A Hybrid Tongue or Slanguage?

Times Staff Writer

On a muggy Sunday afternoon at the Duenas home in South Gate, mariachi music bumped from a boombox on the concrete in the driveway. The roasted smells of carne asada lingered over a folding picnic table, like the easy banter between cousins.

“Le robaron la troca con everything. Los tires, los rines,” a visiting cousin said.

Translation: “They robbed the truck with everything. The tires, the rims.”

“theseQuieres watermelon?” offered Francisco Duenas, a 26-year-old housing counselor, holding a jug filled with sweet water and watermelon bits.


“Tal vez tiene some of the little tierrita at the bottom.”

Translation: “Want watermelon? It might have some of the little dirt at the bottom.”

When the Duenas family gathers for weekend barbecues, there are no pauses between jokes and gossip, spoken in English and Spanish. They’ve been mixing the languages effortlessly, sometimes clumsily, for years, so much so that the back-and-forth is not even noticed.

Spanglish, the fluid vernacular that crosses between English and Spanish, has been a staple in Latino life in California since English-speaking settlers arrived in the 19th century. And for much of that time, it has been dismissed and derided by language purists -- “neither good, nor bad, but abominable,” as Mexican writer Octavio Paz famously put it.


But the criticism has done little to reduce the prevalence of Spanglish, which today is a bigger part of bilingual life than ever before.

Now it’s rapidly moving from Latino neighborhoods into the mainstream. Spanglish is showing up in television and films, with writers using it to bring authenticity to their scripts and to get racy language past network executives. Marketers use it to sell everything from bank accounts to soft drinks. Hallmark now sells Spanglish greeting cards. And McDonald’s is rolling out Spanglish TV spots that will air on both Spanish- and English-language networks.

In academia, once a bastion of anti-Spanglish sentiment, the vernacular is now studied in courses with names like “Spanish Phonetics” and “Crossing Borders.” Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans published a Spanglish dictionary with hundreds of entries -- from gaseteria (which means “gas station”) to chaqueta (for “jacket,” instead of the Spanish word “saco”). Stavans said new Spanglish words are being created all the time, altering traditional notions of language purity that remained strong just a generation ago.

Growing up, “I was told in school that you shouldn’t mix the languages,” said Stavans, whose college plans to hold the first Conference of Spanglish in April. “There used to be this approach that if you use a broken tongue, you have a broken tongue. It’s not about broken tongues; it’s about different tongues, and they are legitimate. I think you’re going to see a lot more of that.”


The rise of Spanglish says a lot about the demographic shifts in California and other states with large Latino populations.

Migration movements are traditionally accompanied by the mixing of the native language with the newly acquired one. Within a generation or two, the Old Country tongue -- whether Polish, Chinese or Italian -- usually recedes.

But unlike immigrants from Europe and Asia, Latinos are separated from their cultural homeland, not by vast oceans, but by the border with Mexico and the 90 miles between Cuba and the Florida Keys.

The Latino immigrant population is constantly replenishing itself. Meanwhile, Spanish-language media, such as industry giants Telemundo and Univision, continue to grow, which means that the immigrants’ original language remains a force in the community.


Today, Spanglish is especially popular among young urban Latinos who are U.S.-born -- people like Francisco Duenas, who was raised in South Gate, lives in Echo Park and works in an office in South Los Angeles. Spanglish, he said, allows him to bridge two cultures: the largely Spanish-speaking world of his parents and the English-language world of work and friends.

“I think this Spanglish, being to go back and forth, it’s a way of saying, ‘Look, I can do both,’ ” Duenas said. “And I think here in Los Angeles particularmente, it’s not necessary to speak just Spanish or English. No puedes describir la vida aqui [you can’t describe life here] without speaking both.”

As Spanglish spreads, academics and marketers are finding that it’s much more complicated than simply forming sentences with both Spanish and English words.

The most basic part of Spanglish is “code-switching,” in which someone inserts or substitutes words from one language into another. For instance, Spanglish might sound like “Vamos a la store para comprar milk.” Translation: “Let’s go to the store to buy milk.”


A more complicated form of Spanglish involves making up words -- essentially switching languages within a word itself. It can happen when a word or phrase is translated literally, like perro caliente for “hot dog.” In other instances, Spanglish is created when an English word is Hispanicized, such as troca or troque for “truck.” Speakers might also add the -ear suffix to an English word to make it an improper Spanish verb: parquear, for “to park,” for example.

Major regional differences have emerged. In Miami’s Little Havana, a Spanglish word for “traitor” is “Kenedito,” a reference to exiles’ hard feelings over President Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion. In New York, Puerto Ricans refer to their home on the Lower East Side as “La Loisaida.” In some parts of the Southwest, Spanglish speakers say “Ay te watcho” to bid someone farewell.

Just where the sudden popularity of code-switching will end is a matter of debate. Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a lobbying group opposed to bilingual education, which has railed against Spanglish, thinks the boom is a fleeting trend. He and other critics see Spanglish as a form of slang, not a new language.

“There’s always been some form of that,” he said. “At one point, it was Yiddish, then the black urban slang, and now Spanglish is the new ‘in’ thing.”


But while academics try to break down Spanglish to understand how it is used, others say it’s a code so spontaneous that it’s impossible to fully unravel.

It’s “a state of mind,” said San Diego cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, whose nationally syndicated strip “La Cucaracha” includes code-switching. “It’s the schizophrenia of trying to deal with two worlds in one.”

That conflict has set off a debate among Latinos over whether the rise of Spanglish is a good thing.

Patrick Osio Jr., editor of the public affairs website, said Spanglish hinders, rather than helps, Latinos’ upward mobility.


“A dialectical mixture of the two is not going to get you much anywhere,” Osio said. “It may allow you to trade a few barbs with your neighbors and friends, but outside of that, you’re doomed.”

Indeed, some parents fear their children are too barraged with both languages to adequately learn either.

Veronica Padilla, a 30-year-old mother of two, speaks English with her husband, Spanish with her mother and a mix of both with her children. Freely code-switching herself, Padilla said the results in her children’s speech, at least culturally speaking, are appalling.

For instance, her children can’t properly name basic Mexican foods.


“A las tortillas les dicen ‘tacos,’ [they call tortillas ‘tacos’] can you believe it? Tacos!” Padilla said while shopping at Latino Factory, a specialty shop, at the Stonewood Shopping Center in Downey.

She shrugged. “That’s just the way we talk.”

There is perhaps no better place to see how Spanglish is used -- and marketed -- today than the studios of KJLA-TV, a music programming network that bills itself as the first truly bilingual space on broadcast television for young Latinos.

LATV, as the station is known, broadcasts celebrity interviews as completely bilingual affairs. On a recent show, the hosts asked pop singer Juanes questions in English, and he responded in Spanish. The code-switching at times was fast and furious.


The programming director, Flavio Morales, said the use of Spanglish is purely spontaneous -- the way the young people who watch the show actually talk. Morales simply assumes his audience can follow along. And among the 20-something employees at LATV, Spanglish is the norm.

“Hey, welcome back to Mex 2 the Max, theseQue pasa calabasa?” Morales tells the audience during a music video program. “Check us out at LATV-punto-com, where we have a cool ... cuarto de chat [chat room].”

Evelyn Casillas, a 19-year-old intern at LATV, said the station’s use of two languages reflects the upbringing of both the employees and the studio audiences, which are full of Latino teenagers from all over Los Angeles.

“My parents didn’t speak English so a fuerzas aprendi espanol,” Casillas said without skipping a beat, explaining how she had been forced to learn Spanish growing up in her Mexican immigrant parents’ home in Brea. “My mind just works that way.”


“Like the word ansiosa,” she added, wringing her hands together. “How can you explain that in English?”

Casillas could translate it as “anxious,” but like other Spanglish speakers, she said that sometimes Spanish words just sound better -- part of the fun of code-switching.

The bilingual banter has generated interest from advertisers who want to use Spanglish -- and the perceived street authenticity that comes with it -- to sell their products.

“The advertisers kept saying, ‘We want youth, we want Hispanic youth,’ ” said Yolanda Foster, vice president for marketing of mun2, a Miami-based bilingual music channel similar in format to LATV. The dialogue is mostly English with a Spanish twist -- the way she believes many Latino teens speak among themselves.


“They speak English, but they flavor it, or season it, with Spanish terms,” Foster said. “Everywhere I go, it’s like, ‘My God, finally, finally there’s something like this.’ ”

First-generation Latinos roughly between the ages of 14 and 28 represent the fastest-growing youth demographic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And an October study by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., found that most second-generation Latinos live in cities and tend to speak both Spanish and English.

“I see it more as a convergence of massive urban youth -- it’s really an urban youth enchilada,” said Tito Zamalloa, a multicultural marketing director at PepsiCo Inc., which recently led a marketing blitz for its Mountain Dew soft drink with the phrase “Toma this!” Toma translates to “drink” or “take.”

A new TV advertisement for McDonald’s features young and attractive brown-skinned urbanites salivating over Big Macs while a rapper in the background rhymes, “As a matter of fact, te va encantar!” Translation: “You’ll love it!”


McDonald’s director of U.S. marketing, Max Gallegos, said the ad reflects a shift in the way the company markets itself to Latinos. For years, it produced Spanish-language ads aimed at young Latinos. But because of shifts in demographics, the fast-food giant is focusing more on acculturation with ads that mix references to two cultures.

“It’s a big difference ... embracing the two cultures; that’s creating a mind-set of its own,” Gallegos said.

And it’s not just advertisers who are turning to Spanglish to lend authenticity.

In “Kingpin,” an NBC miniseries about a Mexican American drug cartel, the mostly bilingual actors were encouraged to improvise dialogue in some scenes presented entirely in Spanish. David Mills, the show’s creator, said the mix of English and Spanish dialogue matched the speaking patterns of the people the characters were based on -- giving the program a realistic feel.


On Nickelodeon’s popular “Dora the Explorer” cartoon, Dora greets toddler viewers with a cheery “Hola” at the start of each episode and introduces Spanish words throughout the show.

Spanglish -- used famously by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he said, “Hasta la vista, baby” in “Terminator 2" -- is now showing up in more sustained dialogue in movies like “Real Women Have Curves” and the “Spy Kids” trilogy.

Director James L. Brooks is now filming his next romantic comedy, about a Mexican woman who arrives in Los Angeles looking for love and money. The title: “Spanglish.”

Susana Chavez-Silverman, who teaches Spanglish texts in courses at Pomona College and whose memoir about speaking Spanglish during a stay in Argentina will be published next year, said the spread of Spanglish is more than just a linguistic lark.


“This never would’ve happened 20 years ago, when the idea of multiculturalism wasn’t in, the idea of cultural ambiguity wasn’t in,” she said. “Now it is, and a certain acceptance of Spanglish is a symptom of that.”

It’s an acceptance that is echoed, more or less, back at the Duenas home, where matriarch Petra Duenas, 63, said the way her family speaks simply shows that the younger ones were raised in an English-speaking world by Spanish-speaking parents. “Since they were little, we taught them Spanish and in school they learned English,” she said in Spanish.

Petra Duenas proudly said she didn’t mix languages. She has spent decades in Los Angeles, learning some English, but she insisted most of her daily life happens exclusively in Spanish.

But as she explained what her husband does for a living, the reach of Spanglish became clear. Her husband, she said, operates “un troque que arregla los trailers cuando se ponchan en los freeways.”


Translation: “A truck that fixes trailers when they break down on freeways.”