My sinful Spanish syntax

GUSTAVO ARELLANO is a staff writer with OC Weekly, where he writes the "¡Ask a Mexican!" column.

‘SO YOU’RE THE Mexican who doesn’t speak good Spanish,” the Univision Radio producer sneered as we discussed whether I should appear on his show. Wow. My "¡Ask a Mexican!” celebrity star is no brighter than gaffer level, yet rumors and whispers about my personal life already buzz around town.

In this case, the mudslingers are right. Whether it’s on KMEX-TV Channel 34 news broadcasts, Univision’s wildly popular “Despierta America” morning program or local radio talk shows, I speak Spanish worse than Tony Villaraigosa.

I blame my parents. Not only did they teach me Mexican Spanish -- long derided by Hispanic elites as the Spanish-language world’s Eliza Doolittle -- but mami y papi taught me the elision-heavy, singsong rhythms of their rural Mexican villages. They did this in Anaheim, and although our barrio was a de facto Mexican protectorate, I still had to attend American public schools, where the assimilationist claws of English ensnared yet another child of immigrants. My mother tongue suffered, yet Lorenzo and Maria Arellano never bothered to send off their firstborn to abuelita in Zacatecas or even bilingual education classes to improve his Spanish. Guess they enjoyed seeing me become American a bit much.

My double background of chuntaro (Mexican slang for a country bumpkin) and pocho (Mexican slang for an Americanized Mexican) left me with a Spanish dreadful to the ears but still intelligible -- even the most illegal day-laborer can understand me. Yet critics harangue my Spanish at every opportunity. I’m used to the scoldings of aunts and uncles, but more surprising are the self-appointed custodians of Cervantes who invade my e-mail whenever I speak Spanish on-air. They especially went loco after my June 19 appearance on “The Colbert Report.” My sin? I mispronounced the Spanish word for patience -- pacencia instead of paciencia. Even after I explained to these Sancho Panzas that my parents drop vowels and consonants like Mexican stock futures, they still slandered me as if I was a brown Benedict Arnold.


Truthfully, I don’t care. I understand the need for eloquent Spanish in certain professions -- government translator, for instance, or head dishwasher at the Biltmore -- but I’m an English-language columnist; it’s my job to help Americans understand Mexicans, not to write the next “Don Quixote.”

It’s troubling, though, to know that some people actually get upset when a U.S.-born-and-bred Latino isn’t fully fluent in Spanish. And it seems the vast majority of haters are Latinos (gabachos are too clueless to take notice). Immigrant parents admonish their children because they don’t hablar espanol so well anymore; pochos love to harass one another on their Spanish deficiencies. Latinos beat one another like linguistic pinatas. It’s all a waste of time. Really, what can Spanish mastery gain you in this country except the ability to speak with other Latinos and to use the word “mother” to curse in baroque ways?

And so I speak my mangled Spanish with pride, and I’m not the only one. Many of my successful Mexican American peers also lead our raza to glory and bad syntax -- I’m thinking Edward James Olmos, Villaraigosa and Henry Cisneros, Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno and so many more.

As for the Univision Radio producer? He booked me on his show. My Spanish was atrocious, garbled -- and I’m coming back in a couple of weeks. Hispanophones of the world: If Univision doesn’t have a problem with my Spanish, why should you?