”Tell It To Me Singing.” On Diaspora, Community and Cuban-American Stories

The first time I heard the phrase Tell it to me singing, I was in college. I called my best friend Tony, who, like me, is Cuban American and grew up in Miami, and he answered the phone, “Tell it to me singing!”

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“Huh?” I said.

“It means ‘¡Dímelo cantando!’”

I knew what it meant, but I didn’t know why he would answer the phone that way. So he explained: it’s like saying, “What’s new?” or “What’s up?” and it’s how a lot of older Cubans would answer the phone back in the day. “You’ve never heard it?” he asked.

Nope. Somehow I’d made it all the way to age nineteen or twenty without hearing that particular Cuban catchphrase. I’d heard so many others. My father used to stand at the front door when we were late for school and yell, “Ponte las pilas!” (Put in your batteries!) Translation: Get it in gear! If there was drama going down in the neighborhood, my aunt would say “Que arroz con mango!” (What a rice with mango!) Translation: What a mess! Or, more to the point: What a shitshow! And, one of my personal favorites, which my father would say, whenever he ran into a friend somewhere, is “¿Que volá?” (What flies?) Or, for some extra rhyming fun, “¿Que volá, petit poi?” (What flies, little pea?) Translation: What’s new?

Every culture and every language has its own idioms, sayings. Cubans call them dichos or, as my father recently taught me, dicharachos. They’re the “He’s pulling your leg” or “Stop beating around the bush” of Cuban Spanish. Dimelo cantando, my father also informed me, probably came from a 1950s Cuban television show of the same name, in which viewers sent in requests for advice on personal problems and the host delivered said advice via song—he, quite literally, told it to them singing.

I hope this is a novel about storytelling—about the stories we’ve been told that may or may not be true, the stories we try to convince ourselves are true.

So how had I never heard the dicho “Dímelo cantando”? I probably had simply never heard my father answer the phone that way. We spoke mostly English at home (my mom is Anglo) and, in those pre-caller-ID days, he’d have no way of knowing for sure that the person calling was one of his buddies from Cuba, in which case answering the phone with a hearty “¡Dimelo cantando!” would have been a sweet, friendly way to greet an old friend. What if it wasn’t his buddy? What if it was someone from my mom’s family—my grandmother or my uncle? So, to be on the safe side, he always went with a simple “Hello?” (foregoing even its Spanish equivalent, the more formal, less hearty “¿Oigo?”).

Speaking of Spanish equivalents, it’s strange, isn’t it, that, though we’re bilingual, Tony didn’t use the Spanish version that day when he answered the phone? I think this has something to do with the fact that we existed in two worlds—the world of our parents’ Cuba and the world of the U.S. We might grab a bagel at Bruegger’s for breakfast but we were coming home to eat arroz con pollo for dinner. We hadn’t gone away to school; we were commuting from our childhood bedrooms to the local university, more for cultural than financial reasons. As most second-gen people do, we navigated our two worlds via language. Constantly. We spoke mostly in English, sometimes in Spanglish, almost never entirely in Spanish. The only time we spoke—or still speak—entirely in Spanish is when we have to: when we’re speaking to an abuela or an elderly tío or a person who has recently arrived from Cuba.

But without fail, every Cuban or Cuban-American person who’s heard that Tell It to Me Singing is the title of my debut novel has reacted basically the same way: “Oh my God, I love it.” The phrase is an instant bridge back home, to the experience of having grown up in a community—whether it be in Miami, in New York, New Jersey, anywhere—that has its own inner workings, and a language that serves as a code to navigating life there.

Tell It to Me Singing is about Mónica (Cuban American, grew up in Miami), whose mother confesses, just before emergency heart surgery, that Mónica’s real father is not the man who raised her. Shocked, confused, and terrified, Mónica finds that the only person she wants to talk to is the one person she shouldn’t: her ex-boyfriend Manny (also Cuban American, also grew up in Miami). She fights the urge to contact him, but eventually loses the battle. She calls him one night and he answers the phone by saying—you guessed it— “Tell it to me singing.” It’s an old joke between them, a connection point that underscores how important their relationship was.

Somewhere around draft number 1,237 (rough estimate), I started to realize what this book was about. I found myself scribbling on a piece of light green cardstock that’s still hanging on the wall next to my desk: Is it a book about knowledge? Will she ever know it all? and then under that, in all caps: WHAT PEOPLE TELL HER VS WHAT SHE FINDS ON HER OWN. That piece of cardstock became my guiding principle for both the plot and the subplot, which is about Mónica’s mother trying to find out information about the man she loved in Cuba many years ago.

“Tell it to me singing” or “Dímelo cantando” is an invitation to deliver news or gossip or just whatever’s on the caller’s mind. It’s a phrase that has, imbedded in it, the request for a story. And, in fact, Mónica makes this request, very clearly, when she questions her mother about her past, saying, “Okay, Mom. Start from the beginning, please, and tell me everything.” So, finally, I hope this is a novel about storytelling—about the stories we’ve been told that may or may not be true, the stories we try to convince ourselves are true, and the fact that sometimes, as Mónica, does, we have to retell our own story in order to find our way home.


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Tell It to Me Singing by Tita Ramírez is available from Simon & Schuster/Marysue Rucci Books. Featured image: Phillip Pessar, used under Creative Commons BY 2.0

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