The Meaning Of Spanglish

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 days--in 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 Esteits--that's 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 essay--perhaps too serious--about the origins and importance of Spanglish, a compilation of more than 4,500 terms and a delightful translation of "Don Quixote's" 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 wasn't 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 tower--he teaches Latin American and Latino studies at Amherst College--he 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 words--not all made it into the book--and 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 Quinonez, "but he is not one of us."

His critics don't stop there. What Stavans finds poetic and avant garde, others find offensive. Feathers get ruffled when fiddling with Cervantes's masterpiece. To purists--such 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 century--this is the equivalent of translating Shakespeare into Ebonics. To the very stodgy members of the Royal Academy, Stavans's 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, it's 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.

Stavans's 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 today's 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 don't 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 don't need to ask one another "what do you mean by this?" then we have the beginnings of a language. We'll ask perhaps at the beginning or we're puzzled, but very quickly we incorporate those words.

And that is definitely happening with Spanglish in this country.

Definitely. I feel there's 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 Univision's national newscast in Spanglish?

His Spanish is not pure. It's 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 Garcia Marquez or as Luisa Valenzuela, which is ridiculous.

So it's 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.

You're telling me that Don Francisco would be considered ...

Considered kitsch. Kitsch that is embraceable, empowering. It's 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 didn't 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, let's buy those slippers because that is the culture that we come from and it's 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 are--a 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 there's 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-a-vis the other ethnic groups. Two Asians come in and you immediately see the two Latinos speaking Spanglish. For me, it's the shaping of a new identity that is just astonishing.

Then you also have the Anglo argument against Spanglish.

That's 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. They've 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 America's 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, they're going to take over?

Because they're going to take over, because they're not going to learn the language. And they're going to create a country within the country. By the way, I don't think that that's true.

Let's take that argument a little bit further. If they don't learn the language, they also will not follow the rules of what being an American means?

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 isn't it happening?

I actually think that it is a false argument. On the one hand, it's 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 side--you don't 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. It's the first time it's happening, so we are seeing and learning as we live it, I guess. But I'm not holding my breath. As much as I enjoy Spanglish, I'm not sure it's 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 that's it. But Latinos have been coming and coming. But with Spanish it's 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 Nicaraguans again ...

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 lontain--that's 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 your step

But these ads are being written unconsciously into Spanglish by people who are convinced they are using correct Spanish.

By people who don't know sufficient Spanish, but that's 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, what's 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 controversy--how 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, that's my contribution to you lexicon.