March 23, 2001

"SPANGLISH" Advancing with Speed and Movida

By Leticia Hernandez-Linares


Spanglish, once frowned upon for the same reasons that have motivated English-only efforts, is more and more recognized in its own right. It is no longer an illegitimate specter hovering over "pure" English and Spanish.

Yet as government officials and media people make clumsy attempts to talk about "Latinos" — because their increasing numbers have made them important as a voting base and as a market — the inability to break out of the mindset of "Spanish or English" (or "black or white") still hinders understanding of what is a truly hybrid culture.

Younger Latinos own Spanglish, as well as Spanish, to show that assimilating into a homogenous monolingual culture is not the only way to be successful or to find a voice. It is exciting to see the latest wave of Spanglish speakers take control of the movement and hybridity that define us. It doesn't come in a neat, easily consumable culture package, however — you can't just shake your hips and sing some catchy lines and call it a Latin explosion.

This movida, this commotion, is gaining momentum thanks to the work of young artists, organizers, and writers who express their complex identities publicly without apology — crossing borders in the span of just one sentence.

In an after-school Spoken Word class in San Francisco, middle school students, mostly Latino, experiment with writing freely and mixing the sounds of Spanish and English. They switch quite naturally from one language to another. Freedom to speak as they please builds their confidence in becoming more fluent in whatever language they find challenging, English or Spanish.

They have on several occasions nervously, but bravely, read poems in public which refer to their families and ethnic identities in a mix of languages. (Just in case this makes a nervous millionaire think of starting a national campaign against Spanglish, let me state clearly that no one is proposing the replacement of either English or Spanish.)

Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans, author of a forthcoming Spanglish Dictionary, teaches a class called "The Sounds of Spanglish." The true focus of the course is not so much the sounds as it is Latino culture. Drawing on history, linguistics, and art, among other sources, the class looks at a way of speaking that might begin to answer the complex question, "Who are these Latinos and what do they want to be called?"

A recent Latino arts festival, Hecho en Califas (made in California), addressed this question by bringing together artists who work in a variety of media to express their cultura on their own terms. Performers presented work in a mix of Spanish, English, Yoruba, Nahuatl, and many sorts of slang.

Paul Flores, poet and event organizer, emphasizes the festival's commitment to showcasing the new wave of performers that reflect the contradictions within Latin identity. Most artists in the festival and most young people involved in the poetry class do not pick out words as if they were at a flower shop. Rather, they are boldly presenting realities that are not completely translatable and audience friendly.

Spanglish isn't as sexy as Spanish, it is not the language of "magically real" exoticism. When you unlock the gate and get past colorful skirts and smiling girls all named Rosarita, you find broken Spanish, youth who favor Metallica, or Salvadoran immigrants who practice Buddhism.

A history of disdain for Spanglish and those who speak it makes festivals like Hecho en Califas extremely important. The task facing young Latino/Chicano generations then is partly to continue creating spaces in which to make Spanglish cultural expressions more public.

For example, Espresso Mi Cultura in Hollywood is cafe, bookstore, art gallery, and community center all in one. Co-owners Josie Aguilar and Ramon Pantoja are committed to establishing a model to show a cultural and practical focus might make it possible for such a fragmented group to organize.

Spanglish seems to be spreading, especially in Latin American countries through the ever increasing traffic back and forth with the U.S. Yet there is a continuing reluctance, especially north of the border, to recognize and validate the symbols of bi-culturalism. For that reason, Spanglish becomes a symbol of cultural resistance, a challenge to the assimilation model of success.

In 2001, its no longer either you are assimilated or you are newly immigrated, as even some new immigrants arrive already affected by mainstream North American culture and the English language. It is just not either/or — even my grandmother speaks Spanglish.

How will the future American city sound? English and Spanish will continue evolving as the hybrid languages that they already are, and cultural borders will become more fluid not in order to melt down many cultures into one, but rather to connect and clarify them to each other.

Bueno pues, hay los wach-o. All right then, I'll see you later. Will you see me?

Hernandez-Linares, is a published poet and spoken word, artist, works as an arts educator in Bay Area schools.

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