Somewhere in the grey

Feb. 1, 2022, 9:41 p.m.

When I was about five and my parents signed me and my siblings up for the local soccer league, I told them I wanted to be goalie. To me, a child filled with romantic fantasies, I would be a star – the only person on the field who could touch the ball with their hands, who dived and jumped and blocked soccer balls going at monstrous speed, who saved the day by catching a game-deciding penalty kick. My father, a soccer player in his prime whose career was ended by a torn MCL, decided I needed intense and vigorous training — and what better way to get it than in the comfort of my own backyard, with the audience of my childhood cat, Mimi, and a woodpecker on a nearby telephone pole hacking away with a peck, peck every time we went outside.

I learned how to hold and grab the ball, how to punt it once I caught it, how to jump high and punch the ball, where to stand and what to do during a corner kick, where I could and couldn’t grab the ball, how to assert myself, how to act during a one-on-one and how to block the fated penalty. My father insisted that diving, getting dirty and not being afraid of bruises and grass stains were essential for any goalie, so much so that the majority of the “Figueroa School of Goalie Excellence” consisted of me throwing myself on the ground for hours. He would stand behind me and wrap his hands around my little wrists and move me within the confines of the homemade goalie box. He showed me how the space was mine and how I could be successful with the right moves. Even after hours, when my dad’s age caught up to him and he’d retreat inside, I would remain until sunset and practice diving, sometimes even matching the rhythm of the peck, peck.

A girl (Kyla as a child) kneels down and catches a soccer ball. An opposing forward in a red jersey, green socks and black cleats is to the right.
Part of my training was ensuring that the ball never escaped my hands when I caught it. Here, it’s within my six-year-old palms with an iron grip. (Why didn’t I use goalie gloves?) (Photo courtesy of Kelli Figueroa)

I eventually played soccer for my tía, who coached an under-6 co-ed team named La Razita Junior. I was finally living out my little dreams — well, for the most part. I had my jersey, which was long-sleeved and a different color from the other players’, with my last name and the number 1 printed on the back. That jersey, playing a sport I loved and spending time with family were the main perks. I quickly learned, however, that being goalie wasn’t all glory; in fact, I was the honorary scapegoat. Kids can be mean, and my teammates were no exception to the trend. Their defensive errors were pinned on me, and I was at fault even if they blocked my view of the field or set up the ball perfectly for the opposing striker. With every game we lost, I got quite a bit of “constructive criticism” — “Why didn’t you block that shot?” — and with every good game, I barely got a “good job.” The team’s love went to the forwards, the players who actually scored our goals.

And like all athletes, I had bad days. Those were the worst. Not only were there losses, but these games seemed to nullify all of the work I had done in my backyard. While my parents were supportive, taking me to every game and cheering on my successes, I felt there was a raging disappointment in their eyes when I couldn’t perform up to the standards of those before my time. I was usually met with a scolding after a game. Some anger and some tough advice. But all I could hear was my own voice, bouncing off the walls inside my head. I wasn’t good enough. And when I’d go home and head straight to the bathroom to wash the sweat and dirt off of my face, I didn’t look at myself in the mirror.

I quit goalie at age 7. I turned to the field as a defender and eventually a midfielder, both positions where I couldn’t use my hands and played like the rest of the team. I quit the sport all together at age 10 and moved on. I, at last, accepted my childhood defeat.

*

Language, to me at least, is the greatest bridge between people. No algorithm, code or number can outdo a simple letter, word and sentence. Prose and poetry, my art forms, reign supreme. (English major here. I guess there’s some bias, but I won’t back down.) With language, you communicate love. Anxieties. Your deepest, darkest secrets within the putrid pits of the mind and your aspirations that seem intangible, straight out of fantasy lands from childhood picture books. And, of course, without language, human interaction would not be probable. Cultures, the congregation of people under a common identity, would cease to exist. Thus, language is the vehicle for everyday life. And that’s true no matter how mundane or worthwhile that may be for an individual.

Stockton, Calif., my hometown, is America’s most diverse-yet-scarred city, home to a large Latino, majority Mexican, immigration population. Playing soccer there meant that most of my teammates were of the same racial background. Referees, players and coaches communicated for substitutes and fouls in Spanish, the universal language in the league. Parents, within their rowdiness and rage about a bunch of children kicking around a ball, argued and cussed in Spanish, two sides brawling.

In Spanish, goal is gol. (That’s an easy one.) Or golazo, for commentators spectating Liga MX games on Univision. Penalty is penal. (Essentially another cognate.) Ball is pelota. Referee is árbitro. Goalkeeper is portero.

I was a portera.

Spanish is a gendered language. My dad said something along those lines, in less sociological terms, when I had asked for the definitions of those words, usually on the way home from practice or a Saturday game. Spanish was practically innate for him. The rules had been ingrained into his life since birth like genes or physical traits. What comes so naturally is sometimes so hard to explain. The Spanish alphabet and vocabulary words required no further details. Simple things required simple explanations. When I asked about conjugations, slang or just the common why, his response was less complicated than it should have been.

That’s just how it is. It just makes sense.

It never made sense to me. 

*

Here’s my hypothesis: if language is a vehicle, then for me, Spanish is like my friend’s car on the third level of Wilbur parking garage — it works when needed. It’s there. It exists somewhat, but not without its problems, such as its brakes going out in the middle of summer quarter or its solid month of rattling every time the driver turned.

For years, I could never articulate this problem. Spanish, up until high school, was simple words and phrases picked up from family gatherings and “Dora the Explorer.” My first language was English. Anything too fast or too complicated needed to be broken down, translated or spoken at 0.5 speed. Otherwise, it would go in one ear and out the other. 

I once watched a video on YouTube that showed how non-English speakers hear English. Every word felt familiar, like I should have understood them, but there was nothing but incoherence. Nothing stuck. I couldn’t find anything familiar, find myself, within what was being spoken. There was no connection. 

*

Stockton was a sea of Mexican immigrants, especially on the east side, where my elementary school was located. Being biracial and inheriting my most prominent traits from my white mother, I stood out. This wasn’t oppressive by any means; in fact, it was familiar. It was like going to school with a bunch of my cousins from my dad’s side of the family. (The same amount, too, since my dad and his 12 siblings gave me 40 to 60 playdates across a wide age range.) The people at school were just an extension of that. They played similar games at home — the same jump rope and double dutch skittering on the cement. The same clearance shoes grazing across bark that got trapped in your shoes, its flakes in random places. The same little legs pounding cement playing basketball or running away from whoever was “it.” They even played soccer at school with goalie posts too big for children under five feet and not adorned with nets. We had to chase the ball in the same way my cousins and I ventured into the chivas when we kicked the ball over the fence.

Yet it was simultaneously different. There was a different game, one that wasn’t necessary for my cousins because we were family. My cousins knew my ancestry and heritage because it was shared; they knew my dad, their tío and even padrino for some. They might not have had my “problem,” but they knew me.

For kids at school, it was always the same question for me and my brothers — why don’t you know Spanish? They never understood in the same way that I never knew how to answer. For them, Spanish was innate; it was ingrained in them. For me, it wasn’t, and I didn’t have other stuff to prove it. I didn’t have a career in folclórico or visit Michoacán or any place in México for months at a time. They just had to take me at my word; I had to believe myself too… I don’t think either party had much faith. 

One day, my mother, who normally picked us up, parking behind and taking a path parallel to the bus lane, was unable to. My dad took a late lunch to take us home on the way from a fast food restaurant. One of my brother’s friends was waiting with him, a child with similar questions as the rest. The boy “quizzed” my father when he arrived by speaking to him in Spanish. My father, no surprise, responded. Shocker! The Figueroas were like us after all.

My dad had something we did not. The only question was why? Simple things required simple answers. This one, while at the surface was simple, was more complex. That’s just how it is, was all we could give.

*

Dinner would always happen at the big wooden table for five, no matter if we had a soccer game, school or work. At the biracial family dinner table, what we ate depended on who was cooking. It depended on which of my parents’ turn it was to prepare and marinate the meat, cut vegetables and help the other put food in front of picky children. Some nights it was seasoned chicken (pollo) with cream of mushroom soup and a side of white rice (arroz blanco). Sometimes it was roast, diced potatoes and carrots mixed in with a broth of shredded beef (sopa). Or pizza (pizza; a cognate) or miscellaneous pasta, marinara sauce (salsa marinara) and meatballs (albóndigas) with a side of caesar salad (ensalada). Others consisted of chile verde with frijoles and arroz. Enchiladas on special nights. Tortillas were a staple for all meals, flour or corn (maíz) heated on the comal. 

I, having grown up in Stockton, know a lot about Mexican food. I know more foods than words from the Spanish language, and I continue to learn about more. The taste, the flavor, seasoning and spice all within a concoction of meat, peppers and sauces — everything about Mexican food was familiar. I grew up with these foods. One day, when I was old enough and my parents would let me touch the stove, I would learn recipes from both sides. I would practice creating the meals, rinse and repeat, in the same way my parents learned from theirs. It was lineage, something other than genes and hand-me-downs that was passed down from generation to generation. Eventually the student becomes a teacher; I, one day, when I learned all the recipes, would pass them down to my children.

I often think of my paternal grandparents, especially when I sit at the big wooden table, each member at their assigned seat, and ask my parents the same questions I was asked at school. Why didn’t you teach me Spanish? I think about how different we are, not only in age. They came to the United States half a century ago, really only knowing Spanish and learning droplets of English to pass their citizenship tests. I was born with citizenship, with Stockton being the only place I could call home and California the only place I ever really knew. English was my first language. I would only learn Spanish too many years later, and not from my family.

That’s just how it is.

As I would pick at my food, sauce and rice coming together as one, I think about how I could never really communicate with my grandparents, how I could never truly be ingrained in the culture. Despite any effort to pass on the food, there would be no culture, no language behind it. Something got lost between generations, along the man-made borders between each country. The longer we are here, the more the lineage expands on this land, the more is lost. Why? 

We were at a loss for words, Spanish or English. We had no answers. Explanations were unclear — they were lost in the grey. 

*

They say good things come in threes. What about pairs? Is it still an angel number if there’s only two of the same number? 11:11 would concur. A double is considered a good roll in Yahtzee. Analogies are the foundations for metaphors and similes. In the culture of the Yoruba, a West African ethnic group, twins are gifts from God. Parents, grandparents and every generation before, the people that love, care for and make you you, go from strangers to living their lives together as pairs. 

I first learned that dichotomies were opposing pairs in my 11th grade literature class. Studying “Hamlet,” we discussed how Hamlet and Polonius were two contradictory characters, a rigid contrast in how they presented each other to the kingdom. One was truthful, yet perceived as insane. The other was a performer, fitting the mold of society. Despite their tragic ends, each fit somewhere in the story as a member of one side, secure in their role.

However, these characters both took part in the thematic phenomenon of performance versus being truthful. What happens if you don’t fit into one side? What if you exist as both characters? Was their inability to choose, the unknown making their questions unanswerable, the reason the play ended the way it did?

In the class, I also learned what a paradox was — two contradictory sides that are able to exist truthfully together. What a paradox creates is ambiguity. What it creates for a person is disconnection if they are immersed in only one side. The result of this combination is grey. Despite being told both are valid, the subject feels that their complementary and simultaneous existence is invalid. There’s no security in the unknown feeling of grey.

It’s gotten better. When I was younger, I couldn’t define racial imposter syndrome. I would just dissolve into a puddle of tears if I tried to articulate a “problem” I had no words for. Only guilt would show; everyone else seemed so secure in their community while I just wondered what I did wrong. I’d practice how I’d greet my grandfather and stumble on the words when talking, even though I knew it was a simple ¿Cómo está? and Bien. The words didn’t feel right in my mouth. At family parties with Spanish music, I’d be so embarrassed to even hear words I didn’t understand and everyone else did; my face would turn red and I’d run to join my cousins, as far away as possible from the stereos to avoid my guilt of not knowing.

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

I can verbalize it now, face the music and, hell, write this entire essay, but without the language that connects my community, while I desperately yearn to, I don’t feel secure existing in those spaces. Despite any newfound validation I’ve connected with at Stanford, where I have found students with similar experiences, the problem persists. I continue to exist somewhere in the grey.

*

My love for soccer resurfaced in high school, where I tried out for and made the JV soccer team. It had been years since I played, and I was essentially getting a fresh start. However, that meant proving myself once more, working my way from starting on the bench for the majority of freshman year to playing summer league to starting as a midfielder for sophomore year. 

While I started JV equipped with more than the basic skills, including the diving and punting practice that had stuck and was handy for my few appearances as a goalie, one thing that I never learned from training was how to make the ball hurt less when it slams into your stomach and sucks all the air out of your lungs. And as a midfielder, that happened a lot on the field, coming suddenly and unexpectedly – a kick took a split second and boom, you were on the ground, reeling and gasping for air. When I was younger, so many timeouts were called just to attend to children who got the wind knocked out of them, myself one of the many victims.

My high school coach had the remedy: sit-ups. Sit-ups tone your core and create a firm wall that delays the pain from a ball to the gut. Sometimes, due to the 100 our coach would make us do after every practice, I wouldn’t even be affected by these once-tragic blows. It was something new that helped me become a better player and made me feel more secure on the field, without the worry that I would have to stop an entire game just to catch my breath. I can’t go back to the past and change when the ball did hurt, but with the little things that I picked up on a new team, I could move forward.

*

I can’t go back and fix myself. I can’t go back and become fluent in Spanish, giving me the great connector that is language and undoing all the insecurity I’ve internalized. I’ll never solve this crisis; the effect of disconnection is too deeply rooted. But I can try to learn new things, pick up and scrounge for any pieces of my culture that I feel secure taking and, in turn, restore confidence in myself. Ceaselessly, I try to go on, reaching for any anchor I can grasp as I float in the pool of ambiguity that is my identity.

Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is a Vol. 260–262 Managing Editor for The Grind and a staff writer for Arts & Life. She is a junior from Stockton, California studying English with an emphasis in Creative Writing and minor in CSRE. Ask her about the indie rock and pop music scene, the coming-of-age genre, and Slaughterhouse-Five at kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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