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Los Angeles Times

Book Review: Tower Of Babel LIVING IN SPANGLISH: The Search For Latino Identity In America, By Ed Morales, St. Martin's Press: 310 pp., $25.95


August 18, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.

In 1490, in the palace of Tecayehuatzin, lord of Huexotzinco, a group of Nahua princes who were also poets met to discuss the provenance of art and its relation to life and thought. Near the end of the "Dialogue of Flowers and Song," Prince Ayocuan tells the others, "Friends, listen to the dream of a word," and then speaks of "life, enabling us to see."

Like many works left to us by Mesoamerican civilization, this poem was concerned with language as well as life, for the authors recognized language as the defining human characteristic. So aware of the importance of language were these Mesoamericans that they chose to call themselves Nahuas ("clear speakers").

Race, on the other hand, was not of interest in pre-Hispanic America, although there were recognizable physical characteristics that could have been used to distinguish among various groups (shorts and talls, for instance, rather than lights and darks). As the Mesoamericans noted, race is a foolish business no matter what the defining characteristics. They were too subtle in their observations to construct a racial system; they drew distinctions according to language, very much like the ancient Greeks. The Greeks thought the language of strangers sounded like "barbarbar," so they called them Barbarians. The Nahuas thought the language of some strangers sounded like "popopo," so they called them Popolocas.

Languages change, however, none more than English, which is the most inclusive language, leaping from a vocabulary of 50,000 words to double that number with the inclusion of words brought over from the continent by the Norman conquest. Other languages also change, but none quite so rapidly as English. In the Americas, James Lockhart has collected the borrowings from Spanish used by the Nahuas during the years following the invasion. In North America, the Navajos, upon encountering a motorcycle, devised a new and very onomatopoeic word for the curious vehicle: "put-put." Tomatoes and chiles are Nahuatl vegetables. "Canoe" was borrowed from the indigenous people of the Caribbean, who had borrowed it from indigenous people of South America's east coast. The process of language growth has almost always been an inclusion of foreign words.

Among people who speak more than one language, code-switching (changing from one language to another) occurs regularly. That should not be confused with Spanglish, which is not switching easily from one language to another by bilingual or multilingual speakers. In popular music, which Ed Morales knows and speaks of with authority in "Living in Spanglish," code-switching works especially well. He points out that Latin jazz was and remains a spectacularly successful blend of rhythms, melodies and orchestrations.

In literary works, say, a novel by Saul Bellow or Carlos Fuentes, the English or Spanish text may be enriched by words or phrases from French, Greek, Latin and so on. Europeans are fond of pointing out to Americans that people who speak only one language are not civilized. Following that rule, one would expect people in the Americas to speak at least English and Spanish. Since the Americas are rich in languages, it would seem that the hemisphere presents a great opportunity to keep alive this most glorious of human creations.

Morales offers the view that, in the United States, both English and Spanish should die. Instead of favoring bilingual education (English for Spanish-speakers and Spanish for English-speakers), that civilized notion, Morales argues for Spanglish, a third language. Spanglish, which is ill-defined, like any form of pidgin, is a language of colonized people. Spanglish blurs the lines between English and Spanish in confusing ways: a carpet, for example, is called "carpeta," even though carpeta in Spanish means "folder." A library becomes "libreria" in Spanglish, but libreria in Spanish means "bookstore" (biblioteca means "library"). Poets may make use of it to express their anger, but in everyday use it is not the language of protest but of people on their knees. Pidgin has always been an effective way to keep colonized people in that vicious place. For Latinos, who have the highest high school dropout rate of any defined group, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the promotion of a form of communication that insinuates colonial sensibilities and reduces the ability to communicate in both the dominant and ancestral languages is tragic.

Language, as everyone knows, is both denotative and connotative. Morales, whose family came to New York from Puerto Rico, writes that Spanglish began in Puerto Rico, and he attributes it to Puerto Rico's colonial status . In the eyes of many people, especially those who favor independence for Puerto Rico, the island has been a colony longer than any other place on Earth. The promoter of Spanglish opposes independence, which would probably lead Puerto Rico away from Spanglish to Spanish or bilingualism as the colonial mentality was replaced by the sense of self-worth that comes with autonomy.

From its roots in colonialism, Spanglish attaches easily to class. Morales writes mainly about popular culture and the now tired view of Latinos mired in drugs and prison life. No doubt, some Latinos use drugs and suffer imprisonment, but nowhere in Morales' book does one find anyone like Alicia Juarrero, the philosopher whose "Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System" has enjoyed global interest; nor do we hear of Dr. Jaime Inclan, who was named family therapist of the year; nor is there a mention of Joaquin Avila Jr., who won a voting rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 9-0.

Spanglish is not spoken by any of these people, who are, respectively, of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage. Interestingly, none of the three accepts the role of internally or externally colonized person. A posteriori or a priori, however one chooses to consider Spanglish, it attaches not to pride but to surrender.

The other factor connected, throughout history, to pidgin has been race: darker-skinned people trying desperately to find some means to do business with technologically, economically and militarily superior light-skinned people. Promoters of Spanglish take up that connection and attempt to turn it into a virtue, but it cannot be. Language has no color. A posteriori again, Chinua and Christie Achebe speak English as well as I do, but I have no Igbo. The Nigerian author of "Things Fall Apart" and his wife, a historian, and I are limited to English. Not pidgin. The failing is mine, not theirs. They are bilingual--English and Igbo. They understand very well the concept of legitimate power.

Language itself is of little interest to the author of "Spanglish." Morales writes about La Malinche (or Malinalli), Hernan Cortes' mistress and translator, whom he describes as a Maya. But the Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, not Maya (the languages are mutually unintelligible). Had Malinalli been a Maya, rather than a Nahua sold into slavery to the Maya, she would not have been able to translate for Cortes. Morales frowns upon the idea of learning Nahuatl today, attributing it to Chicanos of "the hard left." But compared with the submissive Spanglish, learning Nahuatl is, like bilingualism, the business of civilized people.

If language is the grandest of human inventions, the essence of diversity, the wealth of the world, then every language deserves to be nurtured, and no language, neither English nor Spanish nor Nahuatl nor Igbo, should be deprived of its uniqueness. By the making of languages, humans are most like gods: independent, creative, heaven-borne on wings of subtlety. By the gift of languages to each other we are the generous makers of civilized life. If we unmake languages into pidgins, we begin the fall, we burden the generations.

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