MSNBC on Spanglish
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Oct 15 13:36:06 UTC 2003
Ilan Stavans is the author of 'Spanglish: The Making of a New American
The Meaning of Spanglish
What happens when two languages become one?
By Silvana Paternostro
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Sept. 18 Unless you speak Spanish, you might not be aware of the
controversy over Spanglish, a broken mix of Spanish and English spoken
wherever you see Latinos these daysin the barrios of the Bronx, Spanish
Harlem and East Los Angeles, the migrant worker camps of Oregon and
Arizona and the tonier, tree-lined suburbs of San Antonio and South
Florida. The language is taking over the Unaited Esteitsthats how it is
spelled in Spanglish according to Ilan Stavans, its main advocate and
author of the new book, Spanglish: The Making of A New American Language
(288 pages. HarperCollins Rayo. $24.95). The book combines a serious
academic essayperhaps too seriousabout the origins and importance of
Spanglish, a compilation of more than 4,500 terms and a delightful
translation of Don Quixotes first chapter into Spanglish as proof that
this mutt of a language exists. Stavans is determined to defend it, to not
let it die, as has almost happened to Yiddish, the language of his
childhood in Mexico City, where he grew up a middle-class,
Eastern-European Jewish blond kid. In other words, an outsider.
Stavans work is a noble endeavor and incredibly fun project. A
fool for words and etymology, Stavans fell in love with Spanglish when he
first heard it on the streets of New York City. He was a newcomer, a
young, curious soul with a literary bug and a rootless past. Just like he
wasnt Mexican in Mexico, he could feel the struggle of the young Latinos,
trying to mesh two cultures, by speaking both Spanish and English in the
streets of the New York. There was something that was simply exquisite, he
writes, as if describing the girl who stole his heart. He lost his head
for her and has, faithfully, protected and defended her since then.
To many, Stavans, who became an academic, does not have the
right credentials to appropriate Spanglish. From his northeastern ivory
towerhe teaches Latin American and Latino studies at Amherst Collegehe has
developed a network of researchers and informants from all over the
continent who call him with tips on the matter. They look through local
papers, listen to radio shows, sit at bodegas and pizzerias, hang out with
the cops and the cousins in the hud (yes, Spanglish for hood). Slowly,
Stavans has put together a list of 6,000 wordsnot all made it into the
bookand the list grows every day. But some barrio boys are not happy about
this. He is taking it from the streets and into the classroom, says Latino
writer Ernesto Quionez, but he is not one of us.
His critics dont stop there. What Stavans finds poetic and avant
garde, others find offensive. Feathers get ruffled when fiddling with
Cervantess masterpiece. To puristssuch as the members of the 300-year-old
Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, whose mandate is to keep Spanish as
pure as it was in the 16th centurythis is the equivalent of translating
Shakespeare into Ebonics. To the very stodgy members of the Royal Academy,
Stavanss work only serves to desecrate pure Spanish. Ditto say the
academics and linguists of Spanish in this country. They are too locked up
in their comfortable offices to want to see what is happening in the
streets today, says Stavans.
For others, its a political argument. Spanglish is a trap that
leaves Latinos poor and in the barrio. Spanglish is a deterrent to
success. They must learn English, they argue, because it is the language
of upward mobility in this country. For Stavans, who includes a
translation of parts of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Declaration of
Independence in his introduction, Spanglish is instead a tool of
empowerment, a way of accepting that coming from two cultures makes you
broken but American nonetheless.
Stavanss flechazo, his love-at-first-sight, with Spanglish is
understandable. To a Spanish speaker with a soft spot for music, change,
irreverence, spontaneity and a street-smart instinct of survival,
Spanglish is smart, funny, adorable, gutsy and modern. It is simply
delicious to see how to vacuum the carpet becomes vacunar la carpeta,
which in pure Spanish translates to the nonsensical to vaccinate a folder.
But it is also a way of rebelling against the stubbornness of stodgy
Spanish rules. Spanglish is the answer to the urgent need of finding
quick, immediate words to technology in a modern, wired world where
Latinos have immediate access, he says. If Spanish purists do not embrace
modernity, Latinos have found a way of entering todays globalized word.
Thus reguardear for rewinding and forguardear for fast forward. So what if
Stavans was born white and outside of the barrio, and so what if he likes
to see an army of conquistadors out to get him, as far as I can tell, his
infatuation hurts no one. He has found, in the United States, a way to
feel at home at last. What follows are excerpts of our interview:
NEWSWEEK: I dont know if I speak Spanglish or not. Is there one
correct Spanglish? As you present it, there is, and my Spanglish is a
completely made-up thing. I make up words as I go along.
Ilan Stavans: The fact that when you invent words, somebody else
can understand it is already a sign that there are ears out there that
have been responding to a similar stimulation. There are words like rufo
[roof] or marketa [market] that are already established. But when we hear
new terms that are coined through our imagination, and we dont need to ask
one another what do you mean by this? then we have the beginnings of a
language. Well ask perhaps at the beginning or were puzzled, but very
quickly we incorporate those words.
And that is definitely happening with Spanglish in this country.
Definitely. I feel theres a culture out there that is enabling all
this. I think that Spanish TV and radio are enabling us to find a space
where your creative Spanglish and mine and that of other people can meet
and find some sort of middle ground.
You mean a pop culture. Thanks to J. Lo and Ricky Martin
And to Don Francisco [the variety-show host] and Cristina [the
talk-show host] and Jorge Ramos [the news anchorman].
So Jorge Ramos presents Univisions national newscast in Spanglish?
His Spanish is not pure. Its prostituted. He has said it himself.
He says green card on air, not tarjeta de identidad.
Does he say green card in an American accent or grincar?
Grincar. And people immediately understand. And if you saw a
transcript it would be spelled g-r-i-n-c-a-r. No need to define it.
And this is exactly what has the purists in Madrid and in Latin
America cringing. Spanish departments in this country are also up in arms
about it. You are advocating the death of Spanish, Stavans. Spanish
departments in this country are filled with people from the older
generations, who came here as refugees or political exiles from Latin
America, often hating the United States but coming here as the only option
from, say, Chile or Argentina. They became ostriches in Spanish
departments, got tenure, and now all these kids, 20, 30 years younger than
they are that use a different Spanish than theirs are coming into the
classroom. And these professors look down at this culture as it not being
as powerful as Garca Mrquez or as Luisa Valenzuela, which is ridiculous.
So its both a generational issue and an argument of high culture
versus low culture.
It is a younger generation that is embracing Spanglish. And I think
that the dialectic between high culture and low culture is fascinating. I
think those shows are certainly low culture. But we are witnessing the
transition of Spanglish from a pop culture to a more middlebrow and even
avant-garde approach. Something that high culture, or the more
sophisticated minds, are embracing.
Youre telling me that Don Francisco would be considered
Considered kitsch. Kitsch that is embraceable, empowering. Its the
equivalent of the rascuache, kitsch with an ethnic twist. Chicanos in the
1960s dressing like Tin-Tan were rascuache. For a while, parents bought
your cheap slippers at Kmart, and everybody looked down at you in the
neighborhood because you didnt have the slippers or the T shirts or the
nice jacket that other kids had. But there came a time in the 60s when
they said well, lets buy those slippers because that is the culture that
we come from and its a form of empowerment.
The whole La Raza movement.
Yes. I think there is an upper-middle-educated class of young,
urban Latino professionals who are saying that the Spanglish that was
looked down in the 50s and 60s as the rotten, broken, illegitimate form of
communication is now precisely what we area broken form of identity that
is perfectly full. I sit in a restaurant in Miami and in the table next to
me are two young, Cuban-Americans, speaking Spanglish, going back and
forth from one language to another, coining new terms, using terms that
are localisms, and theres nothing strange or anachronistic about it. I go
to San Antonio and I hear a doctor and a teacher, also going back and
forth from Spanish to English because they are sitting eating in a
restaurant, or in a park and they want to be heard or seen as los chicanos
or los tejanos. They want to differentiate themselves from the Anglos that
are surrounding them. I have many students who tell me that they have
parents who are very unhappy with the Spanglish that they speak. They want
them to use pure Spanish, and they feel that the presence of assimilation
is messing them up. But what they do is they come to school, and they sit
in the cafeteria, and they use Spanglish that will define their turf
vis-?-vis the other ethnic groups. Two Asians come in and you immediately
see the two Latinos speaking Spanglish. For me, its the shaping of a new
identity that is just astonishing.
Then you also have the Anglo argument against Spanglish.
Thats a question of assimilation and entering the melting pot.
Other immigrant groups have come with their own languages of
communication, Gaelic, German, Italian and Yiddish, and after two or three
generations those languages have all but vanished. There are relics of
them in the English language, but those immigrant groups have very much
become part of the United States. Theyve learned the English of the United
States. Latinos are not doing the same thing.
So Latinos are raising some questions of American identity.
Right, like has the American Dream collapsed? Is the melting pot no
longer melting the new, the incoming immigrants? Have we failed as
culture? It brings up the whole issue of the Founding Fathers and what
Americas job in the world is. Are Latinos proving us all wrong, or maybe
we have to be more emphatic and angrier and more forceful with Latinos to
make them speak English.
Because if not, theyre going to take over?
Because theyre going to take over, because theyre not going to
learn the language. And theyre going to create a country within the
country. By the way, I dont think that thats true.
Lets take that argument a little bit further. If they dont learn
the language, they also will not follow the rules of what being an
Right. English is the great equalizer. Through language comes
education, through language comes political participation, language
becomes the way of being and of dreaming, and all that, and then the I
love you, America. And that is not happening.
But why isnt it happening?
I actually think that it is a false argument. On the one hand, its
true that Latinos have not followed the same patterns [as] when Jews or
Italians learned the language. By the second or third generation, the
grandchildren already spoke English and Yiddish or Italian became a topic
of nostalgia. Latinos are a very different group in that no other
immigrant group has come from just across the border. The geographical
proximity really changes the spectrum. For a Mexican to live in San
Antonio, and in half hour to be on the other sideyou dont forget the past
the way an Italian from Palermo or an Irish from Dublin did. Yes, Latinos
have not abandoned their language the way other groups have but they are
also embracing English. They speak both Spanish and English. And that
angers some people in this country.
I am not convinced that is going to happen. Its the first time its
happening, so we are seeing and learning as we live it, I guess. But Im
not holding my breath. As much as I enjoy Spanglish, Im not sure its not
going to end up like Yiddish and that no more than 15 words will enter the
language and become household words.
The Jews came between 1850 and 1930, and thats it. But Latinos have
been coming and coming. But with Spanish its different. Once the
Nicaraguans begin forgetting Spanish, there come the Salvadorans, and once
the Salvadorans stop coming, the Guatemalans come, and then there come the
And the Ecuadorians, and then the Colombians. So as long as there
is political turmoil and poverty in Latin America and both are going to be
around for a while, there will be Spanglish por lontainthats my Spanglish
for for a long time. But it is true that it is a different language than
the one I grew up with. The public announcements are in a Spanish that is
very different from the Spanish that you and I grew up with.
You ride the subway and you see all those ads that they put on top
or on the door, you know, WATCH YOUR STEP: vea tu paso, which means see
But these ads are being written unconsciously into Spanglish by
people who are convinced they are using correct Spanish. By people who
dont know sufficient Spanish, but thats the culture that we have and
mistakes will become patterns.
At first, I have to admit they feel like desecrated Spanish and
then you learn to enjoy the deformities and actually see the poetics. So
what power can a few old teachers and stodgy men in Madrid have against a
whole generation of American kids who want to keep some kind of cultural
identity? By the way, whats your favorite Spanglish word? The latest one
is colorid, which is being used all over Argentina. It comes from caller
ID. I love socketes for socks and washeteria is such a beautiful word. It
makes you feel that you are being washed yourself.
Well I think we should come up with a word for lighten up for all
the controversyhow would we spell lighten up? L-a-i-t-e-n-o? With an
accent on the o, and there we start at the beginning of our talk, we are
making up words.
Well, thats my contribution to you lexicon.
Silvana Paternostro is the author of In the Land of God and Man: A Latin
Womans Journey (Plume/Penguin) and a senior fellow at the World Policy
Institute in New York City
2003 Newsweek, Inc.
More information about the Lgpolicy-list