Living on the Hyphen

By  |  October 14, 2014
"Recurring Storm," 2011, by Greely Myatt; Courtesy of David Lusk Gallery "Recurring Storm," 2011, by Greely Myatt; Courtesy of David Lusk Gallery

My husband is from Guelatao de Juárez, a village of three hundred people in Oaxaca’s remote Sierra Norte, where tortillas are pressed by hand, bread is sold by burro, and he and his classmates once chased an infuriated bucking bull as part of a school assignment. I am from a pleasant suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where crossing guards in safety orange escort gaggles of children across sleepy crosswalks, and impassioned debate erupts in City Council over cat leash laws. Our relationship is its own miniaturized clash of cultures, most obviously discernable when we use sentences like these:Cuándo va a terminar este pinche winter para que podemos tomar chelas otra vez en el front porch?

Love does not transcend language. It is formed by it like a footprint hardened in clay. Ours was formed in Spanish, in the middle of a revolution in Oaxaca, as we read Cortázar, listened to the gravel-and-feathers voice of the Spanish singer Bebe, and practiced the conditional on 4 a.m. walks home from the bar past burning barricades. For four years, in Oaxaca then in Beijing and Borneo, we spoke almost entirely in Spanish. The few times we were forced into English—when friends or family came to visit, or when I craved my language like a missing nutrient—were awkward and uncomfortable, akin to glimpsing photos of each other with ex-lovers. Who was that person?

But then we moved to the U.S. so that I could go to grad school, and English began to seep through the cracks of our lives, entering through doors and windows, restaurants and grocery trips, classes and new friends. It felt like artifice to maintain only Spanish in our home, and I began slipping more often and naturally into English, dragging a reluctant Jorge along with me. In this transition, we were almost unrecognizable to each other, several shades away from our established personalities. Our marriage started to look like a seventeenth-century arrangement, whereby I had died and Jorge had married my English-speaking sister. It took maybe six months for our English selves to thaw and warm to one another, for our English communication to settle in. Almost immediately afterwards, catching both of us unaware, came the Spanglish. 

 

The term “Espanglish” was first coined in 1948 by a grumpy Puerto Rican humorist named Salvador Tió in a newspaper column entitled “Teoría del Espanglish,” or “Theory of Spanglish.” Tió lamented the encroachment of English into Puerto Rican Spanish, to the degradation of his native tongue. He railed against bilingualism as “the disintegration of thought,” writing:

It takes time to think of two terms at once and choose between them. By the time thought has decided, the idea has gone. And we wind up in thoughtlessness. Bilingualism consists of thinking in one tongue and speaking in another. It is to perform the functions of a human being and a dictionary at once. . . . Language is a vehicle of expression. Bilingualism is a machine that produces stutterers.

Tió introduced Spanglish with a sarcastic and ominous theory; he warned of the freakish hybrids the future would yield if Spanish let itself be bastardized by its flat and nasal neighbor. For example, grating gibberish like pipool and swicina would become the offspring of swimming pool andpiscinaEspiblas Espanglish? Yí, Minor would be the mongrel exchange produced by meshing “Hablas español? Si señor” and “Do you speak English? Yes, mister.” His tone smug and bitter, Tió sneered at the aesthetic ugliness of Spanglish, meanwhile reinforcing Three Amigos stereotypes of Hispanics as comically half-literate. His understanding of Spanglish is that of “No way, José!” and “Yo quiero Taco Bell!”—the linguistic equivalent of an oversized rhinestone-encrusted sombrero on the head of a blond football player in Cincinnati. In this view, Spanish is belittled by Spanglish into garish Latino décor.

Though Tió was right in identifying Spanglish as an emerging hybrid language, he was wrong about its aesthetic, epistemological, and political implications. Like the stiff-collared linguists at the Real Academia Española who would later echo his sentiments of a deformed and bastardized dialect, he failed to grasp that Spanglish is as much a manifestation of multicultural identity as a mash-up of languages; that its seemingly mangled grammar follows a logic both interior, intuitive, and morphological, mappable; that it allows its speakers to belong to multiple worlds, cultures, identities, and languages at once, while forming a third sense of belonging. Spanglish is not one language seeping into and diluting another. It is not the product of a straightforward hierarchy, an oppressive and simplifying domination. Spanglish is more complex, the result of a speaker’s mutable identity—Spanish sometimes trumping English, English sometimes supplanting Spanish, depending on the speaker’s interior map of cultural associations. Rather than colorful peons unknowingly co-opted by imperialism, Spanglish speakers are cunning and empowered linguistic craftsmen.

But this is not what a certain well-born, well-bred, highly educated class of Spanish and Latin American academic would like one to think. There is a barbarians-at-the-gates feel to critiques of Spanglish, which tend almost invariably to come from severe-looking men posing before bookshelves and stately desks. In their critiques, one can feel a grave, gravelly respect for the language of Cervantes, for the language of all the august men of letters with their admiration for the bound rules of high culture. Here is Roberto González Echevarría, Yale’s Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature, in the New York Times in 1997: “Spanglish treats Spanish as if the language of Cervantes, Lorca, García Márquez, Borges and Paz does not have an essence and dignity of its own.” Octavio Paz himself put it more succinctly in 1985: “No es ni bueno ni malo, sino abominable.” It’s neither good nor bad, but abominable. Here again Spanglish appears as a mongrel, corrupting an essential purity—an indictment that ignores the fact that Latin America is a landscape of hybrid identities, cultures, and tongues shaped by the brutal centuries-long domination of the Spanish empire. There are ironic imperialist and racist overtones in these arguments, with Spanish as the language of “dignity” contrasted with the implied savagery of Spanglish; we could be in Mexico in 1600, when the Spaniards referred to themselves in colonial documents as “men of reason” contrasted with the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Perhaps, since Spanish succeeded in thoroughly crushing so many indigenous languages, its “essence” must now be preserved from a potential resurgence of indigenous expression.

The anxieties and the prejudices behind so many denunciations of Spanglish are revealed in Echevarría’s claim that “Spanglish is basically the tongue of poor Hispanics, many of whom are almost illiterate in either of the two languages.” He continues:

They incorporate English words and constructions in their everyday speech because they lack vocabulary and education in Spanish to adapt to the changing culture that surrounds them. Educated Hispanics who do the same have a different motivation: they are ashamed of their origins and try to seem like everyone else using English words and directly translating idiomatic English expressions. Doing this, they think, is to establish their membership in the mainstream. Politically, however, Spanglish is a capitulation. It indicates marginalization, not liberation.

Undoubtedly, there is a cadre of upper-class Latin Americans who see the light sprinkling of English into their Spanish as a status marker; these are the women with the Day-Glo mini-dresses and the Televisa hair who shop at Sam’s Club in Oaxaca and say, “Vamos a lunchear este semana, no?” The damas who luncheon, for whom English is Nike, a Coach bag, a class symbol. And in this context, Spanglish is indeed the capitulation of one language to another. English is the diamond in Spanish’s rough, its elevating factor.

What Echevarría misses is that most Spanglish speakers are neither poor nor illiterate but rather aspiring middle-class and second-generation Latinos; artists, scholars, and writers; educated Mexican-American immigrants; Mexican immigrants who’ve returned to Mexico from the U.S.; and gringos who’ve somehow wound up straddling the border. They are expert jugglers of contrasting cultures and identities, code-switchers extraordinaire, fluently bilingual and bicultural. They have not been robbed of an essential static identity but rather gained new layers of ipseity, albeit layers often fraught with moral and personal conflicts: where and to whom do I belong, when, how, and why? They—and my husband and I count ourselves among this group—use their fluid understanding of diverse languages and cultures to craft creative new responses to “the changing culture that surrounds them.”

Unlike Echevarría, they see this not as an opaque incomprehensible force, but as a malleable topography rich with allusion, layered meaning, and complexity. They are people like Junot Díaz, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, and Ernesto Quiñonez—and the Latinos reading their work, who understand the Spanglish therein not as a sad degradation of the pure language of their homelands or a desperate compensation for linguistic inability, but as the expression of a unique hybrid worldview demanding more semantic prowess than Spanish or English alone. “Just imagine,” one reviewer writes of Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, “all those people in Latin America reading this shit in Spanish and losing the code-switching in translation.”

 

Spanglish is not random. It is not simply a piecemeal cobbling-together, a collecting of scraps of random vocabulary into a raggedy orphan of a sentence. It has logic and rules, and more interestingly and importantly, it embodies a constantly shifting and intimate morphology of miscegenation. It is the mix of my husband’s innate Mexicanness and my innate Americanness, of my adaptive Mexicanness and his adaptive Americanness, in Spanish and English morphemes that come neatly together and apart like so many Legos into new and ever-changing constructions.

Linguist Richard Skiba breaks down the average usage of Spanglish into percentages: 84 percent of the time, Spanglish speakers employ single word switches; 10 percent of the time, phrase switches; and 6 percent of the time, clause switches. The vast majority of the time, to use Spanglish is to slip in a Spanish word for an English one, or vice versa: Estábamos llendo por el highway cuando de repente vimos un deer. Spanglish also involves affixation and suffixation: applying the morphological characteristics of one language to another. This could mean tacking on Spanish’s beloved diminutives (a little sock becomes sockito), assigning gender (the dog becomes el dogo), or modifying verb endings (takeando un bathmopeando el piso). Finally, it includes calques (this term itself a French loan word in English, which originally means “trace” or “echo”): direct or literal translations that impose one language’s syntax on the other. For example, one might say te hablo p’atrás—I’ll call you back—as opposed to te devuelvo la llamada,which is the typical phrasing in Spanish. Or perhaps tener un buen tiempo—to have a good time—as opposed to pasarla bien, which is more correct. This is not random; it is not haphazard. Rather, to mold phrases in this way requires a firm grasp on the morphology of two languages, not to mention an instinctive creativity and openness in slipping and sliding between the two.

“True code-switching,” says Tony Zavaleta of the University of Texas-Brownsville, “takes more than simply knowing two languages.” It requires the ability to play these languages off one another intuitively, the way jazz musicians, after having learned so many scales, patterns, and chords, improvise fluently from these depending on mood and context. It also demands what linguists J. Rothman and A. B. Rell describe as an instantaneous, fluid representation of “dual-identity, individual identity and community-identity.”

Each Spanglish sentence reinvents the speaker’s identity, assigns certain qualities to English and the U.S. and others to Spanish and Latin America, ascribes a new significance to words whose meanings are otherwise static. Take this one, from Roberto Maduro’s “Spanglish and its Influence on American English”: “Hey Dad, I remember sitting in abuelita’s cocina when we were little, and we were drinking a taza de café.” In Maduro’s words, this swapping of one language for another “leaves morpho-syntactical and phonetic integrity intact.” That is, the sentence reads just like we would expect an English sentence to read, down to the use of the possessive in abuelita’s, which in Spanish syntax would be expressed as la cocina de abuelita: the kitchen of grandmother. This is not the construction of an illiterate person; rather, it is the construction of a person who lives perpetually between worlds, leaning sometimes into one, sometimes into the other, drawing from each instinctive memories and connotations, and all in the brief moment it takes to form a spoken expression. This sentence demonstrates a more intimate relationship with two languages than most people will ever know; it is a metonymic map of intimacy, history, and belonging. Dad is in English, when we were little is in English, but abuelita’s cocina and taza de café are in Spanish, connected to another culture, place, and tradition. This is the revelation in a single sentence of the mesh of two empires, countries, and peoples—what Ilan Stavans, the foremost champion of Spanglish, calls to “live on the hyphen, in between.”

Stavans, a professor at Amherst College and the author of Spanglish: The Making of A New American Language, is a controversial celebrant of Spanglish as a “transnational verbal code.” Controversial in part because of his belief in the old adage that the main difference between a language and a dialect is that the former has a better army—but mostly because he translated the first chapter of Don Quixote into Spanglish, tackling that bastion of Spanish literature with wry cunning bound to set the Real Academia Española into fits of righteous outrage. The translation begins: “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 greyhound para el chase.” It is playful, coy, possessed of an insider’s expert knowledge and fluidity, and it is perhaps this insiderness, this sense of a secret code understood only by those who inhabit dual cultures and identities, that infuriates the stodgy gatekeepers more than the violation of grammatical norms. Spanglish refuses clear affinities and patrimonies, negates the neat check in the box on the census form and the obsequiousness of the subject to her empire. Many varieties of Creole function as a rebellion against linguistic, political, and cultural oppression. Perhaps Spanglish does so, too.

Undoubtedly, Spanglish is the result of empire: not solely the reigning Estadoúnidense (tellingly, there is no adjective in English to describe someone from the United States other than “American”), but also the Spanish and British, whose tussles for colonial power in the “new world” extend to the seventeenth century (notice that we are not speaking of Nahuátlish or Mayanish), and, before that, to the Latin, Moorish, and Castilian. An estimated 75 percent of Spanish words come from Latin. This is the result of Rome’s dominance on the Iberian peninsula, followed by Moorish invasions that isolated the state of Castile—where Hispanic Latin remained well-preserved from Arabic influence—and then the subsequent rise of Christian Castile into an empire that began reconquering the surrounding peninsula, ultimately imposing the Latin-derived Castilian Spanish as the empire’s official language.

But if peninsular fears about a freak “McLengua” seem misplaced within so much colonial history, the mere fact that languages are almost always determined by empire doesn’t mean we can all shrug and unequivocally embrace their usage. There are divisions of power and control in Spanglish, and these divisions stem mainly from who is using the language, why, and how. There are also significant and important discrepancies in how Spanglish is received, discrepancies based largely on perceptions of English as a language of imperialism and the speaker’s and listener’s relationships to this language.

The biggest division, and the one that will always divide the millions of Latin American immigrants from the U.S. Latinophiles who long to be steeped in two cultures, is one of choice. As Joaquín Garrido of the Instituto Cervantes pointed out in a paper entitled “Spanglish, Spanish, and English,” delivered at an international conference on Spanglish at Amherst College (qué incredible imaginar the academic Spanglish being jargonizado en este sala!), there are two types of Spanglish. The first is the result of adaptive bilingualism: the unconscious and essential transformation of Spanish to incorporate new social and cultural realities. The second is deliberate Spanglish, a style purposefully affected to indicate belonging to a particular culture or group. The former is the domain of the native Spanish speaker come north; the latter of the Estadoúnidense proving her affiliation with the south. Garrido’s division is oversimplified, ignoring the fact that many Mexican Americans choose to use Spanglish, Spanish, or English depending on company and context. One woman living in Los Angeles, interviewed as part of a survey of Mexican Americans, put it this way: “Spanglish has become a defining point for Mexican Americans too Mexican to be American and too American to be Mexican.” Another interviewee said, “Spanglish is a cultural symbol, which represents la mezcla which is California culture . . . I enjoy speaking it because it shows my diverse identity. I’m not just a Hispanic and I’m not just an Anglo-American—I’m mixed and Spanglish represents that identity.” This is not the language of forced adaptation but of selective identity.

And yet Garrido’s point is useful in that it demonstrates that for many Mexican Americans and native Spanish speakers, Spanglish is the result of an imposed, not a chosen, hybridity. Even if they choose when to switch between languages, their immersion in U.S. and Latin American culture is the result of an original rupture, the trauma and the break of immigration, or of a contingent in-betweenness. Such is the case with most, if not all, writers of Spanglish. Such is the case with my husband, who never wanted to live in the United States—not when he grew up in a poor rural village and saw dozens of paisanos migrate to the U.S., not when he later earned photography scholarships and the opportunity to visit the U.S. for workshops. (Not when he found himself sitting at a bar surrounded by screaming Steelers fans on a ten-degree January day in Pittsburgh.) We cannot choose whom we fall in love with; the jealous assertions of Mexican migrants that he “got the golden ticket” are a particularly cloying irony he knows better than to whine about. His Spanglish is adaptive, unanticipated.

And what about mine? I wander around the house saying things like, Tuvé un blast, or Vas a sharear mi foto en el Face? I could argue that I, too, never anticipated feeling so trapped between worlds, never anticipated conducting my life on the threshold between languages and cultures. I have married into Mexican culture, a Mexican family. I recently gave birth to a Mexican-American child, who has rendered my connection to Mexico flesh and blood. My life is conducted in Spanish, English, and Spanglish, and I have chosen these situations, but not entirely. However, I can’t argue that I am a victim; I’m too far over on the winning side of history for that. My language’s army is the biggest in the world. I grew up with a washer and a dryer and AP English. In this context, my Spanglish starts to look like one of the beaded imitation Tomahawks sold at roadside stands in Michigan: a pseudo-artifact.

 

One of the game-changing theories in the emergent discipline of translation studies posits that we—we being Americans and English speakers—praise a translator’s invisibility because we do not want to be reminded that we are reading a foreign text. We do not want to notice the translation itself in the reading. This is so obvious a point as to elicit scorn: of course, that’s the point of translation, isn’t it? Any good translation won’t be so gauche as to show its seams, just as any good piece of contemporary fiction should read like a continuous dream. But what translation theorist Lawrence Venuti—the originator of this theory and its staunchest defender—would argue is that in rendering the translator and the process of translation invisible we are inevitably “domesticizing” foreignness, giving a friendly and familiar American patina to what otherwise might be strange, incomprehensible, or challenging.

This renders texts more accessible to average American readers, but at the cost of a complex, nuanced understanding of foreign cultures. Domesticizing, the theory goes, is the bedfellow of American imperialism, which exports Hollywood and McDonald’s and imports glossy Orientalized versions of familiar foreignness: recognizable storylines of urban ennui and contemporary alienation, of scrappy villagers overcoming oppression, of hardworking migrants pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. It keeps Americans safely cocooned in a U.S.-centered vision of the world. A foreignizing translation, meanwhile, forces readers to confront anomalous realities, ways of seeing, styles, and terms. It draws attention to itself as a translation, because it won’t pull the cloak of invisibility warmly around the reader, allowing her to forget about the many murky and untranslatable differences of this other culture so that she can get swept up in the narrative and its universal humanness (which Venuti might argue is really just universal Americanness). Take, for example, two translations of the poem “The King of Harlem” by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. The first, by Donald Allen in The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca (New Directions, 1988), translates the line “Negros, Negros, Negros, Negros”—set apart from the stanzas around it—as “Negroes, Negroes, Negroes, Negroes.” The second, by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman in Poet in New York (Grove Press, 2007), translates Lorca’s “Negros, Negros, Negros, Negros” simply as “Blacks.” The calming of the unsettling repetition of “Negros” into one clear, emphatic term is arguably a domesticizing gesture—the poem becomes increasingly American, familiar, definitive. Allen’s translation, meanwhile, foreignizes: the word “negro” has more troubling connotations in English than “black,” and its quadruple incantation rattles where the direct, conclusive neatness of “Blacks” soothes. The former draws attention to itself as a translation, jolting the reader; the latter is smoother, cloaking the reader more easily and completely in an English perspective.

In my own writing, I attempt these foreignizing techniques, although not without reservations. I am deeply attached to Mexico; I feel that I know something of a certain small part of it, though I am always qualifying, because I can never know all or completely, and that is the thrill. I want my representation of this culture I love to be as true to its complexity as possible, to contain the allusive and connotative layers embedded within certain Spanish words and phrases. And yet my husband grows frustrated. “Who are you writing this for?” he asks of my book of narrative nonfiction, which tells the stories of Mexican immigrants who return to Oaxaca after decades in the U.S. What is the purpose of writing a book that challenges the simplistic ways in which so many Americans see Mexican migrants if the only people who will read it are the migrants themselves or those who already have a complex understanding of Mexico and immigration?

Yet perhaps Americans aren’t as hopeless as this dichotomy assumes. Readers read stories to be transported to other places, other worlds, other lives. They are willing to venture far afield, if they remain immersed, if the spell cast by the book is captivating enough; look at the success of Junot Díaz’sDrown, with its constant code-switching. In one representative passage from the first story, Díaz writes:

Ysrael, I lowered myself stiffly into my seat but the pastelito had already put a grease stain on my pants. Coño, I said, and took the pastelito and finished it in four bites. Rafa wasn’t watching. Each time the autobus stopped he was hopping down and helping people bring on their packages. When a row filled he lowered the swing-down center seat for whoever was next. The cobrador, a thin boy with an Afro, was trying to keep up with him and the driver was too busy with his radio to notice what was happening.

There are no nifty translations here in parenthesis, no italics to shout to the reader, this is a foreign word! The Spanish words are part of the scenery, the story, the spell, and the reader is expected to absorb them even if he or she doesn’t know their meaning. Spanglish, admittedly, has an advantage in the foreignizing department, for it has in many places become a domestic aspect of life in the U.S. We are a nation increasingly influenced by Latino culture, if not necessarily the Spanish language. Even those safely ensconced in white-flight suburbs have had to confront changing U.S. demographics and the increasingly tangible mixture of Anglo and Hispanic societies and ways of being. Perhaps those writing in Spanglish have more liberty to push the foreignizing envelope; the charged border Spanglish walks is just foreign enough—just domestic enough—to be both challenging and recognizable, unfamiliar and close.

This is precisely what I am aiming for when I use Spanglish in my work. I want to force the reader to walk in that territory between worlds, stepping sometimes into one and sometimes into the other, seeing one from the viewpoint of the other and vice versa. Listen, for example, to the voice of Pedro, a character who spent fifteen years in the United States, seven of them in “East Max,” or Pitchess Detention Center, in Los Angeles. Here is my description of his first day in prison, paraphrased from his recounting:

Inside were “representatives from every country.” He landed in a cell with a paisa, who gave him the lowdown. This is for urine; this is for el dos; this is to brush your teeth; this is for your clothes; when there’s a morenito in the shower you can’t go in, you have to wait until there’s another paisa. Got it?

Translating the Spanish here—paisa, morenito, el dos—would be simple. “Paisa” is slang for “paisano,” or Mexican; “morenito” is a polite way of referring to a black man, with the diminutive “ito,” meaning “little,” tacked on for affection; and “el dos” becomes “number two.” But changing these terms would drastically alter the character’s voice, whitewashing his Mexican perspective into standard American speech. It would also strip Pedro’s account of layers of meaning—the solidarity of “paisa” within the contexts of prison and Los Angeles; Pedro’s respect for African Americans and learned political awareness in the term “morenito,” an uncommon usage when many Mexicans simply say “negro”; and his easy shifting between English and Spanish with “this is for el dos.” The Spanglish here immerses the reader in Pedro’s multilayered perspective, neither wholly Mexican and Spanish—marked as foreign by clear translation—nor wholly American and English, translated without any mention of the original phrasing. Spanglish is an intimate metaphor for the way many Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Americans live now, but it is also much more than a metaphor: it is a way of being, an interior geography made palpable in grammar and language.

My personal approach to writing in Spanglish is multifaceted. First, fidelity to the layered connotations of a word or a concept. Take something as basic as la migra. So easy, so obvious: the Border Patrol. Why not simply make the translation? Doesn’t using la migra run the risk of making the border-crossing sections read like a bad crime movie with mustachioed villains and a thick, cheesy Spanish voiceover? But Border Patrol has all the dry, tidy order of English, of bureaucracy and rules and everyone-should-know-their-place. It sounds neat, appropriate, governmental. It is the look at the border from a manicured circle of suburban lawn, the application of a properly titled remedy. La migra is a different beast entirely, and it’s la migrawho figures as the main character in border-crossing stories. La migra is shifty, la migra is sudden and swift and brutal, la migra hisses insults, gives chase, hides and reappears, alights and darkens. La migra changes uniforms, disguises, morphs identities: it might be a policeman on the street at night near the bridge, a white van parked outside a restaurant, an airport official who looks a little too long at a faded I.D. La migra is shadowy, threatening, feared, and despised: the Border Patrol is a stolid ’Merican in a crisp tan uniform in a John McCain campaign ad.

There are so many others: cholos vs. gangsters; la banda vs. band; cuete vs. firecracker; paisanos vs. countrymen. These words are woven into the passages I write in English, because translating them feels like shortchanging Mexican culture, simplifying and Americanizing it. When I choose to use Spanglish, I am perhaps making Mexico more of a curiosity than it would have been in full English translation—and indeed, when writing about other cultures, U.S. writers must be aware of exoticizing and otherizing like an ever-present knifepoint at the back. I have decided the benefits that come from using Spanglish are worth that risk. Of course, I also run the risk of alienating readers, of seeming like that person who sprinkles French idioms into dinner-party chitchat, and whom everyone hopes will choke on the wine. Likewise, I frequently write Spanish sentences with an English word dropped like a brick in their midst: “Tienes que tener un feeling.” There, the word is more accusatory, more heartfelt, stripped of the context that renders “feeling” innocuous and bland. It is made newly visible. The language mimics the shifting connotations, allusions, and alliances.

 

At home, Jorge’s and my Spanglish has leveled the Scrabble playing field. For his güero, there’s my lonely. For my standard, there’s his deudas. The tiles intersect, English’s short consonant-stacked words overlapping with Spanish’s euphonious roly-poly vowels. Into and out of one and the other we slide, unconscious of how we have assigned parts of ourselves to one side or the other, to one idioma or the other. Unconscious of how each of us has become tangled up in both, until we are in Mexico and we miss beer and the woods, then back in Ohio and we miss corazóncalor humano, vida. Until the middle of a sentence, when I realize I cannot write the word “firework” when what shot into the southern sky was a cuete, loosed by a cuetero, an old man in an untucked white shirt who carries a passel of cuetes and stops to light them one by one, their sparks soaring up from between his cupped bare hands.


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American. 

Sarah Menkedick divides her time between Mexico and a farm in southeastern Ohio. She has an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, and her essays have appeared in Harper's, Amazon's Kindle Singles, The Best Women's Travel Writing, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction writing by women.