April 10, 2009

First Person:


By Al Carlos Hernandez

Have you ever made the mistake of saying a few phrases in Spanish, only to have the other person speak for the next 45 minutes in the mother tongue, while you have little clue as to what they are saying because it is too fast, and you don’t know how to stop them?

Yeah right, like I’m the only one. Well the only one to admit it anyway.

I am of an urban generation that was not taught Spanish at home as a first language. Our parents believed that the only way to succeed in the USA was to be fluent and literate in English. And they were 100% right. That is not to say that the plan worked out as well as expected. We spent our schoolyard days speaking a pochoed form of urban ebonics. Sabes que, you talk lame Dude.

Just because one is not conversant in the Spanish language should not diminish ones stature as a Latino. It does, however, qualify them to be Hispanic. One can be bi-cultural without being bi-lingual; the two are not mutually exclusive dialectics.

My wife and her family are bilingual and I have learned a great deal of conversational Spanish from them. I know enough to enjoy some Univision TV and have a remedial ability to order comida at favorite restaurants. I am, however, growing weary of the process. Every time I attempt to speak to the server, he/she invariably looks at my wife in confirmation of my order fearing that I may have ordered monkey knuckle soup. The server somehow never has a problem handing me the bill at the end of the meal, however. This proves to me that English is the language of commerce not colloquialism.

As part of my major in college I was forced to take several years of university level Spanish. Still I have yet to have any Latino ask me where the library is. Tu sabes, they don’t know because they don’t go. College Spanish is a lose-lose proposition. If you use it, folks think you are acting too good. If you use it and try to dumb it down, you sound stupid like Hugo Chavez.

I have experienced a perverse type of prejudice, which I have learned to enjoy when approached by Spanish speaking sales representatives. These people are hired to prey on the economically naïve, monolingual Latinos at major mall stores. Notice that many of the in-store signs and advertisements are bi-lingual thanks to college Spanish. I can read them, but cannot give directions without sounding like a social worker.

Once we were in a department store and the Latino sales guy, in his Sunday- go-to-meeting, 1995 issued, citizenship-swearing-in-ceremony suit, was sent out to talk to us because we were visually Hispanic. He asked my wife in Spanish which country she was from. She smiled politely and said, “Nicaragua.” He turned his novella polished gaze at me and asked me the same question in broken English. Just to be a jerk, I answered with a ghetto timbre in my voice,“Oakland!” Then tossed up a big “O” with my fingers and pounded it on my chest.

Needless to say we had to step outside and have a “talk.” I am not to do that again because that behavior makes me look like a sinvergüenza, which is a lowly person without any shame and/or any local politician.

I have mastered a technique that has proven to be useful when I find myself in a position of listening to a person who is talking to me in Spanish. The rules are simple. First of all, they want to talk and really don’t care what you have to say. You are a pocho and are somehow genetically inferior, while at the same time economically superior. So all you have to do is smile at appropriate times at the end of sentences, shake your head, and mutter a few “ay, yi, yi”s if they wrinkle their forehead and crunch up their eyebrows. A well timed “orale” after a happy phrase or a strategic “hijole” after a distressing paragraph can go a long way and may win you a free beverage. To end the conversation, make a face intimating that you have to excuse yourself to go to the restroom. Don’t overstate your case or else they may want to go with you.

Recently, and quite spontaneously, I realized that I have reached the point where I can understand about 75% of what someone is saying to me in the mother tongue if I can watch their lips move Good thing for me Latinos usually have big lips. Maybe that is why some Latinos have a hard time learning English. Gringos have thin or no lips at all. Taking this theory further, this is why everyone wants to speak with a Blackcent nowadays.

“A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew”.

-Herb Caen

Al Carlos Hernandez writes from Hollywood.

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