Spanish surnames, indigenous languages

In the United States, the Spanish language is often used as an identifying marker for U.S.-born Latinos and Latin American newcomers, whether they speak it or not — because not all Latinos speak Spanish, and I am not just referring to later-generation descendants of Spanish-speaking people.

There are 45 million indigenous people in Latin America, and many more from the 826 distinct indigenous communities have come to the United States after being displaced by violence or environmental degradation and/or seeking the same sort of alternatives and opportunities that many other immigrants do. Although about 60% of indigenous people in Latin America are bilingual (meaning they speak both the dominant language in their country, which is Spanish for the majority of the continent, as well as one or more indigenous languages), 20% speak only the dominant language, and the other 20% speak only indigenous languages (according to recent studies by ECLAC).

Receiving communities across the U.S., including West Michigan, are learning that they can’t assume that all people from Spanish-speaking countries indeed speak Spanish, which challenges the bilingual (English and Spanish only) support structures that are set up to accommodate Latinos with limited English proficiency. Voices of NY reported earlier this year on the case of a Guatemalan man who went missing in Brooklyn and it took his family 8 months to find him because court records had the wrong spelling of his name; the Spanish spoken by the court interpreters offered as little to him in the way of understanding as the English spoken by the court officers.

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Letter from the Dominican Friars of Grand Rapids declaring the Koinania House as a sanctuary for Central Americans. From the Grand Rapids People’s History Project.

Grand Rapids is home to indigenous Guatemalans as well. In 2014 the Grand Rapids People’s History Project published an online series about how faith-based groups in the area created a sanctuary for Central Americans fleeing violence in the 1980s. The first people to arrive in Grand Rapids under the Central American Sanctuary movement were two indigenous families from Guatemala in 1987. The history of this community does not seem to be well documented, from what I can find, but it makes sense that other indigenous people followed their relatives and neighbors to Michigan. In fact, approximately 6,000 people or over one-third of the residents of Cajolá, a Mam Mayan town in Guatemala, have come to the United States — and 1,000 of them have settled in Grand Rapids (according to NACLA).

Indigenous Latin Americans, especially those who don’t speak Spanish, are stigmatized and marginalized by the majority culture in their own countries. When they come here as immigrants, they are frequently invisible as part of the larger Latino community. When I searched several different combinations of the words indigenous, Mam, Guatemalan, Grand Rapids, and West Michigan, I found very little information online. Colleagues who work with Latino organizations in the area are aware, at least anecdotally, of the Mam-speaking community here, and it appears that there are Mam interpreters working in the healthcare and legal settings.

It’s important for those of us who advocate for bilingualism to acknowledge and to continue to expand the space for indigenous Latinos to have their own voice, even if it is not one that speaks Spanish.

[Update: After writing this post, I came across this Latino USA segment about a trilingual Mam interpreter – it’s worth a listen if you are interested in hearing more about this topic from someone much more qualified to speak about it!]

Erratas, errores y faltas – oh my!

I normally write my posts in English but I am so bothered by the topic of this one that I am writing in Spanish as a form of protest!

El otro día, fui a Barnes & Noble y saqué “El camioncito azul abre el camino” del estante, pero adentro encontré dos erratas (por ejemplo, “segpuidos” en vez de “seguidos”). Me imagino que vienen de la mano de un diseñador gráfico que no habla español que transcribió mal la traducción de F. Isabel Campoy.

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Me molesta cuando veo este tipo de erratas en los libros infantiles traducidos al español — y sucede con frecuencia, muchas veces con las tildes — pero no sé cómo comunicarme con las editoriales o si va a hacer alguna diferencia. Tal vez me molesta porque lo veo como una falta de respeto por el idioma español en este país, aunque la industria de libros bilingües para niños está creciendo y muy felizmente haciendo sus ganancias. Por supuesto existe la posibilidad de que me afecte de forma exagerada, pero de todos modos no me parece absurdo esperar que las editoriales hagan las debidas revisiones de sus libros antes de publicarlos y venderlos — no importa el idioma. (Ojo, los blogs y otros medios no se rigen con los mismos criterios. Aunque se haga un intento. jeje)

Me encantó la traducción de Campoy de “El camioncito azul” y quisiera agregar otros libros de la serie a nuestra colección en casa, pero sin erratas. Como diría el camioncito azul, “¡Socorro! ¡Ayúdenme!”

Por otro lado, hubo un fruto inesperado de mi búsqueda de datos de contacto para la editorial y la traductora. Descubrí que Isabel Campoy es poeta y autora de sus propios libros para niños y muchas veces colabora con Alma Flor Ada. Se puede comprar sus libros en DelSolBooks.com. (No tengo nada que ver con el sitio, sólo me interesa promover la literatura bilingüe para niños, ¡pero de calidad!)

UPDATE: I called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and I was given an email address to contact the editorial staff. I sent a message about the errors. Hopefully it reaches someone who cares and has the power to correct them!

Two recent encounters

I had two recent encounters with Spanish mixed right smack dab in with English as part of the American experience. Just like that!

The episode of This American Life from November 8th featured a story about Chris García (who also happens to be a comedian), his father, and a conversation they had while driving along a familiar route through Los Angeles. Chris and his father speak Spanish/Spanglish with one another, and although Chris narrates the story and retells their conversation in English, you can catch snippets of their original conversation which Chris recorded on his phone. The story is quite touching so I won’t give much more away about the content or context of their conversation, but there were a couple of things I found interesting from a linguistic point of view:

  • Chris refers to his father as “Dad”
  • Chris responds affirmatively with “uh-huh” and “yeah”
  • Chris states the number 218 as “dos eighteen” (then “dos uno ocho,” but never “dos dieciocho” or “two eighteen”)

The choices we make when code-switching are always fascinating to me. Using English words or phrases that make more sense than their Spanish translations in the context of driving around L.A. (e.g. “ride” and “high school”) was no surprise to me, but I was especially intrigued by the code-switching in the middle of expressing one single number. (I could just be behind on my scholarly reading.)

My other encounter was in All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. To me this was a very American novel, full of cowboys and ranches, bootstrap ambitions, and descriptions of sunsets across the untamed West, but perhaps unlike other samples of traditional Americana there are stretches of dialogue in Spanish without translations. (Either McCarthy himself is bilingual or he collaborates with someone to write the passages, and so far the internet hasn’t helped me to figure out which it is.) The main character is a Texan who grows up speaking English and Spanish and who crosses the border into Mexico and back. Another interesting aspect of the book is that several of the Mexican characters located in Mexico are portrayed as completely competent communicating in English. The speech of others is portrayed as broken or with an accent. Overall I found McCarthy’s treatment of dialect and idiolect as varied and realistic, rather than monolithic and stereotypical.

As a bilingual reader, I felt like a special member of a particular audience that McCarthy knew would have a certain sensibility and that would comprehend his novel without the aid of outside sources (such as the many websites featuring translations of the Spanish passages). That’s probably just a stretch of both my imagination and my ego, but you never know…

McCarthy has written a number of novels and screenplays that take place along the US-Mexico border, of which several have been adapted for film including All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men.