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La Voz Puede Volar

2003-10-24 - 1:35 p.m.

It's the very early 80s, and a woman is holding a baby. Getting this baby was quite the ordeal. It involved months of laying in bed, barely allowed to move, when the slightest pressure on her womb could cause bleeding and a trip to the emergency room. This is a kid that would give its mother PMS while IN THE WOMB, people. And it's only going to get worse.

Right now, though, she's just got the baby in her arms, and he's falling asleep. Sometimes she gets worried, because he should be crawling, even walking by now, and he's not. However, his is already speaking, far ahead of time. She figures he's going to be very verbal, even if he isn't athletic. She's very correct.

None of this matters, because she looks down at him with a love so strong that it brought her and the boy back from the edge of death more than once, one that has been building for generations, coming across oceans, running through revolutionary battlefields, pulling crops out of the Earth, staring down those who would steal land and dignity, to find a home somwhere in the space between the two of them. It's all she can do to keep from crying, and so she sings instead, a soft lullaby in a language that she hopes her boy will one day speak and sing with pride, a pride in the history recounted in the susurrus of blood flowing into and out of his heart.

After a few moments of her singing, the boy begins to squirm, with a frown on his face, like he's having a bad dream. Finally, he lifts up his hand and puts it over her mouth, uttering a small and yet very aggravated, "Mommy, stop!"

Because Mommy, in this case my mommy, can't sing to save her life, much less to put me or anyone else to sleep. She couldn't find the key with a map, a flashlight, and a search party made up of Ella Fitzgerald, Kiri TeKanawa, and the Temptations. Her voice breaks faster than a dozen eggs in an IHOP on Sunday morning. If faced with my mother, even Paula Abdul would scream out, "For the love of all that is holy, woman, knock it off!"

However, what my mother's voice lacks in melody and tone it more than makes up for in clarity, strength, warmth, and power. She cannot sing, but when she speaks, even presidents shut their mouths and pay attention, if they have any idea what's good for them.

This is not the hyperbolic opinion of one who has only experienced his mother overriding arguments about who got the most mashed potatoes at the dinner table. I have seen my mother in front of audiences, and when I sit down to dinner afterwards, congressmen and ambassadors pass me the salt (and hog the friggin mashed potatoes). What is perhaps even more noteworthy about my mother than her voice is the fact that she is as willing to have dinner with the women who clean their homes and offices, and would certainly be more interested in what those women would have to say about the state of the nation.

It is hard to remember when I first noticed the power my mother had in her voice, because I was rarely paying attention. Before I was born, she was already a presidential appointee, vice-chair of the Texas Democratic Party, and a member of the Civil Rights Commission. Before I had even cut my first tooth, she left me in the care of my grandmother to be part of the first ever US educational mission to the People's Republic of China, and I'm pretty sure that she went to Copenhagen for the UN Conference on Women during the same year. When you grow up surrounded by politics, both national and international, you don't learn to notice it for a very long time. It would be like asking a Laplander about what it was like growing up in such cold weather. These conferences, committee meetings, and speaking engagements were either the things that mommy was leaving town for or the things I was getting out of school for (and don't think the day, when I was 11, that I found out her next conference would be in HAWAII, during SCHOOL, and I was GOING WITH HER, wasn't one of the coolest of my young life). Even then, I usually rolled my eyes and sulked over actually having to go to these boring meetings where I would more often than not have to hide my book under the table, or worse, MUTE MY GAMEBOY (although I will say that my mom usually wound up stealing my GameBoy, occassionally during one of these conferences, because sometimes even she would prefer to sneak in a game of Tetris while some blowhard senator is listening to himself speak).

Over time, though, I began to get a sense of my mother's voice. When she gives a speech, she speaks very slowly. She never rushes through a single sentence; every word, every syllable has a moment to take a bow before it leaves the stage. There is a rhythm, one that soothes tension and yet keeps the listener following the beat. My mother is a great believer in the use of repetition, and she is one of those people able to make it sound like prayer, rather than redundancy. She never makes the mistake of becoming too emotional. When she delivers good news, there is only a soft-smile and a warmth that enters her voice which glistens sweetly like honey drizzled onto a biscuit. When she is angry, she never shouts. Instead she adds a sharpness to her voice that raises a knife to the throat of anyone who could possibly sit still while men in power commit crimes against all of humanity. She is never sad in her speeches, even when she delivers eulogies, a task often relegated to her within our family. She simply lets the memories of the living person carry her through the speech even when tears begin to well up, and by the end everyone in the room remembers the life lived rather than the life lost.

People who have heard my mother speak remember her, coming up to her years later and speaking to her about how she inspired them. I've been there when they come to her, as though meeting a celebrity, which she is in certain circles. I will never go hungry as long as I'm willing to take a job in a Latino rights organization, because people who would have otherwise shown my artsy ass the door sit me back down as soon as I tell them who my mother is.

Don't think this isn't intimidating as all Hell. Don't think I haven't been told many times by many people who have never even met me that I need to live up to the legacy left to me by my mother. Don't think I don't look at myself and wonder if I, in my selfishness, laziness, pretentiousness, and privilege, will ever do half the things she's done, see a quarter of the things she's seen. Don't think I don't hate my voice sometimes because it has so much to measure up to.

She's never said anything to me to make me feel this way. I've always been her little boy who will be so much. I do the dishes, and I'm the next Gandhi.

I hope I can do right by her one day, in a way that satisfies both of us. I know that I can make my voice like hers through a concerted effort. I can make people pay attention to me through something other than a temper tantrum (which is something that some people I know have never mastered). She taught me how to stand in front of an audience like I owned the place and could buy and sell everyone in it. She also taught me that every person in the world deserves the right to speak, and to be educated enough to have the words at their disposal. I hope that the work I do once I get out of this crazy office allows me to teach people how to bring out the voice inside themselves. I owe her that. I owe her so much more.

For now, I'll go out with my mother and her friends tomorrow night, wish her Happy Birthday, and when the margaritas are flowing and the mariachis begin to play, I'll do my best to keep quiet when she begins to sing along.

I may not be a baby anymore, but I make no guarantees.

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