Yohanca Delgado '06 is a 2021-2023 Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University and a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts recipient. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University and is a graduate of the 2019 Clarion workshop. She is an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, a 2021 Emerging Critic at the National Book Critics Circle, and a member of the inaugural Periplus Collective mentorship program. The following is an excerpt from “Our Language,” a story that won a National Endowment for the Arts award and is the inspiration for Delgado’s novel in progress.

'Our Language' Excerpt

Delgado's comments are in italics.

"She has no mother, La Ciguapa, and no children, certainly not her people's tongues. We who have forgotten all our sacred monsters." —Elizabeth Acevedo, "La Ciguapa"

This is the first time I’ve included an epigraph in a story. I had been working on this story (on and off) for a couple of years and felt marooned in this draft about a little-known monster legend from Dominican folklore when I met Liz Acevedo and picked up her first collection of poetry, "Beast Girl." The first poem was about the ciguapa! Liz’s perspective on the ciguapa was a little different from mine, but I loved the poem and I loved underscoring the kinship in the telling of ciguapa stories. I dream that over time, the ciguapa can become like a vampire or zombie — remixed, revived, and continually reinvented as part of the shared cultural imagination. 

The books do not say that I was a girl once.

The writing and rewriting of this text over two years (2018-2020) taught me an important lesson about the creative process: the story is smarter than I am, and it will show me the way if I keep showing up. Unraveling the “I” of this story was the great challenge of writing it, but when the ending fell into place, it felt inevitable and connected to everything that came before. 

They do not say that I lived near the woods in the far outskirts of Higüey, that my name was Celi, that I was born in 1954. I want you to know that I was a real girl, like you. Una niña.

Language — and what is unsaid and unrecorded — is at the heart of this story. It was a labor of love (and fun) to imagine a monster that refuses to be silent, who creeps in from the margins to revise and illuminate her own story. And I love the meta element of annotating a story that is essentially about marginalia! 

Like memory, language changes. Our words eddy around the things we fear. Isn’t it funny, how it worries what we fear, water turning a jagged rock into something smooth and small? We have so many words to make a girl small: jovencita, señorita, mujercita.

What a wealth of words and yet there is so much that the books do not say.

Why would the books say, anyway, that I was mid-height, with brown eyes and brown hair? There are ciguapas born every day, and it takes us lifetimes to become walking fears.

When I was a muchacha, my best friends and I would share a bag of limoncillos  on the walk home from school. Have you ever tried a limoncillo? In English, the call it a Spanish lime, even though it doesn't grow in Spain. Isn't that something? 

After school, the walk back to the village took about twenty-five minutes, but if we walked slow, we could make it last thirty-five and avoid some of the predinner chores waiting for us. We always tried to walk in the shade, our cheeks pink from 4 the sun, our patent leather shoes picking up the dry dust of the country road.

This is one detail that came to me in the very first draft and survived all the tempests of revision.  It was important to show that Celi is not just interested in teaching the everyday words, like the terms for “girl.” She is going to delve into concepts that are more culturally intrinsic to Domincan-ness and to the Spanish language, things that feel untranslateable. What is lost when we move between languages? 

Strolling three abreast, we cracked the green skin in half with our teeth and took the pink seeds into our mouths. One was never enough. Such a small fruit with an acidic sweetness that made you miss it, even as you held the seeds between your teeth. Before you finish one, you are already yearning for another. We call this can’t-stopness seguidilla.

Sometimes it’s strange to think of a story as something I wrote, when there are so many elements I don’t remember consciously introducing. There were moments where I felt that it was writing me. This phrasing, for example, repeats throughout the story, shifting in its meaning with every iteration, but it came to me from the start and even as the draft morphed, the repetition stayed. 

Listen closely. I'm teaching you our language.

In this opening, I wanted Celi’s character to establish herself as a voice you could feel close to. I wanted to strip away the grandness of her monstrosity and show you a “typical” (is there any such thing?) girl of her era. 

Eating a limoncillo requires concentration. The stain of a limoncillo is a dark magic. The fruit is a pale peach, but stains a dark brown that ruins uniform blouses blouses and sparks torrents of belts and chancletas and nights spent sniffling over a sink with a scrubbing board and a bottle of Clorox.

Those mysterious stains are real! I have memories of my mother applying various stain treatments to our clothes after we’d gorged on the rare bushel of imported limoncillos in New York. (No spanking involved!)

On one of those unremarkable days, I made it home without a single stain on my yellow uniform blouse. Picture the village. Little boys played street soccer, pausing when a car passed. A breeze tickled the sandaled feet of the abuelas rocking in white plastic mecedoras before rising up, up, up, to coax a gentle susurration from the glossy, green-leaved palm trees behind my house. In the distance, music. Always. 

These are my memories of a childhood of summers spent with my own family in Santo Domingo. There’s a little nostalgia baked into those memories, of course, it creeps in between the lines. That longing happens to serve the story well here, I think, because Celi longs for the ease and loveliness of those days as much as I do. 

The house was two floors, coral-painted stucco with white accents. Modest and unremarkable. My mother waited for me at the door, her silhouette motionless against the sitting room light behind her. I broke into a jog and saw that her lips were set in a thin line, her arms crossed over her cotton housedress, her eyes red-rimmed. 

She stood up straighter and uncrossed her arms. She forced her lips to lift at the corners. 

I kissed her on the cheek. “Bendición, Mamá,” I said. In our culture, it is customary to ask our relatives for a blessing every time we greet them. We are trained to careen through the world begging for blessings. 

I have learned to make my own blessings. You will, too. 

“Celi,” she said. Her voice was stilted, as if she had been practicing. “I couldn’t wait to tell you the good news.”

I trailed her into my bedroom. 

“Don’t change yet,” she said, as I began to unbutton my blouse. Don’t change yet.

I sat on the rose-covered blanket on my bed instead. “What is it? What’s wrong?” 

“You’re getting married,” she said, smile sepulchral, eyes fixed somewhere along my hairline. 

“What? To who? Mamá, I’m fourteen.” In this era, it was not uncommon for country girls my age to marry, but there were usually — how do I put it — other considerations.   

“I know, mi amor. But there are things you don’t know, even about yourself.”

I wondered if I had, like the Virgin Mary, become pregnant without knowing it. We are taught so young to be suspicious of our own bodies. In our case, perhaps, not suspicious enough.

Learn more about Delgado and her work at yohanca.com

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