doctors were called. Titi Ginny, a pediatric nurse, discussed the steps that must be taken immediately. Mom would do the driving. Someone cradled Danito like a freshly fallen chick, draped in a white towel, davening, ice held at his crown. But I looked away before I saw who.”
So, the story moves. The characters stay with you. They are funny. They are fierce. They love so hard, and often, they’re in real trouble. They wait with baited breath for dreams of access, of opportunity, of basic health and labor, of togetherness, to come true. They cry tears that fall somewhere between resignation, disillusionment, hope, and shock.
“And thankfully, thank God above, I heard Danito cry. It seemed impossible: Flor, my cuz with a laugh warm as September sun, had been plucked from sanity and blown to chaos, a dandelion seed on the devil’s breeze. ‘Drugs,’ mom said in the car ride home. ‘Before that shot came into el barrio,’ she sighed, ‘we were just another poor neighborhood trying to make do. But then came the overnight sensation.’ Her straight-ahead stare put an end to further questions.”
You wondered what had happened to Danito, didn’t you? That’s the thing with this book. The great scenes, yes. The beautifully three-dimensional characters, sure. The strong voice of Alegría Hudes with her talent for telling us what things mean in a way that doesn’t keep us with coming up with meanings for ourselves.
And yet. The star of My Broken Language are the words, so self-aware, so understanding of what they are composed of: music, meaning, memory, so able to see the true significance of the realities they are creating and also reflecting.
“In addition to being librettist, lyricist, composer, conductor, and sound engineer for Sweat of the River, I was box office, usher, and merchandise, too.
“I was also audience. Lights faded and a hush fell. Mom patted my hand. The room experienced that brief interstitial darkness where the day is over but the show has not begun. That ceremonial bit of suspension. I realized, in those few seconds, how the piece was saturated with mom’s influence. Her poetry and cadences unmistakable in the dialogue. Her morning tapes woven into my melodies. Lyrics inspired by Orisha books she gave me. Homage and grapple in every scene. Mom had sewn some custom pieces over winter break— a skirt for Yemayá, a gorro de Orisha ceremonial hat. But beyond that I had crawled into an artistic cave, losing contact with her as I wrote and rehearsed the show. Mom didn’t know what she was about to see. Nor, perhaps, did she know how closely I’ve been watching all my life.”
It is in this way that Alegría Hudes gives the word broken a new meaning. Imagine, if you will, a fine horse, hobbled by an accident of life, that then learns to walk as if dancing, like a paso fino (dressage) horse, but more unique, more elegant and delightful. My Broken Language is only broken in just such a way, the family displacement, the poverty, the barrio, the living between cultures serving only to make it more striking, more relevant, more alive with made-up words that sound as if they should exist, if by some crime of humanity they do not.