In Defense of Spanglish Low-bred languages, the class struggle, and why Amherst College teaches Spanglish

Schematic representation of Don Quixote and his squire

History isn’t the past, but what we make of the past. In the past couple of years, I have been writing a history of the Spanish language. My device is decidedly whimsical: I am reducing a millennium to five sentences, all of them taken from literary documents. The first sentence is from a jarcha, a poem written during the Arab domination of the Iberian Peninsula. In contrast, the last one, which serves as engine to this essay, is, I confess, self-made, or maybe I should say self-modeled: “In un placate of La Mancha, of which nombre no quiero remembrearme…”

It is the first sentence of Don Quixote of La Mancha, part one, chapter 1, by Miguel de Cervantes, in my own rendition into Spanglish. It was published, along with the translation of the entire first chapter of the novel, in Barcelona, in 2002. It instantaneously became a cause célèbre.

Before I go any further, let me offer a definition of Spanglish. My own take—and I speak not only as a linguist but as a cultural commentator—is that it is the child of the marriage, or else the divorce, of two standard languages, Spanish and English. I will go even further: Just like any other language, it isn’t only a set of words organized syntactically but also what the Germans call a Weltanschauung, that is, a sensibility, a way to access reality.

Needless to say, it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Spanglish harks back at least 150 years, if not more. And while it is mostly based in the United States, it also exists elsewhere in Hispanic civilization, wherever English and Spanish are at each other’s throats. In Buenos Aires, it is used in marketing and among the Americanized elite. In Cuba, it is the parlance of baseball. In Mexico, it is the result of the ubiquitous U.S. presence, felt through the tourist industry, on TV, movies, and music, and in cuisine.Purists, as is clear by now, see Spanglish as an abundance of barbarisms, uneducated expressions used by those without proper verbal training.

What does verbal training mean? The capacity to articulate thought clearly and coherently in a standard language. Amy Tan, the Chinese-American novelist of The Joy Luck Club (1989), once published an essay called “Mother Tongue.” In it she described the way her mother, an immigrant from China to the United States, was frequently ridiculed by native English-language speakers for using a broken language. And a broken tongue connotes broken thoughts.

This, of course, is baloney. It denotes a dismissive approach to language evolution. Languages are never in a state of purity. Instead, they are always changing. War and immigration change environments. Let me discuss the two. War isn’t about who is right but about who is left, including who is allowed to tell the story. The winner usually imposes on the loser a set of rules. Those roles amount to domination, including the forcing of cultural modes today, and in previous centuries, the imposition of language as a means of control. The spread of Latin on the colonies of the Roman Empire was a tool of control. But it was also a way for the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) to take root.

The other essential tool in the transformation of environment is immigration. The flux of individuals from one landscape to another is as old as humankind. In the Bible, Abraham the Patriarch,  source of the three major Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, leaves, at the request of a supernatural voice, his place of origin in search of Canaan, a place where he is promised a lasting genealogical tree. Immigrants move for similar reasons: an asphyxiating atmosphere at home explained through economic pressure, political persecution, or simply a desire to be near loved ones.

Throughout the 20th century, the map of the Americas was upended by war as well as by immigration. As a result of dictatorship and armed struggle, people moved constantly across borders, from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, from Peru to Argentina, from Guatemala to Mexico, from Haiti to the Dominican Republic. These upheavals carried linguistic consequences as varieties of Spanish came in contact with each other on a daily basis. Arguably, nowhere is this contact more fecund than in the United States, where Hispanics—commonly referred to as Latinos—were, at the close of the century, close to 15 percent of the overall population. By the year 2015,  25 percent of the United States will trace its roots to Latin America.

The United States, a nation of immigrants, received millions of these Hispanic newcomers. Theirs was the fate since the arrival of the Protestant pilgrims on board of the Mayflower in 1620. Successive waves—French, Scandinavians, Germans, Irish, Italians, Jews, and so on—have contributed to redefine the nation’s social texture. The Statue of Liberty, a present from France to the United States at the end of the 19th century, is strategically placed between two shores as a symbol of welcome to immigrants arriving by boat. Emma Lazarus, the author of the sonnet “The New Colossus”(1883), engraved in the pedestal of the statue, described the effigy as “a Mother of Exile,” granting worldwide welcome. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she states, “the wretched refused.”

There is Cubonics, Nuyorican, Dominicanish, Pocho Spanish, Colombianish, Tex Mex, etc. That is because each national group has not only its own Spanish but also its own history of immigration.

The United States, then, is a safe-haven: people rejected elsewhere are welcomed here. Each of them comes with an immigrant language: French, Swedish, German, Gaelic, Italian, Yiddish. Language has a limited lifespan, for what makes this a country is the fact that through assimilation, immigrants lose their distinct foreign qualities, if not themselves then their offspring. They become Americans in the way they dress, they eat, they think, and, yes, they speak. Through public education, by the second generation immigrant families give up their immigrant tongue in favor of English, which becomes a conduit for the adoption of less subtle, all-encompassing cultural qualities.

Nowhere in the United States Constitution is English described as the country’s official language, although 31  states  have some type of  Official English laws. In any case, Spanish is and is not an immigrant language. It has been a presence for centuries, even before the nation became such through its independence from England in 1776. Florida and the Southwestern states were first colonized by Iberian soldiers, explorers, and missionaries. The language was commonly used in those territories until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848. An instrument of “Manifest Destiny,” the treaty ended  the Mexican-American War, giving the United States control of almost two-thirds of Mexico in exchange for $15 million. With the stroke of a pen, the inhabitants in those territories went from being part of Mexico to becoming U.S. citizens. As such, English was now their language of education and commerce.

Therefore, Spanish didn’t come to the United States; instead, the United States came to Spanish. Still, it is an immigrant language in that, from the late 19th century, when refugees of the Spanish-American War of 1898 sought shelter in these shores, to the early 20th century, when the Mexican Revolution forced millions of people to cross the border, to various federal plans such as the Bracero Program during World War II, the influx of Spanish-language speakers has not only defined the American Mosaic but, uncharacteristically, has kept an immigrant language intensely alive, to the degree that by the beginning of the 21st century it was the second most frequently used in the country after English.

Never in uncontaminated form, though. Through its contact with English, Spanish exists in a state of permanent reformulation. Varieties of Spanish are spoken nowadays in different parts of the country. A second way to organize these varieties is by place of national origin: Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and so on. Another way is by date of arrival to the United States, for example in the 1930s, in the 1960s, in the 1990s. A third way is by region, say South Texas, Central Florida, the East Coast, the Midwest. And a fourth category is class status. None of these categories is bulletproof. A recent working-class immigrant from El Salvador in Corpus Christi speaks a different Spanish than an educated Venezuelan executive in Tallahassee.

The intertwining of English and Spanish is complex. Spanish loanwords such as  taco, piñata, patron, sangria, amigo, and rodeo have been absorbed into English. Likewise, English words abound in the Spanish lexicon: advertising, ticket, and sandwich. To its critics, Spanglish is a thicket of barbarisms, not of loanwords, but rather tasteless, polluted neologisms.

Spanglish is alive and well in the Southwest, as I mentioned. And there is also Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island with a foggy, ambiguous legal status, known in English as a commonwealth (albeit a peculiar one, since Massachusetts and Virginia are also commonwealths yet are recognized as full-fledged members of the Union, whereas Puerto Rico is not) and in Spanish though the laughable Estado Libre Asociado, a free, associated state. With the exception of the U.S.-Mexican border, spanning 1,954 miles (3,145 kilometers), and encompassing, at the beginning of the 21st century, over 25 million people, Puerto Rico is the Spanglish habitat par excellence. Bilingualism is the island’s favorite mode of communication.

Just as there are varieties of Spanish in the Americas (Argentine Spanish is different from its Colombian, Venezuelan, Chilean, and Mexican counterparts), including el español used north of the Rio Grande, Spanglish isn’t uniform in the United States. The same categories I suggested before to distinguish between types of Spanish apply to Spanglish. There is Cubonics, Nuyorican, Dominicanish, Pocho Spanish, Colombianish, Tex Mex, etc. That is because each national group has not only its own Spanish, but also its own history of immigration.

Beyond these categories, there are age groups: young Latinos use Spanglish more frequently and effusively than their elders; recent immigrants have a different parlance that people who have been in the United States for at least a decade; and geography is also fate in that densely populated regions where Latinos make a majority have a type of Spanglish that needs to be differentiated depending on the location and with types that are used in rural environments.

Add to it a crucial type: cyber-Spanglish, the variety used online, especially on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. This type is arguably the most prevalent, the one projecting the spread of Spanglish beyond regional borders. It is connected with the variety of Spanglish used in the media, which, like the translation I made of Don Quixote, is a hodgepodge of types. When the television networks Univisión and Telemundo employ this hybrid tongue, the choice is often neutral, that is, without a specific national identifier, even though the dominant group among Latinos is Mexicans, accounting for eight out of every ten members of the community. In order not to alienate anyone, news and variety shows, authentic matches, and, significantly, commercials, employ a middle-ground form of Spanglish.

I return now to the story of how I translated the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish. In 1997, I began studying in earnest the linguistic phenomenon resulting from the interface between el español and English. I can’t claim for the project to have originated in me. A student of mine, a junior I thoroughly admired, was about to drop out of Amherst College, the institution where I teach. She had come to my office to break the news to me. But instead of delivering it in standard English, as students are wont to do in a professor’s office, she used her funky Spanglish. Not that her parlance was alien to me. She and I and other students often conversed in the hallways in that hybrid tongue. However, I always somehow managed to make it clear that the classroom was protected from such barbarity.

Not this time, though. As I heard her say goodbye, I was immediately struck by her fluid, malleable parlance, her free style. Perhaps my reaction should have been to stop her unequivocally, to set the limits. Aren’t we academics programed to stop such spontaneity on its tracks? Yet I just couldn’t. Instead, I felt empathy, even envy. I quickly realized  the conundrum my student had created for me. She was originally from Texas. At some point in her early life, she had been active in a gang. Even after three years, the small Liberal Arts College in New England felt alien, unwelcoming to her. She was leaving because she couldn’t feel at home here.

I wanted her to stay for her senior year, a small sacrifice when compared to what she already had ahead of her. If I asked her to recant, to stay for her senior year, I would be inviting her to prolong the discomfort she felt. I would need to do it in English, a language that emphasized the alienation she felt. But if I spoke to her in Spanglish, my turf as teacher would become shaky; I would be endorsing the fact that the way of communication at Amherst, in and of itself, was an obstacle for her happiness in it.

Honestly, it was easy to decide. The conversation we had was memorable. I understood her dilemma; she understood mine. I tried—unsuccessfully—to convince her to say. She in turn challenged me to make my classrooms more open to street life, starting with a course I should teach in what she called “The Sounds of Spanglish.”

She left. I stayed.

A year later, I taught such a course. The number of students registered was large. On the first day of classes, reporters of NPR, ABC, and the BBC were waiting at the door, eager to interview me. How could an institution like Amherst College, with such panache, teach its students “the parlance of the illiterate”?

As time has gone by, my passion for this border language has grown exponentially. I had been born a Jew in Mexico. One of my two first languages was Yiddish (the other was Spanish, of course). I had always felt anachronistic when using di mame losh, as Yiddish is known. Moreover, I was somewhat resentful that my parents educated me in a tongue with such limited scope. Yiddish had been the lingua franca of Ashkenazi Jews in the Pale of Settlement, as the region of Eastern Europe (Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, parts of Russia) where they thrived for centuries was called. The Holocaust had broken the chain of generations, annihilating some six million worldwide. Those immigrants who left the Old Continent before the Nazi rise to power, or as refugees went to the United States, to Palestine, to South Africa, and to the Americas. They traveled with Yiddish. In Mexico, Yiddish was our link to a culture that was no more.

I received death threats from the United States, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. But I was also showered with endless applause. In other words, for some I was a traitor to my own background. An agitated person even described me as the Cheech and Chong Professor of Spanglish at Amherst College.

Yiddish and Spanglish, I realized as I taught the course for the first of what would be multiple occasions, had much in common. They were mixed tongues, German and Hebrew, English and Spanish. They are also ethnic languages, that is, they were used as glue by a minority to find a feeling of empathy, of continuity. My appreciation for my upbringing, for the linguistic choices my parents made, was rekindled.

In 2002, I found myself in a radio studio in Barcelona, part of a tour sponsored by the U.S. government. I was speaking about Spanglish to a host who had also invited a member of the Real Academia Española (RAE). It goes without saying that Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region in Spain known for its linguistic uniqueness. Catalonians have remained loyal to Catalan, even while most of them are bilingual (Spanish and Catalan). In fact, their regional language is a ticket to their collective identity: they pride themselves not to be like Madrileños, who live at the heart of the country in what is known as the seat of power. Catalonians have the Mediterranean Sea on their shore, meaning they had a freer identity. Talking about Spanglish in Barcelona is communicating with people who know what it means to traffic in two languages, one a sign of empathy to the empire, the other a ticket to rebellion.

In the radio conversation, the RAE member, a simpatico scholar whose name I don’t care to remember, said—in Spanish—something that to my ears sounded remarkable and ended up defining my whole life. If Spanglish is to be taken seriously, it must produce a work of art equal to Don Quixote, for only a language capable of such depth, such complexity ought to be taken seriously.

I was struck by the clarity and conviction of such a statement. I responded by saying that it wasn’t unlikely that in a century or two, perhaps even more, such a novel would be published. And that at that point it would obviously need to be translated into Spanish in order to be understood in Madrid. Meanwhile, it would be entertaining to translate Quixote into Spanglish.

No sooner did I make it back to my hotel than I received a phone call from the editor-in-chief of the literary supplement of La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s premier newspaper, asking me to translate Chapter One, Part One of Cervantes’ masterpiece.

I was overwhelmed with trepidation. Was I going nuts? Again, it was easy to decide. Within a week, back at home, I had translated the chapter, circulated among some friends, and—against the advice of a few—I sent it to the editor. It was published a couple of days later, causing a global controversy.

The RAE deemed me unworthy of an academic position. I received death threats from the United States, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, and Argentina. But I was also showered with endless applause. In other words, for some I was a traitor to my own background. An agitated person even described me as the Cheech and Chong Professor of Spanglish at Amherst College. For others I was a folk hero, a subversive intellectual undermining the status quo.

What strategies did I employ in my translation? To answer, let me state outright that for me translation is a form of appropriation. To translate is to make ours another person’s words. It is also a way to legitimize a culture, to give it gravitas. Thomas Shelton completed the first English translation of Don Quixote in 1607, a couple of years after Cervantes completed the first part of his narrative, and published in 1612, in time for Shakespeare to read it and adapt parts of it into a play he co-wrote with the younger British playwright John Fletcher called Cardenio. Why not have one in Spanglish?

I sought to create a neutral Spanglish, one capable of being read by a broad range of Spanglish speakers (a Jew’s Spanglish, I tell myself), with elements from various regional and national varieties.

I have now translated the entire novel. But that first chapter is probably the piece of writing for which I am best known. A sentence from it might even make it to my epitaph, let alone my obituaries. And within that chapter, the first sentence is notorious worldwide. So is the entire first paragraph:

In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase. A cazuela with más beef than mutón, carne choppeada para la dinner, un omelet pa’ los Sábados, lentil pa’ los Viernes, y algún pigeon como delicacy especial pa’ los Domingos, consumían tres cuarers de su income. El resto lo employaba en una coat de broadcloth y en soketes de velvetín pa’ los holidays, with sus slippers pa’ combinar, while los otros días de la semana él cut a figura de los más finos cloths. Livin with él eran una housekeeper en sus forties, una sobrina not yet twenty y un ladino del field y la marketa que le saddleaba el caballo al gentleman y wieldeaba un hookete pa’ podear. El gentleman andaba por allí por los fifty. Era de complexión robusta pero un poco fresco en los bones y una cara leaneada y gaunteada. La gente sabía that él era un early riser y que gustaba mucho huntear. La gente say que su apellido was Quijada or Quesada –hay diferencia de opinión entre aquellos que han escrito sobre el sujeto– but acordando with las muchas conjecturas se entiende que era really Quejada. But all this no tiene mucha importancia pa’ nuestro cuento, providiendo que al cuentarlo no nos separemos pa’ nada de las verdá.

I translated Don Quixote into Spanglish because for me translation means appropriation. There are more than 22 full-length English renditions of Cervantes’ novel. Why so many? Because each epoch needs its own interpretation. That is precisely why I did mine. There are close to 60 million Latinos in the United States today—which represents the third largest concentration of Hispanics in the globe. Not all but many use Spanglish, and many non-Latino also are versed in this jargon. Having our own Quixote means being part of the Western tradition with our own new tongue.