Gringos speaking Spanish badly; what does it mean?

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The Mimbres, NM – OK.  I officially can’t take it anymore. I heard Andrea Mitchell, MSNBC’s chief foreign correspondent, say “ma-kismo” (machismo) on air this week. I did a double take. What did she say?  What was she trying to say? And she is the FOREIGN correspondent? Ever since the presidential election, news media have been interviewing Hispanics and mispronouncing their names.

For years I have listened to many Anglos speaking Spanish and perceived a sound like chalk scraping against the blackboard. I did not grow up speaking Spanish, and to this day I am not fluent. I sometimes mispronounce words, but as a colleague in Guanajuato told me many years ago, “You don’t understand Spanish as well as you speak it. It is usually the other way around.”  Or words to that effect.

Jimmy Smits as Antonio Mendoza in a Saturday Night Live skit which is an example of Hyperanglicization in Mock Spanish.

Jimmy Smits as Antonio Mendoza in a Saturday Night Live skit which is an example of Hyperanglicization in Mock Spanish.

How can a person in the media not take the trouble to learn the basics of Spanish pronunciation. It is relatively easy, much easier than English as a second language. If you know a few rules and see the word written, you can pretty much say it. But, I have heard newscasters in El Paso, a city more than 80% Hispanic mispronounce. I have heard Soledad O’Brian on CNN mispronounce. Soledad? And many more too numerous to recount. We even had to teach a UTEP professor who grew up in SOCAL how to pronounce his own surname!

The Hispanic population is the largest “minority” in the U.S. and growing. Don’t we make a good faith effort to pronounce Chinese names, Polish and Russian names, Jewish names? Why can’t we make an effort to pronounce Spanish surnames, and other common words now in our lexicon of greetings, food, and other arenas of daily life? Wasn’t it several years ago now that salsa outsold catsup/ketchup?

There is a now retired linguistic anthropologist at University of Arizona (remember Tucson is the place where classic books by Latino authors have been banned) who has a definitive answer to the question. Her name is Jane Hill (no she isn’t a radical Chicana) and she says the answer is racism. She says the mispronouncing and the making of jokes and the naming of streets and things on menus and advertisements are on purpose, largely derogatory and meant to demean.  These linguistic utterances are designed to let everyone know that you, yourself, are not Hispanic, and would never want to be.

The first article I ever read by her was called “Hasta la Vista, Baby,” the line from the Arnold Schwartzenager (which no one ever pronounces poorly, well maybe the last a) movie, The Terminator.  I highly recommend it.  You can find it in the Critique of Anthropology (13(1993):145-176).

Last week I was in a grocery store in Bayard, New Mexico. Bayard is an old mining town that is largely Hispanic and adjacent to the Santa Rita Copper mine. I was in the produce aisle, looking for spinach. The produce guy was there. He was himself, Hispanic. I asked him if there was spinach. He immediately went into a diatribe about the “beaners in Bayard” who only wanted their iceberg lettuce and jalapeños, whereupon I reached in front of him to get my own jalapeños. When he finished his rant, I said “ni modo.” It was then he realized he had gone off on the wrong gringa. Hurriedly, he said that I must have some Mexican in me, and I said “pos sí.”

How many of our young people Anglicize their names because they get sick of gringo mispronunciations or they have internalized the racism directed against them and just want to fit in? Miguel becomes Mike, David becomes Dave, Teresa becomes Terri, and Candelaria becomes Candy.

I urge you, all of you, to check out Jane Hill’s work.  You can start here or here:

I also invite you, especially if you are an Anglo in the media, to take the time to learn the basics, to respect the language and the culture. If you are Hispanic or black, learn standard English as well. It’s just the smart thing to do.

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  1. Very nice article and I would say that the other side of the coin may be headlined “Latinos speaking Spanish badly.” By this I refer mostly to immigrants from Latin America who are trying to master English and frequently use what are called “false friends” in grammar terminology — in other words, Spanglish. I have no idea if the Real Academia Española (considered the arbiter of the Spanish language) accepts some Spanglish usage. Be that as it may, these are some of my favorites:
    ** “Relativos” instead of “parientes” or “familiares” for relatives.
    ** “Aplicación” instead of “solicitud” for application.
    ** “Figurar” instead of “calcular” or “tratar de entender” for figures (as in math) or figure out .
    ** “Luz de tráfico” instead of “semáforo” for traffic light.
    ** “Transportación” instead of”transporte” for transportation.
    ** “Llamar para atrás” instead of “te voy llamar otra vez” for calling back or I will call you back.
    ** “Unión” instead of “sindicato” as in labor union.
    And so on ….

  2. Roberto Perezdiaz
    Roberto Perezdiaz on

    Cheryl: Great article!. There are many social and historical reasons for the anti-Mexican attitudes that are so pervasive today. My mother brought us up to be proud to be Mexican. She said that included being proud of your language and encouraged me to speak Spanish with pride. She was also cognizant of racism against us and taught us to be strong; be a good citizen; be an example; not to tolerate injustice against any person. Most importantly that we are citizens of this country and that our opinions and desires for the type of country we want are just as valid as those of any other citizen. We do not have to be like “Anglos” to be accepted. I like our country becoming a little browner and I like hearing more and more Spanish everywhere. Spanish is the language most being studied in the US. Guess who are studying Spanish? Well, while many Mexican Americans are proud they don’t speak Spanish; mostly “Gringos” are studying Spanish and are taking the jobs that require bilingual Spanish and English speakers. I have always gotten the better job and better pay because I was bilingual. Spanish is an American native language we should all be proud of it and take advantage of every opportunity to study it. When we graduate from high school we’ve studied twelve years of English. Most of us have studied little or no Spanish. There are many opportunities to study Spanish out of public schools. Good Spanish is a very good asset on the job market.
    Un abrazo, Cheryl!

  3. Can’t get too excited about your pique about gringos mis-pronouncing Spanish words. Face it, Americans are not only notorious for not learning any foreign languages, but also for sloppy speaking of their own language. By the way, in defense of Ms Mitchell, isn’t it so that if “machismo” were Italian, it would be pronounced “makismo”? Well, okay, it’s not Italian.

    In a Mississippi high school in 1955 we had an exchange student from Mexico named Manuel Cepeda. Our English Literature teacher, Mrs Harris, always called him MAN-you-el. I took Spanish in high school and French in college and had excellent teachers, so I tend to be extra sensitive to incorrect pronunciation.

    Somewhere along the way, after years of trying to polish away my southern accent, I noticed to my amazement that more and more people were deliberately using “white trash” grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation. Ordinary Americans were, it seemed to me, deliberately cultivating an air of non-education. I even remarked to friends on the trend, which I named the “red-neck-ization” of America. Why would they do this? Since I started noticing it, things only seem to have gotten worse. I found the popular song “Don’t Know Much About History” particularly disgusting.

    During my forty-five or so years in New Mexico I have met many hispanics who were fluent in English and either fluent or at least competent in Spanish. It has always seemed to me a big advantage to grow up speaking two or more languages.

    I find it distinctly amusing that the United States has an ever-growing population of Spanish-speaking citizens, while the White-Male-Republican dominant class is apparently on its way to extinction.

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