Spanglish: The Making of a New American Languageby Ilan Stavans
With the release of the census figures in 2000, Latino America wasanointed the future driving force of American culture. The emergence of Spanglish as a form of communication is one of the more influential markers of an America gone Latino. Spanish, present on this continent since the fifteenth century, when Iberian explorers sought to colonize territories in what
With the release of the census figures in 2000, Latino America wasanointed the future driving force of American culture. The emergence of Spanglish as a form of communication is one of the more influential markers of an America gone Latino. Spanish, present on this continent since the fifteenth century, when Iberian explorers sought to colonize territories in what are now Florida, New Mexico, Texas, and California, has become ubiquitous in the last few decades. The nation's unofficial second language, it is highly visible on several 24-hour TV networks and on more than 200 radio stations across the country.
But Spanish north of the Rio Grande has not spread in its pure Iberian form. On the contrary, a signature of the brewing "Latin Fever" that has swept the United States since the mid-1980s is the astonishing creative linguistic amalgam of tongues used by people of Hispanic descent, not only in major cities but in rural areas as well -- neither Spanish nor English, but a hybrid, known only as Spanglish.
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The Making of a New American Language
La jerga loca
¿Cómo empezó everything? How did I stumble upon it? Walking the streets of El Barrio in New York City, at least initially. Wandering around, as the Mexican expression puts it, con la oreja al vuelo, with ears wide open. Later on, of course, my appreciation for Spanglish evolved dramatically as I raveled around los Unaited Esteits. Bu at the beginning was New York. It always is, isn't it?
I had arrived in Manhattan in the mid-eighties. My first one-room apartment, which I shared with three roommates, was on Broadway and 122nd Street. The area was bustling with color: immigrants from the Americas, especially from he Dominican Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Colombia, intermingling with students from Columbia University, Barnard and Teacher's College, and with future ministers and rabbis from Union Theological Seminary and The Jewish Theological Seminary. The ethnic juxtaposition was exhilarating indeed. But sight wasn't everything. Sound was equally important. Color and noise went together, as I quickly learned.
I was enthralled by the clashing voices I encountered on a regular walk in the Upper West Side: English, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew ... Those voices often changed as one oscillated to different areas of he city: Arabic, French, Polish, Russian, Swahili and scores of other tongues were added to the mix. What kind of symphony was I immersed in? Was his he sound of the entire universe or only of my neighborhood?
There was a newspaper stand on he corner of 110th and Broadway, next to a bagel bakery and a Korean grocery store. I regularly made my shopping in those blocks, so I regularly stopped to browse. Newspapers and magazines in English predominated in it, and Chinese and Israeli periodicals were also for sale. But the owner displayed he Spanish-language items with emphasis: El Diario/La Prensa, Noticias del Mundo, Diario de las Américas, Cosmopolitan, Imagen ... As a Mexican native, I often bough one of them in the morning, "just to keep up with what's up," as I would tell my friends. But to keep up with these publications was also to invite your tongue for a bumpy ride. The grammar and syntax used in them was never fully "normal," e.g., it replicated, often unconsciously, English-language patterns. I was obvious that its authors and editors were americanos with a loose connection to la lengua de Borges. "Están contaminaos ...," a teacher of mine in he Department of Spanish at Columbia would tell me. "Pobrecitos ... They've lost all sense of verbal propriety."
Or had they?
My favorite section to read in El Diario/La Prensa, already then the fastest-growing daily in New York, where I eventually was hired to be a columnist, was the hilarious classified section. "Conviértase en inversor del Citibank," claimed an ad. Another one would state: "Para casos de divorcio y child support, llame a su advocate personal al (888)745-1515." And:"¡¡¡Alerta!!!Carpinteros y window professionals. Deben tener 10 años de experiencia y raer tools." Or, "Estación de TV local está buscando un editor de líneal crea ivo. Debe tener conocimiento del 'Grass Valley Group VPE Series 151'. En The Bronx. Venga en persona:(718)601-0962." One morning I came across one that announced pompously: "Hoy más que nunca, tiempo is money." And I stumbled upon another that read: "Apartments are selling like pan caliente and apartments de verdad."
Today I use the term hilarious in a reverent fashion. Over the years my admiration for Spanglish has grown exponentially, even though I'm perfectly conscious of its social and economic consequences. Only 14 percent of Latino students in the country graduate from college. The majority complain that the cultural obstacles along the way are innumerable: the closely knit family dynamic, the need to help support their family, the refusal to move out from home in order to go to school ... And language, naturally: for many of them proficiency in the English language is too high a barrier to overcome. English is the door to the American Dream. Not until one masters el inglés are he fruits of that dream attainable.
Spanglish is often described as the trap, la rampa Hispanics fall into on he road to assimilation -- el obstâculo en el camino. Alas, the growing lower class uses it, thus procrastinating the possibility of un futuro mejor, a better future. Still, I've learned to admire Spanglish over time. Yes, it is the tongue of the uneducated. Yes, it's a hodgepodge ... But its creativity astonished me. In many ways, I see in it the beauties and achievements of jazz, a musical style that sprung up among African-Americans as a result of improvisation and lack of education. Eventually, though, it became a major force in America, a state of mind breaching out of the ghetto into he middle class and beyond. Will Spanglish follow a similar route?
Back then, as my early immigrant days unfolded, it was easier to denigrate it. Asked by a reporter in 1985 for his opinion on el espanglés, one of the other ways used to refer to he linguistic juxtaposition of south and north -- some other categories are casteyanqui, inglañol, argo sajón, español bastardo, papiamento gringo, and caló pachuco -- Octavio Paz, the Mexican author of The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is said to have responded with a paradox: "ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable" -- it is neither good nor bad but abominable. This wasn't an exceptional view: Paz was one of scores of intellectuals with a distaste for the bastard jargon, which, in his eyes, didn't have gravitas. Una lengua bastarda: illegitimate, even wrongful ...Spanglish
The Making of a New American Language. Copyright © by Ilan Stavans. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College–40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College.
Ilán Stavans nació en México, en 1961. Cursó estudios de posgrado en la Universidad de Columbia, y ahora tiene la cátedra Lewis-Sebring de cultura latina y latinoamericana en Amherst College.
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Often provocative but always fascinating, Ilan Stavans offers his take on the encounter between English and Spanish in 'Spanglish.' Stavans, who in addition to speaking English and Hebrew (he is a Jew who was born in Mexico), he also speaks Spanish and Yiddish. In his intriguing introduction to this short dictionary of Spanglish words and phrases, he tracks not only the history of Spanish and English dictionaries, but also the political riff between Spain and English speaking countries such as Britain and the United States. He also touchingly recounts his head-on encounter with one of his students who told Stavans that she was dropping out and returning to her barrio; she spoke very freely in Spanglish knowing that Stavans would understand what she was saying. Though he was not able to convince her to stay, the conversation sparked something in Stavans that eventually led to the creation of this book. Stavans admits that purists consider the very concept of a hybrid such as Spanglish repugnant and even a threat to learning proper Spanish and English, pero Spanglish vive whether we like it or not. We can hide our collective head in the sand or acknowledge the fact that many people do speak it. And writers who grew up hearing this blend of languages should feel free to use it in their fiction, poetry and other creative writing because it reflects reality. Because Stavans es gran escritor y un intelectual verdadero, this book is not only engaging, it is an important step to understanding how languages evolve whether you agree with its premise or not. I suspect that language scholars will eventually consider 'Spanglish' one of the first and most important books on the subject.