My mother bought our first CD player for the primary purpose of learning English. It was 1995 and she had decided we would start a new life in the United States. I was more interested in listening to music; the problem was we didn’t own any CDs. So I convinced her to take me to a record store in a mall in Caracas and fill a shopping basket with random albums that caught our eye, from Philip Glass to Maracaibo 15 to that famous American icon: Madonna. From then on, The Immaculate Collection, containing all her hits to date, became my own English course. I would play it from start to finish every day after school, dancing and singing along, not understanding any of the lyrics but certain I was at least mastering English pronunciation along with some dance moves.
About a decade later, as a high schooler in the suburbs of Atlanta, I started listening to Madonna again, this time on my shiny new iPod Mini (the pink one, naturally). She had made more music in the intervening years, but I went back to the classics—her classics, anyway; there is nothing timeless about those songs and their synthetic eighties aesthetic. This time around, now a proficient English speaker, I marveled at the lyrics I’d been “singing” as an eight-year-old—about being like a virgin, then pregnant, then a freak.
The Immaculate Collection wasn’t in line with the other music I listened to during those adolescent years of trying to project coolness; what brought me back was the simple joy I found in its dance beats. Like Madonna in “Into the Groove,” at night I too would lock the doors where no one else could see me and dance. The song was the perfect bop for a teenager alone in her room late at night, headphones in so her mother wouldn’t know she was still awake. Those were the days of downloading music slowly and illegally, but I had no need for that. Through almost a dozen moves in those early, chaotic years of immigrant life, we had hauled our modest CD collection around. The Immaculate Collection remained in my possession, an artifact of a different place and time.
It doesn’t take much to get me reminiscing about the past—or dancing and singing—but in confinement I’ve been doing more of both, often at the same time. While Daniel and I get ready in the morning or cook dinner in the evening, we ask Alexa to play whatever songs come to mind, many of them “oldies” from when we were growing up. Alexa obliges as best as she can, though she struggles with my requests for Spanish-language music. (Like most Americans, she’s monolingual; the trick, I have found, is to speak Spanish to her in a heavy gringo accent.) She also mispronounces my name, reminding me each morning of the childhood trauma that was roll call at each new American school I attended—but for the most part she gets the job done, gets us moving and crooning for a little while as if it were just another day.
I could never have imagined, as a little girl growing up in Caracas, that I would listen to the same album ten years later through a tiny pink device in a language I’d only been able to imitate, or twenty-five years later by calling on a female robot from my home in California. In the same way, I could never have imagined that I would live through a global pandemic, recession, and protest movement all at once. We look back in time—to 1918, 1929, 1968—to try to make sense of what’s happening, and maybe also to remind ourselves that a future is possible even when the present feels so bleak. We made it here, didn’t we?
I wonder how the world and I will be different in another twenty-five years. Perhaps some iteration of Alexa will be built into every home, and she’ll speak every language, and I’ll be able to teach her to same my name right. Maybe she—it—won’t be gendered. Maybe I’ll have children whom I’ll teach to like catchy pop from the previous century, and to continue the fight for justice and equality. Maybe I’ll tell them about my first CD player in Caracas. About my first iPod in Atlanta. About dancing with their father in Oakland during that fateful year in history—2020—and finding a moment of joy. “Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free,” I’ll sing to them, imaginary mic in my hand. Perhaps as adults they’ll have their own childhood memories of singing and dancing at home, memories that will be instantly sharpened when they hear these old tunes. Wouldn’t that be something, if Madonna’s music continued to carry into the future this way, while this monumental year became another notch on the long arc of progress?
— Naihobe Gonzalez
Oakland, day 91