Posts Tagged ‘Spanglish’

I live in what the Arizona Daily Star once described as a “hardscrabble neighborhood.” It’s low income, mostly nonwhite (about 65% Mexican, 15% black, 20% white, by my entirely unscientific estimate). A lot of the Mexican folks are first generation, and they’ve had no more education than is average with poor people in Mexico. The half of the black folks who are American had the typical shitty education black, poor people receive in the land of the free. The East African refugees (mostly Somalis) never had a chance education-wise.

Me? I’m from a neighborhood somewhat like this one (poorer, but almost all white), in Phoenix. I’m the only one in the family — out to second cousins — ever to earn even a bachelor’s degree. So I know how to fit in here. I also know how to fit in with people from academic backgrounds.

Here, I have one neighbor I’ve known for 20 years who doesn’t speak English, so we speak Spanish except when I can’t think of a specific term and we lapse into Spanglish. Beyond that, with my Mexican neighbors who speak English — who automatically lapse into English — and with my American black neighbors, I lapse into Spanglish and ‘hood patterns — “Hey bro! ¿Que paso?” to cite a  stereotyped example. Also double negatives — “ain’t got no,” etc. I tend to use single- and double-syllable words, not multi-syllabic latinate words with my neighbors.

Before you condemn me as phony for this, please realize that these patterns are entirely natural to me, and that I fall into them unconsciously. (And frankly, I think double negatives make more sense than the typical  “correct” English usage.)

When I’m with the monthly atheist meetup group, which consists mostly of  people with advanced degrees, I lapse into “correct” English — being very careful about verb tenses, number, etc.  I also do the same when, rarely, I’m with other folks with advanced degrees in other contexts.

With the political groups I’m involved with, and also with the bands I play with, I tend toward the ‘hood side of my vocabulary. I don’t mean this as an insult to them; they consist of people from widely varying backgrounds, and  I really don’t want to seem like I’m showing anybody up.

I’d really — very much — like to hear from others, especially latino or black folks, who fit into two or three worlds: How do you adjust your vocabulary and speech patterns? And how do you feel about it?




Thirty years ago, I was walking home one evening from my job in the Richmond to my rooming house in the Haight. I came to Watusi Records, about a block from where I lived, and decided to kill half an hour riffling through the dollar bins.

About ten minutes in, I pulled out a horribly, crudely designed LP with the title “Pachuco,” by Jonny Chingas, issued by Billionaire Records in L.A. The cover was simply off white with the title, Jonny’s name, and  a picture of an old vehicle from maybe 1910. Then I looked at the type on the license plate (barely visible on the album cover below), saw the words “Se me paro,” and said to myself, “Holy shit! I gotta have this!”

Jonny Chingas Billionaire Records se me paro pachuco

I went home, put it on, and wasn’t disappointed. “Se me paro” was a doo-wop Spanglish tune every bit as explicit as the title suggested (“I have a hard on”). Most of the other tunes (in English, Spanish, and Spanglish) were cool, too. Mostly very funny, and pretty good musically.

I was working as the buyer at The Record Factory, the second biggest record store in SF at the time (after Tower), and the next day immediately went through the catalogs hoping to order more Chingas. But nada. Absolutemente nada.

Ten or twelve years later, right after the Internet came in, I ran a search for Jonny Chingas on Alta Vista, and got one hit, from a little indie record company in East L.A. I sent them a message asking, basically, “Hey man, you got any more Chingas records?” They sent me a one-sentence reply (here reproduced exactly–it’s burned into my memory, as it was not what I was hoping for): “Hey man, I think the vato’s dead.”

And he was. I later heard he was killed in a drive-by. Another victim of the vicious, stupid, pointless war on poor people masquerading as “the war on drugs.”

Fortunately, there are a few videos on youtube of Jonny performing, and also a “greatest hits” CD (“Pachuco” with a couple of unmemorable alternative takes) featuring one of the funniest songs ever recorded (“El corrido del bato loco”–it’s even clean, but all in Spanish), “Se me paro,” and  probably the filthiest song ever recorded in any language, “La Dolencia.” (again in Spanish).

Here at Pinche Blues Band, Jonny is still one of our favorites.

Several years ago, I wrote to Gustavo Arrellano (“Ask a Mexican”) asking him to do a column on Jonny. He did, and added some significant info–including Jonny’s real name, Raúl Garcia. Check it out when you have a chance. Gustavo and his column are very cool. But, for now, look up Jonny Chingas on youtube and check out the CD. You won’t be disappointed.