COMMENTARY

“Why Can’t He Swear In Spanish?”

bilingual brain

This past Monday night, Diego Luna made an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show. He was set to promote Elysium, his new sci-fi thriller, but instead decided he to give advice to Conan about the country’s changing demographics.

 If you want to keep your job in this network, you’re going to have to learn Spanish.

It’s true. He references the fact that Latino/as like to have sex and thus procreate, which NBC Latino thought was not politically correct enough, since Latinas pregnancy rates are dropping. (I guess we are just not popping kids out like we used to). Regardless, Luna was correct in acknowledging that the Latino/a population is growing rapidly in the U.S. and talk show hosts, news networks and media companies will have to cater to that fact, if they want to stay relevant.

All of that is fine. What bothers me is that Luna broke the rule, Latino/as should never teach monolingual white people how to speak Spanish.  

First off, some people don’t intend to communicate fully with Spanish speakers. Even though Conan can speak in a few fragments, or shall I say “un poquito umm, es importante que nosotros umm, que que gente umm.”  He’s got down some umm basics, but there’s a good chance he still couldn’t understand native Spanish speakers having a conversation. That’s because Americans only learn just enough Spanish for it to be convenient to them. They have to communicate with their children’s caretakers, the señoras who clean their house, the señores who tend to their gardens, the cocineros making their food, and maybe just maybe their co-workers. However, workers with high levels of education tend to speak English perfectly fine. So why does someone like Conan need to learn any Spanish at all?

In 2010, a NYTimes article called for American parents to focus on teaching Spanish to their children. The author stated that although Mandarin was also useful due to the growing influence of China as a global financial power, Spanish should be a practical priority given the growing influence of Latino/as in the U.S. Yet, Americans somehow refuse to acknowledge the value of Spanish. Perhaps it is because they refuse to acknowledge the value of immigrants to this country. There’s no need for me to cite the examples of racism, xenophobia and classism in regards to this obvious situation, just look up English-only initiatives or watch Fox News.

Secondly, it is not Latino/as job to accommodate to English-only speakers nor educate the blissfully ignorant. You can read Open Veins of Latin America or Harvest of Empire to understand why mestiz@s speak Spanish to begin with. Here’s a clue: colonization.

Bilingualism is a sensitive subject. Xicana writer and poet, Gloria Anzaldúa notes,

Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate, while I still have to speak English or Spanish when I would rather speak Spanglish, and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate. I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue – my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.

What she is saying is that the mestiz@ indulges in emotions and uses whatever language appropriate to express these emotions.  Who knows how we would speak if we knew our native tongues?

Colonization attempted to eliminate indigenous people’s language and history. As part of decolonial process, several community organizations and educational programs have tried to revive native languages. One example is Semillas del Pueblo, which offers Nahuatl classes to elementary students in Los Angeles. Finding out about our indigenous ancestry is important to some mestiz@s/ xica@os, even more so is learning what language our tribe/s spoke and may still speak. However, not all Latino/as are indigenous. There are plenty of gringos from south of the border.

Don’t get me wrong, Latino/as are not trying to be stingy with Spanish. We already share it with the first colonizers, Spain. Latino/as just basically don’t want you to know when we’re talking about you.

No mames and que pedo are a couple of phrases you might hear on the Metro in Mexico City or in the southside Chicago. Now, you may even here them in Atlanta, Georgia or Nashville, Tennessee, where immigrant populations are booming. These phrases would normally go without notice or deciphering, until now. Thank you Diego Luna, thanks to you Conan and his almost 2 million viewers can now know what “don’t suck it” and “what fart” is all about. -Maribel Falcón

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