Classic Essays

Three Tongues of Mexican Americans


SINCE in an economic sense the Mexicans — both those long resident here and the newly arrived — are usually in the lower levels and since illiteracy so often accompanies poverty, we should not a priori expect these people to speak with elegance and refinement. They do not. The majority of those born here speak English but haltingly and with a pronounced accent, and many of them speak Spanish in precisely the same way. The recién llegados speak Spanish fluently enough but with a sublime ignorance of grammar and a constricted vocabulary. For the most part illiterate or semi-literate day laborers or descendants of day laborers, devoid of schooling and culturally disadvantaged, they bring to the linguistically impoverished residents already here the speech of the lower classes of the Mexican homeland, modified every few years by some newly coined slang. One might expect the constant influx of new Mexicans would reshape and reform the speech of the Mexicans here established; nothing of the sort occurs. On the contrary, a kind of linguistic Gresham’s Law seems to operate so that the immigrants, rather than improving the speech of longer-term residents, acquire all the latter’s peculiarities of utterance and after a few years of such contact are looked down upon by their own countrymen when they return to their native land.

Deficient in both English and Spanish, Mexican Americans end up speaking a language that contains elements of both and yet is neither one nor the other; a language or rather a lingo called pocho talk or chicano speech or simply chicano. Pocho is itself a pocho term. It is the Mexican Americans’ own word to describe themselves. Formerly the nearly universally accepted label, it has in the last twenty or thirty years gradually been acquiring a pejorative color and is yielding in popularity to chicano (a corruption of meshicano, as the Indians of Mexico call themselves, which word the Spanish transcribed as mexicano or mejicano and mispronounced accordingly).

Pocho talk or chicano is a hybrid tongue, composed of a matrix of low-grade Spanish, badly pronounced and structurally mutilated, into which are worked, as needed, English words and phrases, just as in making tortillas small bits of twigs or other foreign matter are sometimes kneaded into the mass of corn dough. The bits of English that fall into the matrix are mistakenly understood to start with. When they are “Spanished,” they become unrecognizable. The Spanish matrix, of poor quality in the beginning, drifts further and further from the homeland Spanish as it incorporates more and more English elements. Without radio and television as countervailing forces, chicano would almost certainly evolve into a totally distinct language in the not too distant future (indeed, it may do so anyway). In the meantime the homogenizing influence of these ubiquitous devices whereby the ear is constantly corrected by an unending flow of programs from the homeland holds that evolutionary tendency in check. Because of this, Mexican Americans still understand upper-level Spanish, even though among themselves they do not speak it, possessing neither the vocabulary nor the enunciatory faculty nor the cultural prompting to do so. Their situation is much like that of the Platt Deutsch of a German peasant who may understand the High German of Berlin but who will, by inclination and habit, converse in his own dialect, however uncouth this may appear to the outsider.

Chicano has been described by George Alvarez as “a snarl language” (Calo: The “Other” Spanish, etc, March 1967). “[Its] most distinguished characteristic,” he says,

is its connotative element. The combinations of phonemes and morphemes that comprise its principal terms are such that its utterance necessitates a low, harsh, and sometimes shrill elocution. It is predominantly a snarl language; it implies an uncompromising attitude of anger, sarcasm, cynicism, and undifferentiated rebellion.

This is an interesting interpretation and at least partially true (although we should not be uncritically led into creating a stereotype of the Mexican American as ill-humored, malicious, embittered, quarrelsome, and resentful, which is simply not the case). To those who have learned Spanish in Spain or in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, or Colombia, the hybrid chicano speech will seem uncouth and offensive in the highest degree. The beautiful double “I” is eliminated entirely, ella becoming ea, silla sia, caballo cabao, etc. All the vowels suffer minor changes difficult to describe but harsh and grating to a sensitive ear. The rhythm and intonation of sentences is different, enunciation is less precise, and the whole liquid and musical quality that makes Spanish one of the world’s most beautiful tongues is missing.

Words are variously modified. Agujero becomes bujero; Felix, Felis; en la casa de Pablo, enca Paul; volver, venir para atrás; frenos, maneas; pedir dinero pres tado, hacer un prestamo; aceptar pedidos, tomar órdenes; administrar el negocio, correr el nego cio. These are merely internal corruptions. But when English expressions are wrenched out of their socket and made or mismade into Spanish, the melange becomes truly remarkable, like fog thickened by smoke. Practically any English word is Spanished by the addition of the proper ending — an “a” if a noun, an “ar” if a verb. Truck becomes troca, market marketa, while among the verbs the list is inexhaustible: twist is twistiar, push pushar, soak soakiar, wrap wrapiar. Some of these words are used as mere synonyms for their Spanish equivalents. One may say indifferently, “Vamos à pushar la troca” or “Vamos à empujar la troca.” Others have so entirely replaced the correct Spanish word that it has passed into oblivion. Troca, in most of pocho-land is the only word used for truck, camian being almost entirely unknown. So with marketa for mercado, bilis (bills) for cuentas, jacke for gato, mail-box for buzón, pompa for bomba, to name but a few.

There is no limit to the number of English words that can thus be transmogrified into pocho Spanish. But in spite of this, few chicanos can say more than a sentence or so in Spanish without having recourse to English direct and undisguised. It is not enough for them to say: Sokié mi pie en agua caliente y lo envofvi bien (I soaked my foot in hot water and wrapped it up well). Such a sentence is not sufficiently hybrid. Nine chances out of ten they add something like this: Sokié mi pie en agua caliente y lo wrapié bien con gauze y adhesive tape y descansé en la casa hasta que el swelling went down. Another example: Tengo un brother en el army. Or: Fuimos al show y vimos unos actors muy buenos; they sure were funny, especialmente el gordito. Or: ¿Cómo se llama esta cosa, you know what I mean, that thing que está debajo de fa otra, over here on this side?

In any discussion of this sort is it impossible to avoid using such emotionally charged words as “good speech”, “bad speech”, “lower-class utterance”, “upper-class utterance”, etc. That these are value judgments cannot be denied. But neither can it be denied that upper and lower social classes exist and that their ways of speaking are different. If it be unscientific to emit value judgments, it is equally unscientific, or more so, to close one’s eyes to the reality of social stratification, whatever its causes. Many of those who oppose the use of value-loaded terms in linguistic and anthropological discussions do so less in the cause of science than to promote (while concealing) a deep-rooted egalitarian bias.

The facts are these: (1) social classes exist; (2) prominent among the characteristics that distinguish them is their manner of speaking; (3) prestige accrues to the upper classes, while stigmatization attaches to the lower; (4) chicano speech is looked upon contemptuously by the Mexicans of the homeland; still more so by the Spaniards proper, to whom it seems so alien as to be almost unintelligible.

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Source: Instauration magazine, March 1979

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