For many people in Latinx communities in the US, bi- or multilingualism is a part of everyday life. Simply put, Spanglish is a dynamic form of language made up of a conglomeration of Spanish and English dialects. And yet, to some, this is a threat to an ‘American’ culture that historically, and to this day, denies diversity and cultural complexity. This is a version of a talk given at the Transatlantic Women Series at the University of Glasgow that explored how, in an environment of intense hostility against people of Latinx heritage, Spanglish is used by activist women writers to resist the colonial erasure of their rich and diverse cultures.
So I was listening to the radio the other day and, inevitably, Despacito came on and the presenter asked, in an off-hand way, ‘Why is there so much Spanish in these songs right now? Maybe I should go back and learn some more Spanish so I understand what they’re saying.’ And that was it, nothing more. The fact is that if you turn on the radio right now you may well hear tunes from Puerto Ricans like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, Colombianos como J Balvin (with Mi Gente), and X Factor winners Little Mix with their Latin American equivalents, winners of La Banda, CNCO, whose song ‘Reggaeton Lento’ is being played everywhere right now – CNCO are made up of an Ecuadorian, a Dominican, a Puerto Rican, a Mexican American, and a Cuban.
The reason I brought this up is because I wanted to draw attention to the fact that right now Spanish language popular culture is permeating mainstream predominantly Anglo radio stations, even here in the UK. With the U.S. Census Bureau predicting that so-called “Hispanics” will account for over one quarter of the population of the US by 2050, perhaps the radio presenter could have thought a little more about this phenomenon and engaged with this interesting and exciting change in the American population. Sadly, he did not.
For this talk, I wanted to think about the ways languages interact and about the power dynamics in play when they do. I spoke about how Latinx feminists use Spanglish as a form of resistance in their writing.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes Spanglish in a rather disapproving way as “a type of Spanish contaminated by English words and forms of expression, spoken in Latin America.”
Saying that it is spoken in Latin America ignores the prevalence of the use of Spanglish in the U.S., which has been called the home of Spanglish. And there is real weight in its use of the word contaminated – that connotes impurity and definitely seems to be a value judgement on the acceptability of Spanglish.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines it in a more neutral way as “Spanish characterized by numerous borrowings from English.”
And the Urban Dictionary describes it as an “Urban American language. Not quite English. Not quite Spanish.”
What this example gives us is an idea of the code-switching between languages that goes on, and the creation of new words based on pronunciations or slang terms.
These definitions help us initially but they ignore the complexity and fluidity of Spanglish as a language and as a cultural (and political) product – one that is constantly changing.
With this in mind, some scholars look at Spanglish more as a cultural or ethnic term – que es una marca étnica que los identifica – an “ethnic mark” that identifies them (Jaimes, 2001). In his book, Living in Spanglish, Ed Morales says that Spanglish is something birthed out of necessity, claiming that “at the root of Spanglish is a very universal state of being. It is a displacement from one place, home, to another place, home, in which one feels at home in both places, yet at home in neither place… The only choice you have left is to embrace the transitory [read the transnational] state of in-between”.
Morales helps us get closer to the nuance of Spanglish and its important position in Latinx cultures. Its very fluidity is central to its characterisation and what makes it difficult to define. Ilan Stavans, a prominent advocate for Spanglish, uses jazz as a useful analogy for thinking about Spanglish linguistically and culturally. He says that “it’s not that it is impossible to define, but that people simply refuse to do it. And yet, nobody has the slightest doubt that it has arrived, que ya llegó…” (2003, 5).
It has arrived. It is here. A part of the American linguistic index.
Of course it has been a part of the linguistic make up of the Americas for a long time. In the 16th century, colonisation brought the Spanish language to the Americas. I didn’t go into detail about the spread of Spanish in Latin America – mostly in the interest of time but also because it is outwith my ken. The reason it is important to mention is because we need to recognise the colonial past of the Spanish language in the Americas as well as remembering that English is also a colonial language. Both arrived in the Americas across the Atlantic and were imposed on the communities living on those lands – resulting in the marginalisation of indigenous languages.
With this is mind, I think another useful dimension to the nuance of Spanglish is thinking about it in terms of resistance to transatlantic linguistic colonialism. Because of its near/nor status and its fluidity, Spanglish resists the grammatical, dialectal, and semantic rules of the ‘official’ (read colonially imposed) languages of the Americas.
I then surprised myself by quoting Mexican thinker, Octavio Paz, to help further explain this – a surprise because I have very conflicting feelings about the guy…
“The European languages were rooted out from their native soil and their own tradition, and then plated in an unknown and unnamed world: they took root in the new lands and, as they grew within the society of America, they were transformed. They are the same plant yet also a different plant. Our literatures did not passively accept the changing fortunes of the transplanted languages: they participated in the process and even accelerate it. They very soon ceased to be mere transatlantic reflections: at times they have been the negation of the literatures of Europe; more often, they have been a reply.” (Paz, Nobel lecture, 1990).
This idea that literatures of the Americas did not “passively accept” this linguistic colonialism is also happening in the use of Spanglish – in everyday life, as well as in literature. So the story of European language in the Americas may have begun as one of imposition through conquest and settlement, but, as Philip Resnik puts it, “adaptation to local circumstances, the absorption of words from indigenous languages, the influence of immigrants from a wide variety of backgrounds, and the need to invent new terms to describe evolving societies had the same result – a creolization of European languages” (2012, 38).
That was all the history I had the time for so I then moved on to my real interest with this which is what happens to Spanglish in the hands of Latinx feminist writers.
I pulled together a few examples to show how activist women writers resist colonial erasure by changing language, and disrupting mainstream linguistic norms – by showing us how charged the use of language is and how playing with it can be used to subvert the mainstream.
I started with a short story by Sandra Cisneros called ‘No Speak English’, from her acclaimed collection The House on Mango Street.
The story begins describing a woman, Mamacita, who has recently arrived in Chicago – where the stories are set – from Mexico. Once she’s ensconced in her house, Esperanza, the narrator, says that she is not seen again in the neighbourhood. I then read the rest of the story – you should too!
What this story so masterfully does is introduce monolingual English readers into this life of inbetween I mentioned earlier – the “Not quite English. Not quite Spanish” the “transitory state of in-between”. Of course it is also vital for those within the Latinx community – bi, multi, or monolingual themselves – to see themselves written into narratives when they have so often been marginalised. Cisneros has said time and again in interview that it is important to her that people, particularly young people, see themselves or versions of their communities represented in texts.
In this story, Mamacita, isolated as she is, is not able to speak English – which of course only further compounds her isolation. She longs for the bright colours and songs of her home and cannot acclimate to this language that sounds like tin. On the one hand, this is an experience many people go through when starting out in a new place where the language is unfamiliar. However, what Cisneros does is make a mono-lingual English reader aware of just how dislocating this kind of experience can be for a Latina woman like Mamacita – for whom the truly devastating result is that she does not understand her own child who sings the Pepsi commercial in English.
The generational rift between Mamacita and her baby is one experienced by many Latinx families in the US. In this short short story Cisneros gives us a window into the complexity of living between two languages. There is a growing number of families in which a form of language attrition takes place – where parents and grandparents only speak Spanish and kids only speak English or have receptive bilingualism, by which I mean that they can understand their parents but aren’t comfortable responding in Spanish. In this example, we meet a woman whose inability to speak English isolates her, from her community and from her own child.
It denies her access and undermines her agency.
In Mamacita’s case, we get the impression that she is not given the opportunity to learn English, even if she wanted to. Although her husband shouts at her for pining for her home in Mexico, there is no indication that help would be provided to teach Mamacita English in a supportive environment.
This kind of linguistic isolation is particularly felt among women – not least because, often, their interactions are confined to familial relations and they are not permitted, explicitly or implicitly, to interact with people outwith these circles.
Prominent Chicanx scholar Cherríe Moraga describes the following scenario which demonstrates the privilege of English language acquisition:
She recalls how her mother worked hard for her family, at the age of fourteen she was the main support, working until 3am, walking home and giving all of her salary and her tips to her mother, who was pregnant again. Moraga’s mother worked in walnut-cracking factories, a rubber factory, at an electronics plants – all the while Moraga was in college-prep at school. She says:
“After classes, I would go with my mother to fill out job applications for her, or write checks for her at the supermarket. We would have the scenario all worked out ahead of time. My mother would sign the check before we’d go to the store. Then, as we approach the checkstand, she would say – within earshot of the cashier – “oh honey, you go ‘head and make out the check,” as if she couldn’t be bothered with such an insignificant detail. No one asked any questions.
I was educated and wore it with a keen sense of pride and satisfaction, my head propped up with the knowledge, from my mother, that my life would be easier than hers. I was educated; but more than this, I was “la güera”: fair-skinned. Born with the features of my Chicana mother, but the skin of my Anglo father, I had it made” (28).
Moraga recounts that she was never taught Spanish at home, despite her mother being fluent. We cannot assume that Spanish is a given in these communities any more than we can assume English language fluency. The acquisition of Spanish should not be presumed just because, for example, someone has a surname like Avila, or Gutierrez, or, as in this case, Moraga.
So Cherríe picked up what she could from overheard conversations in school and among her relatives. Her mother deliberately chose not to teach her Spanish knowing that Cherríe’s English, along with her fair skin, would make her life easier. “It was through my mother’s desire to protect her children from poverty and illiteracy that we became “anglocized”; the more effectively we could pass in the white world, the better guaranteed our future” (28). Moraga’s fluency in English gives her cultural, social, and political clout that is distinct from her mother’s experience and yes, her mother can also benefit from this, but it creates a rift between them that is difficult to bridge.
So she describes her upbringing as coming at the expense of an important part of her identity – saying that it “attempted to bleach me of what color I did have” (28).
At the age of twenty-seven, it is frightening to acknowledge that I have internalized a racism and classism, where the object of oppression is not only someone outside of my skin, but the someone inside my skin” (28). And a central part of this internalisation of racism and classism was her fluency in her father’s English at the expense of her learning the Spanish that her mother spoke.
What these stories, fictional and nonfictional, show us is that language acquisition and use is impregnated with complex and burdensome socio, political, economic, and cultural consequences for Latinx people. The use of English over Spanish or Spanish over English is not simply about choosing one language over the other, it is encumbered with important and difficult decisions that have weighty outcomes.
Understanding this is central to understanding how and why the use of code-switching and Spanglish can be seen as a subversive act.
Especially in today’s America.
Despite what some bigots have to say, America is one of a few countries that does not have an official language – we might assume that it is English given its dominance in mainstream political discourse, as well as in the schooling system, and in the media. This was a conscious decision of the so-called ‘Founding Fathers’. They believed that an official language would be divisive and undemocratic in a multi-lingual country. For example in the 18th century, around 30% of the population were German or Dutch speaking and there were also Flemish speakers, French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese, Italian, and of course Scots.
Obviously, what this apparently open-minded attitude towards multi-lingualism ignores is the multitude of indigenous languages being spoken on the continent. But colonialist strategies for the exploitation of people and lands meant that the languages of indigenous communities were not, and still are not, given any consideration in these conversations.
Somewhat ironically, those who are advocates for the English Only movement in the US see Spanish as the biggest threat, and they ignore the reality that Spanish is itself a colonial language – and has its own history of suppression and erasure of indigenous languages.
The contemporary promoters of English Only seem to have short historical memories and overlook the fact that until the mid-19th century, a lot of what is now America, belonged to Mexico and was largely Spanish speaking.
You’d think that this shared colonial past might be seen as a similarity. But as Spanish in the US is most often seen as a language of brown people, the predominantly white advocates for English Only deny any association – you see, it’s not just about language, is it??
For historian Samuel Huntingdon, this question of territoriality is a real threat to the sovereignty of the English language in the US. He states that “no other immigrant group in US history has asserted or could assert a historical claim to US territory” (2004).
From his Harvard tower, he argued against the dangers of cultural pluralism for American identity in his 2004 book Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. Although reportedly a lifelong Democrat, his views on immigration firmly align him with the political Right. Huntington asserts that Spanish speaking immigrants refuse to learn English and choose to segregate themselves. Since Spanish speaking immigrants are now the biggest minority cultural group within America, this – for Huntington – is a real problem. Huntington’s concern is that unchecked immigration from predominantly Spanish-speaking countries could mean ‘the end of the America we have known for more than three centuries’. And he is blunt in his suggestion for a solution:
“There is no Americano dream. There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream only if they dream in English”
And of course then there’s the current president of the United States, Mr Trump, who openly uses racist hate speech.
And no more words were wasted on that man.
Instead we refocused on the resistors, the subvertors, the bad hombres and nasty mujeres.
In the foundational Chicana feminist text Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa describes the world of the inbetween, the “Not quite English. Not quite Spanish” the “transitory state of in-between” as “una herida abierta [an open wound] where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds. And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country – a border culture” (25).
Throughout this book, that weaves the critical with the creative in an attempt to describe her existence, Anzaldúa deals with the key components of the border culture, and language is a vital part of this.
She describes Chicano Spanish (which we can also put under this broad heading of Spanglish) as “[un] lenguaje que corresponde a un modo de vivir. [A language that corresponds with a way of life] Chicano Spanish is not incorrect, it is a living language.
For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? (77)
So Spanglish is a version, one amongst many and one containing many different variations, of this created language – created out of necessity by those who are inbetween – “a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages”.
Anzaldúa gives us insight into how subversive code-switching and linguistic manipulation can be. I quoted a lot from her, but I think it’s important to use her own words to describe this experience – after all, it is not something I have to contend with as a white Anglo. She says that:
“Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.” (81)
Like before when I discussed ‘contamination’ and ‘impurity’, Anzaldúa’s use of the word ‘illegitimate’ here carries great weight. She feels like her use of language is deemed unlawful, illicit, criminal.
And in the current climate in which undocumented people are labelled illegals, when the Arizona state legislature has only just lifted a ban on the teaching of Chicanx Studies in universities, and proposition 227 is still in place in California which effectively bans bilingual education, we can see how this word still resonates for Latinx peoples living in the US today.
Yet when this changes, when this moment of mutual accommodation and even celebration does happen, when Anzaldúa and other multilingual writers like her topple the colonial linguistic forces, she will have her voice:
“Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.” (81)
Thanks to everyone who came to this event and to the TLW folk who hosted me.