What Are They Saying?
From EL PORTAL, Fall 2016
“Compa! Ayúdame pushar la pinche carumfla!”
A swarthy young fellow swiping at his face with his chambray shirtsleeve emerged from a cluster of men kneeling in front of a dented pickup on the Tijuana streetcorner as he cursed the man who’d called for help.
“Por que no robas battery que trabaja?” he demanded. With the help of several others he got the old car that the first speaker had been trying to start spluttering down the rutted, once-paved street.
“Dumb pendejo!” he swiped at his sweaty face as he jogged back towards the group around the pickup. “Stupid sonabeech no know not’ing de Chevies.”
Spanish is not the only language spoken on the United States-Mexico frontier. (Visitors from other parts of Mexico often argue that Spanish isn’t spoken there at all.) The frontier’s history as a source of vice and lawlessness has given it a language that fits its personality: a chaotic clashing of sounds and rhythms, vulgar, opportunistic and original.
This “Spanglish” (or “espanglès” or “Tex-Mex”) is more than an overlapping of expressions from two different cultures. It is a pounding of classic Spanish word flow into direct subject-verb-object immediacy. Reflexive verbs like the Spanish “se me olvidò” (“it got itself lost to me”) or “a mi me gustan” (“those things are liking to me”) give way to cause and effect grammar with the English direct action verb substituted for the reflexive Spanish impersonal: “I want tacos con mucha chile” or “I don’t forget mis amigos, mano!”) In similar fashion, possession often hardens into the American form of identity with an implied apostrophe instead of the classical Spanish de: “Traigo Mario’s pistola…” or “Comí María Isabel’s hambourger…”
Because it is a hybrid border Spanish varies from one speaker to another depending upon their backgrounds or the situations encountered. (Cuban-dominated Spanglish spoken in Miami, for example, and Puerto Rican Spanglish in the northeastern United States have their own vocabularies and phrasings.)
Some critics have argued that Spanglish confirms that Latinos don’t assimilate to the U.S. culture in the same way that previous immigrant groups have done by learning correct English and discarding their native languages. This criticism discounts the geographical differences between Europe or Asia and Latin America. The proximity of Mexico and the Caribbean countries to the United States has enabled immigrants to go back and forth, carrying cultural patterns and language with them and creating a constant exchange of values, descriptions and lifestyles.
Ilan Stavans, professor of Latin American culture at Amherst University, points out that a language or dialect being “different” does not mean it is “deficient.” He insists that “from a purely linguistic point of view…(Spanglish) covers all the necessities of its speakers and changes as it adjusts to these necessities. It is a complete linguistic system, perfectly structured (and consequently valid) and if it’s called ‘inadequate’ it’s because of social connotations rather than for some type of inherent inferiority.”
Stavans contends that Spanglish provides its speakers with a way to show creative individuality, a vehicle by which Latinos assimilate on their own terms, and enables native Spanish speakers to communicate in a language with a different grammatical structure than their own. Alberto Juárez, a young immigrant from Oaxaca describing an early experience in California’s San Joaquin Valley, told me, “My friend goes to a bar, wants to say ‘me gusta una cerveza’ in English and says ‘a beer it likes me’ and everybody makes fun of him, says ‘Hey! The beer likes me too!’ ‘So does the whiskey!’ He feels bad. Stupid. I say, ‘Pleez, drinqueo a cerveza’ (I drink a beer), they understand, I speak bad English but I get the beer.”
He added that in that particular rural bar “drinqueo” became a word that many of the Anglos began using. The owner even put a sign in his window announcing Happy Hour 4–6. Drinkeos 2×1.
In similar fashion a Chula Vista, California teenager describing her boy friend’s car breaking down while they were driving through “a bad neighborhood,” exclaimed, “Estaba friquiando!” (“I was freaking out”), there being no way to adequately translate “freaking out” except by converting the English verb into Spanglish.
While Spanish is a Romance language that traces its roots directly to Latin, English in both grammar and vocabulary has multiple origins. No “Royal Academy of the English Language” exists (unlike the dictatorial Real Academia de la Lengua Española).
Stavans defines English as much more flexible and innovative than Castillian Spanish. Spanglish speakers use this flexibility to simplify translation, instinctively selecting the most dynamic words and phases to express what they feel or want to describe. Farm supervisors shout words like jojear (“hoe”) and uátearlo (“water it”) because it’s easier to invent or amend words than rely on adonazar or ponte agua despite the grammatical corruptions involved. Yo tengo el look! as a fashion statement utilizes English advertising slang in a youthfully evocative manner that can’t be said with the same intensity in Spanish.
Although Spanglish is recognized as a valid means of communication by many Mexican (as well as U.S.) academicians the president of Spain’s Real Academia de la Lengua disparaged it as “a laboratory invention” in a discourse during a Mexico City conference on the Spanish language. Eduardo Márceles Daconte, who attended the conference, quoted him insisting that it cannot be considered “a language, a dialect or even jargon” and that with globalization Spanish, like English, is acquiring elements from other languages that “enrich and fortify” the mother tongue but to assert that segments of the population are creating a hybrid is a “sociological falsehood.”
Yale professor of Spanish literature Roberto González Echeverría is equally critical, calling Spanglish a language of “many of whom are almost illiterate…(it) prejudices the people who use it and is a danger to the Hispanic culture…It is a capitulation that indicates marginalization, not liberation, and treats the Spanish of Cervantes, Lorca and García Márquez as though it lacks proper essence and dignity.”
“Whether the Spanish philologist likes it or not,” Márceles Daconte counters, “Spanglish is here to stay even though it commits idiomatic transgressions” like vacumear carpetas (vacuum carpets) or no janguear aquí (don’t hang out here).
Despite the assertions of some learned educators Spanglish no longer is solely a language of the rude and uneducated. In its efforts to break down barriers to merchandising and trade globalization also is breaking down barriers between languages, including Spanish and English. Words and phrases like “offshorización,” “defaulteando” and “operaciones de trading” pop up in newspapers, on the internet and TV throughout Latin America.
Stavans counters academic preoccupations that this new language or dialect has a corruptive influence on Spanish or English by asserting that it is no more corruptive than adolescent slang or sports jargon. González Echeverría is correct in asserting that Spanglish does not derive from the Spanish of writers, teachers and politicians but comes directly from the language used by workers and campesinos. Their Spanish is not the flowery extravagance of page-long paragraphs laden with superlatives but is vulgar, direct and laced with profanity (much like the language used by farm and factory workers throughout the world): short sentences, cryptic descriptions, vivid imagery.
This non-scholarly grammar merges into the English spoken by people from similar economic and social strata without a great deal of difficulty. It is more correct to define the vulgar “street Spanish” used by rural and ghetto dwellers in Latin American countries as “corrupt” than to lay that label on its Spanglish derivative.
Many Spanglish expressions derive from the childhood and adolescent experiences of youngsters snagged between two cultures — and consequently two languages: “fouárdame un email” (“forward me an e-mail”); “tomamos un breik” (“let’s take a break”); “el bil parece muy jai” (“The bill seems very high”).
“Immigrants who’ve grown up in homes where they speak and hear Spanish and at the same time use English in school and with their friends at times have difficulty conversing in one single language uncontaminated by the other,” asserts Márceles Daconte. Often these youngsters acted as interpreters for their parents in dealing with the English-speaking world. They were learning the new language at the same time that their vocabularies in the old one were expanding; consequently, they used words from one culture in the language they spoke from the other.
As a result inaccuracies and discrepancies often occurred. An Austin, Texas mother related this account to me:
“Berto, the seven-year-old son of my neighbor, was home alone when a man came to the door. He was from the utility company and said ‘I’m going to regulate the meter.’ Berto didn’t understand. The man kept trying to explain and finally blurted, ‘Fix, I fix the meter.’
“‘As-fix-i-ar el meeter?’
“‘Yeah, yeah, asfixiar!”
“Since his parents weren’t home Berto came to me and told me ‘Está asfixiando’ — which in Spanish means asphyxiating, suffocating. I rushed over and there was the meter man, quite unsuffocated. Proud of the new word he’d learned in Spanish he told us, ‘All done. It’s asfixiado.’”
I have heard Spanglish speakers use the verb fixiar, or afixiar, in relation to repairing everything from toasters to immigration documents.
To speak Spanglish in Mexicali, Ciudad Juárez, Nogales or other frontier cities is to be hip, sharp, savvy, on the make. Command of that that language with its mix of Spanish, English and jive gives a border resident a sense of power, of superiority, over those who speak “old fashioned” Spanish and immigrants who haven’t caught on to this new way of conversing.
“Like sex, drugs and rock and roll in the Sixties,” insists retired Los Angeles law enforcement supervisor Humberto Jaimes, young residents of areas where both English and Spanish is spoken have adopted Spanglish as an “in” way of communicating and a rebellion against conservative rules and values. (Those of us who were college students in the Sixties recall how hip and chic using African-American ghetto slang was considered on and off campus during the battles over integration and the Vietnam War.)
Unhampered by rules, Spanglish can alter meanings, invent definitions and bend grammar. It modifies English nouns that are difficult for the Spanish-trained tongue: ”Wheels” into “huilas” instead of the Spanish ruedas, “truck” into troca” and the Sunday comic strips into the “fonis” (funnies) instead if cariacaturas.
Many of these transmutations and challenges derive from television, radio, billboards, employers, pop music and movies. Xosé Castro Roig notes, “The young people of all the Spanish-speaking countries live immersed in an audiovisual culture…that is principally a translation of English, different from the culture of their parents and grandparents which, although not immune to foreign expressions, did not provide nearly as many openings for the entrance of new words.”
Some years ago a Tijuana security guard told me about a pandillero’s attempt to mug him:
“Ese pinche pendejo, zsst! Switchblade, aquí in la cara, you know?” Forefinger at his Adam’s apple, indicating the mugger’s knife, he slid his other hand towards his belt and extracted a make-believe pistol. His thick, neatly trimmed mustache twitched as he leaned towards me, his trigger finger testing the non-existent gun.
“Oye!” he grinned, obviously enjoying his retelling of the experience, “‘Make my day!’ I tells him. ‘Ay, hombre! ‘Make my day!’”
Language, after all, is a tool by which people communicate and they do so in a manner that is most adaptable to the circumstances. The cumulative effect of the migration of workers and their families back and forth (including schooling in a different language than spoken at home or in the neighborhood) “explains why Spanish has not disappeared, as other immigrant languages have,” Stavans insists. “Quite to the contrary, its presence in the United States is more and more evident. Nonetheless, it doesn’t exist in a pure state, free from adulteration. It suffers continuous transmutations and adapts to new challenges.”
José Moreno de Alba, president of the Mexican Academy of Language, denies that Spanglish is on its way to becoming a new and separate language. Moreno de Alba affirms that dialects do not alter the languages from which they derive but remain apart, a specialty of those who speak it. That Spanglish is not confined to a particular population in an isolated environment, such as Quebecois or Cajun French or Boer Dutch in southern Africa, gives it a dynamism that “far from provoking a rupture or creating an obstacle for the root languages, it enriches them.”
“Every language resolves the necessities that its speakers have for communication in an entirely adequate manner,” Stavans explains. “If the necessities change, the language also changes.”
Some of the processes attributed to Spanglish are commonplace in other languages. I often hear tourists invent words or try to jam Mexican conjugation onto English verbs: “puede helpear me?”; “necesito un hat.” But these improvisations, although they are attempts to communicate, do not change the basic language that the speaker uses.
Spanglish, on the other hand, has a “feel,” a “ritmo” that makes it distinctive. “I can go through bus station, an airport, a shopping center, and identify Spanglish speakers without hearing a word they’re saying,” retired Mexican Army publicist Dagoberto Martell told me. Spanglish, he claimed, “throbs. It has its own staccato, its own beat, its own music. English is more of a monotone, Spanish more lilting, the vowel sounds all alike. But not Spanglish. Listening to it, speaking it, makes my heart beat faster, my nerves jump more quickly.”
A Texas lay minister described her advice to parents who wanted their children to stop speaking Spanglish:
“Tie their hands behind their backs. With their hands tied, they can’t speak Spanglish.”
She was joking, of course, but the mix of languages that has become Spanglish includes a multitude of gestures, many of which substitute for spoken words. “I felt so…” a teenager grabs her throat and sticks out her tongue to indicate revulsion. “Rapidito we’s…” a woman’s fingers prance through the air to pantomime running “…to catchear el tren.” “The school me…” a youngster’s flops to one side as though he’s fallen asleep to indicate boredom.
Such gestures are common to many languages but Martell insists that Spanglish has made them integral communication substitutions for verbs or descriptions that are difficult to translate or pronounce.
Languages are not invented by academicians or politicians but “emerge from the psychological predisposition of a people,” insists linguist Alfonso Castelao. In less academic terms a young California farm worker described Spanglish as “you know, like weeds. They come up everywhere, you can’t chop ’em all out. You don’t hoe, pretty soon weeds is all you’ve got.” Neither laws about “official state languages” or lamentations about corruption of a mother tongue can prevent those “weeds” from proliferating: They propagate and cultivate themselves in the environment in which they find themselves.
A young teacher who works in a bilingual program in Texas told me that she often slips into using Spanglish when she’s in a hurry or responding to some immediacy. “Abren los books!” she remembers telling her class after rushing into the classroom after a playground emergency. And, “Malos, malos grades, hijo!” she scolded a recalcitrant student who did poorly on an exam.
Other examples: “Hay que kick ass!” a coach shouted at his players because all of them understood what “kicking ass” meant and Spanish equivalents didn’t occur to him. “Me dió un pinche shock!” a mother described the news about her son’s car accident, the Spanish words “golpe” and “susto” lacking the impact of the English noun. Alfredo Ochoa of BBC Mundo in Miami described an overjoyed mother enthusing, “Me llego mi grincar (green card) y estoy super happy!”
Spanglish is not the only language blended from two separate cultures. Yiddish, a merging of Jewish and German, attained status as a recognized language after hundreds of years of existence. Other combined languages, or dialects, include the melding of Spanish and Portuguese on the border area between those countries, French and English in some areas, Israeli and Arabian in the Near East.
However, contiguous borders do not necessarily create merged languages. In Mexico, many individual indigena tongues retain their original vocabularies and structure without absorbing or mixing with Spanish. Zapotecs, for example, often become bilingual and speak both Zapotec and Spanish without mixing one language with the other. Residents of many European countries speak two or more separate languages but not as a guisado, a stew, that hodgepodges them together.
In classes he taught at Mexico City College Mexican philosopher Ramón Xirau described “the use of language to determine and maintain class structure.” As examples he cited Castillian Spanish speakers ridiculing country accents like those of Galicia, Spain and English prejudice against so-called “Cockney.” As a teenager I encountered this class prejudice when I was reprimanded for using “Okie” expressions in high school in California. Similarly as a college student in Mexico City I was told to stop using vernacular that I’d picked up from maids and construction workers because they made me sound like an “uneducated street urchin.”
If language expresses environment and like a living organism revises and keeps reinventing itself in order to respond to its environment then the “Spanglish” of the Mexico-U.S. border can be understood as an accurate reflection of the lives of the people who speak it. Thus defined it becomes “right” as a language rather than “bad Spanish” or a corrupt combination of two languages.
As a language it has power — the power of the environment that it represents, an environment that is constantly shifting, constantly struggling, constantly being pushed by outside forces. It is vital and alive, forms of it are spoken by over 30 million border residents and over half that many American residents of Mexican descent. Not only that but Spanglish usage rapidly is spreading southward as immigrants and the children of immigrants return, temporarily or permanently, to their places of origin in Mexico.
Stavans terms Spanglish “the perfect metaphor for an America that is a hybrid, a sum of parts.” Like the languages and dialects it uses the country constantly is changing. Spanglish is one of those changes. How permanent it will become is anybody’s guess.
But one thing for sure: It’s not soon going to go away.