I was standing in line at the school cafeteria the other day. There was a student in front of me. The cafeteria server was asking the young girl to choose an option. From behind the serving line, I hear a familiar mantra: “this or that, mija”. Mija. Four years of elementary school lunches came rushing back with such force that I was nearly swept away with the flood.
There was a whole line of sweet women who knew me by name and took special care to make sure I had food on my plate. As I stopped for steak fingers, just before sliding her spatula away, she would whisper, “mija”. The next woman, presumably someone’s mother, too, would scoop a vegetable and repeat the word. “Mija”. I’d get mashed potatoes, and a roll, and then slide my tray and pass the last lady my lunch card. Mija. Mija. Mija. I remember the day that I worked up the courage to ask what it meant. And I remember the warm feeling of family that overcame me when the lady replied, “daughter”. This elementary school had a population of 97% Hispanic students. 1% Caucasian. For years, I had been one of the few people in the line who didn’t know the word, but had instead felt it.
Years later, I learned Spanish. In the family unit, we learned “hija”. I was confused, and lost, and I remember saying, “No.” I brought up the word. My teacher was kind enough to explain that mi hija shortened to mija because the first word ends with the same sound that the next word begins with, so they combine. I was at home again.
I talk a lot about the women who have mothered me in the absence of my own mother, but these women are different. My mother was alive and well during these years. My mom even subbed at my school. She spoke Spanish and knew these women. One of them was our neighbor across the street. These women represent motherhood in a different way, in the way that all of us do when we work at a school. Whether we whisper “mija” to a student while we guide her through the lunch line or we speak life or encouragement or correction to a child as we guide him through learning, these are the weighty tasks of a motherhood of sorts. And kids remember it. And it matters.