Spanglish: A Descriptive Argument for a Linguistic Anomaly

When I inform people that Spanish was my first language, most just gape at me in disbelief.  All four of my grandparents were born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States to start their families, one pair legally and the other by less acceptable methods.  My parents spent their summers in Mexico and wanted their kids to have respect for the culture they came from by preserving its tongue.  My fair complexion (people fail to realize that in Eastern Mexico, the Spanish blood is still very strong) means that I have not always been identified visually as Mexican-American; albeit when given the opportunity, I have always been proud to announce that I am Chicana.  Growing up in East Los Angeles, the majority of people I came across on a daily basis had some level of knowledge of the Spanish language.  Even those who could not hold a conversation in Spanish were familiar with some terms and phrases that commonly appeared on a daily basis.  Although I no longer live in Los Angeles, the Latino influence in all of Southern California remains apparent in the commonality of Spanglish.

Who uses Spanglish?  I recorded a middle-aged grocery store clerk, my college professor grandfather, my twenty-five year-old younger sister, my six year-old cousin, various other Latino family members, my non-Latin Hawaiian husband, a thirty-something male bartender, and other middle-aged individuals in the retail/travel/restaurant sector.  What do all of these people have in common?  They are all Southern Californians!  While Spanglish is considered slang and is therefore not generally appropriate in written pieces or in formal settings, it is fairly common in informal settings no matter the class, gender, or education of the individual.  It is used primarily in friendly conversation.  Examples:

  • Adiós! See you mañana!” – a male middle-aged grocery store clerk who appeared to be of Latin decent, wishing us well after we told him we would likely be back the next day to pick up last minute items for our party.
  • “I’m so sick of this tarea.” – my twenty-five year-old sister, while venting about her heavy course load (tarea = homework).
  • Gracias, my friend. But your dinero is no good here.” – a thirty-something male bartender who appeared Caucasian and spoke with a white accent, informing my coworker and I that we were not to pay for our drinks after having helped his restaurant with a banquet delivery.

In these examples above, there is not necessarily a specific reason for choosing the Spanish word over the English.  They are interchangeable.  Sometimes, however, the Spanish word or phrase is chosen because there is not an English equivalent.  Examples:

  • Te amo, sweetheart.” – my Hawaiian husband who doesn’t have a Latin bone in his body but who also grew up in Los Angeles. Te amo, which means “I love you,” was elected in this instance because the Spanish version is stronger than the English.  In English, there is no distinction between “I love you” to a life partner and “I love you” to your parent or child.  In Spanish, te quiero means “I love you” in a broader sense as you would say to a family member, but te amo signifies a much deeper love.  You would only say it to someone with whom you are in love, not simply someone you love.
  • “I know he seems like a good guy, pero no me cae bien.” – my grandfather when talking about his first meeting with my cousin’s new boyfriend.  The literal translation is “he doesn’t fall well with me.”  Of course, this makes absolutely no sense in English.  What it refers to in Spanish, however, is that feeling when someone just rubs you the wrong way and you don’t necessarily know why.  This is an oversimplification of the term, but any Spanish speaker would know exactly the feeling you felt when you say this phrase.  Given that there is no direct English equivalent of this feeling, it is easier to use the Spanish phrase than to try to explain it in English.
  • “I need help! Hechame agua!” – my six year-old cousin (who is NOT a fluent Spanish speaker) when we were playing video games.  The literal translation is “throw water on me.”  In Spanish, the phrase means “get my back,” in the way that you would say to someone on a video game mission while they lead the charge into a horde of zombies and leave their back completely exposed.  It is also commonly used in the car when you are asking a back-seat passenger to look out the rear of the vehicle to inform you if they are clear to back out of a blind parking spot.

I did encounter many other examples of Spanglish over the past seven weeks, but these were the most useful examples to illustrate the prevalence.

Ricardo Otheguy and Nancy Stern of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Bilingualism are actually seeking to eliminate the term “Spanglish.”  They “reject the use of the term Spanglish because there is no objective justification for the term, and because it expresses an ideology of exceptionalism and scorn that actually deprives the North American Latino community of a major resource in this globalized world: mastery of a world language” (Otheguy, Stern, 85).  While I can understand the point they are trying to make, I have to argue that Spanglish is indeed its own language.  You have to speak both English and Spanish in order to understand it, and I do not believe it deprives anyone of any cultural pride.  In fact, I believe it adds to cultural pride.  A Mexican in Guadalajara likely would not understand a sentence spoken in Spanglish.  An American deep in Maine backcountry would also likely not understand a sentence spoken in Spanglish.  It is a unique linguistic phenomenon common in heavily mixed areas such as Southern California and Texas.  Speaking Spanglish immediately lets people know where you come from and how you grew up.  When I went to college in Northern California, only my SoCal peers could share Spanglish jokes with me. I have noticed that in my experience, it has become a matter not necessarily of Chicano pride, but also now has come to represent Southern Californian pride.

It is also not something that should be considered negatively, in my opinion.  Lucy Garcia Willis of the Modern Language department at the University of Texas says, “[Code-switching] is done unconsciously… it’s a cultural thing.  It’s gaining more and more acceptance” (Webb, 84).  The United States is composed entirely of immigrants.  All of these immigrants arrived with their own language (or in the case of Native Americans, were already here).  It usually takes just a few generations for the language to almost entirely die out amongst the youth of those immigrant groups, the “immigrants” becoming completely assimilated.  With Latinos, however, Spanish has grown in some senses.  “It is the acculturation – not in the surrender of el español and the embrace of English, but in the juxtaposition of the two – that a common denominator might be found” (Stavans, 556).  Spanglish allows for the best of two different but united worlds.

I am proud to be an American.  I am also proud of my Mexican heritage.  Furthermore, I am proud to be a Southern Californian.  Spanglish allows me to represent all of these things at once.  While I will not use it in academic of business settings in my future, it is essential to keep alive and pass on to further generations in order to embrace our culture.  My children will learn words and phrases in both Spanish and English not only from me, but also from their peers and social settings.  The same will likely happen with their children, and their children, and so forth.  We will all be richer for it.

References

Otheguy, Ricardo, and Nancy Stern. “On so-Called Spanglish.” The International Journal of Bilingualism 15.1 (2011): 85-100.ProQuest. Web. 27 June 2015.

STAVANS, ILÁN. “Spanglish: Tickling the Tongue.” World Literature Today 74.3 (2000): 555. ProQuest. Web. 27 June 2015.

Webb, C. A. “Spanglish.” English Journal 84.4 (1995): 84. ProQuest. Web. 27 June 2015.

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Spanglish: A Descriptive Argument for a Linguistic Anomaly