Speaking Spanglish

I speak Spanglish. A lot of people in the West do. I learned it as a kid growing up in a border town. Spanglish was en el aire: Tijuana TV channels; Mexican radio stations where all the DJ’s speak rápido, más rápido than is humanly possible; on the bus; in the supermarket; en la escuela; even my grandfather occasionally, and he was a gringo.

Of course, we took Spanish in school. They taught us the difference between Castilian Spanish, where everyone sounds like they’re talking with a lisp, and real Spanish like we speak in Norte America. I guess they wanted us to be able to lisp in España if we had to ask an urgent question during the running of the bulls or something.

I was terrible in Spanish class. The only time I got an “A” was when our teacher made a deal that if we didn’t speak English during class all year we would get an automatic “A.” I messed up one time and said something in English, but the teacher was viejo and he didn’t hear me, so I still got the “A.”

He wanted to teach us how to think in Spanish. I wasn’t sure what he meant until it started happening to me. I was walking down the hall after Spanish class talking to myself. I noticed that my inner dialog had switched languages. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay talking to myself in Spanish because I ran into an idea I didn’t know how to say so I mixed in the English. That’s when it started, thinking in Spanglish. I’ve been stuck there ever since.

I never can remember how to conjugate verbs into past or future tense. Even hoy, when I speak Spanglish, everything has to be in present tense. I must live in the Now. Fortunately, other Spanglish speakers have the same problem because it’s hard to remember how to put English verbs into tenses too. If you have to imply past or future, you can always say “ayer” o “mañana” and motion with your hand that you are advancing or receding time, even if your verbs don’t.

A big advantage of Spanglish is that there are no wrong answers. Anything goes as long as you can make yourself understood. You can throw words and phrases in like there’s no tomorrow and let the listener pick out whatever seems relevant given the situation. Es el mismo coming back the other way. You can let go of precision and go for the essence. Of course, there are some topics that are best avoided — legal, medical, a critical recipe — you probably aren’t going to get there with Spanglish. But talking about the family, the kids, your jardín, la día bonita, directions to el baño, you’re fine. No problema.

Somewhere I read that the writer Denise Chavez refuses to italicize the Spanish words she uses in her English language stories. It frustrates her publisher who wants her to keep the languages straight. She must write in Spanglish because she thinks in Spanglish. When will they understand, Spanglish is it’s own lengua? Which words would you italicize; the Spanish ones or the English ones? Pero, there’s words like salsa, tortilla, vaquero, gringo … see? My spell checker doesn’t even put red lines under those. They pass. So, are they English or Spanish? No sé. Which makes you wonder if eventually all these palabras are going to be both English and Spanish, or will there be a new Spanglish Language?

I don’t have the answer but that’s okay. For now, we can enjoy the linguistic anarchy that is Spanglish. It reflects our collective culture, you know, how we mix it all up. Like putting mango salsa on your salmon. It may be geographically jumbled but it tastes good. Spanglish may drive your spell checker loco but it sounds good. It sounds the way la gente really talk around here, tú sabes?