Last year, I started to think (and write) about the need for more institutions and spaces where Spanish speakers can engage practically, culturally, and intellectually with Spanish in the real world. Eventually, I started to develop a podcast in Spanish — and I got a big boost in motivation when Radio Ambulante was picked up by NPR last November!
Today marks the launch of Tertulia, a podcast in Spanish where guests are invited to talk about their cultural, artistic, and professional projects, as well as the daily idiosyncrasies of bilingual and bicultural life in the United States.
This past weekend NPR announced that it would be promoting and distributing the Radio Ambulante podcast on its platforms starting on November 22 — o sea, ¡en una semana exacta!
Big congrats to the entire Radio Ambulante team. NPR also deserves to be congratulated for making the decision to incorporate Spanish-language programming into their line-up. Radio Ambulante will only be distributed as a podcast and won’t be aired on NPR affiliate radio stations, but the fact that NPR is embracing content in Spanish makes a huge statement.
Over here at Tertulia one of our mantras is that Spanish is a vibrant language for culture here in the U.S., and this is a great example of a national platform recognizing this.
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.
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!]
There’s a phrase in Spanish, sentimientos encontrados, that would most often be translated as “mixed feelings” in English. What’s interesting to me about the Spanish is that encontrar also means to meet or to find; for me, it conjures up an image of two feelings traveling in opposite directions around a circle until they find themselves approaching one another, scratching their heads, wondering how they got there.
I think the United States has sentimientos encontrados when it comes to Spanish. One of the areas that this is most evident is in education. Spanish is the most taught and most studied world language (other than English) at all levels of education here, yet at the same time there are many states and jurisdictions that have adopted or are attempting to adopt “English only” policies (1), some of which even prohibit the use of other languages in classrooms for children who are just learning English for the first time.
Some people are very concerned that children who grow up in Spanish-speaking homes will not learn English, despite research showing that this concern is essentially baseless (2), so they want to prevent them from maintaining or developing their Spanish skills. At the same time, there is a boom in Spanish immersion programs across the country (including West Michigan) to give children from English-speaking homes the gift of English-Spanish bilingualism. This is what scholars call “differential bilingualism” (3), and it is a perfect example of sentimientos encontrados.
On the other end of the spectrum, some jurisdictions — such as the District of Columbia where I used to live — have language access laws that require that government services be made available in the native languages of those with limited English skills. The people who benefit from language access laws are by and large first generation Americans, whose children will certainly learn English and will likely even prefer it over their parents’ language(s).
While speaking on the topic of language access, it seems that most of the Spanish in the U.S. that one encounters has been translated from English — whether it be IRS instructions on filling out a 1040, public health brochures at the hospital, or notices posted on the walls of the employee breakroom. There is some original Spanish content to be found in traditional and online media and the arts, but it is much harder to come by than Spanish that is the product of a translation (4).
Thinking about these phenomena has led me to ponder my own path. I’ve been studying, speaking, reading, writing, teaching, and researching Spanish for the past 26 years. I hold two degrees in Spanish. I have a business whose mission is to support the use of Spanish as a vibrant language for culture, commerce, and community building. I am speaking to my own infant son only in Spanish, for goodness’ sake!
What’s the point of caring so much about Spanish in the U.S.? Will the use of Spanish become passé if immigration from Spanish-speaking countries slows and younger generations don’t feel compelled to maintain it?
These questions get at the very core of my life’s work and vision, even my own identity. I don’t come from a family of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Nor am I a person of longstanding U.S. Latino heritage who has sought to “retro-acculturate” (5) through the Spanish language. If you had to put me in a category, you might put me in the same group as the many native English-speaking kids that are spending most of their formative years in Spanish immersion schools because their parents believe in the value of bilingualism.
I am a Spanish speaker. Just not the kind you typically think of when you hear that phrase.
Now, what kind of communities are we creating for Spanish speakers? Is the next generation of bilinguals — both native Spanish-speaking kids and kids who learn Spanish as a second language — supposed to abruptly stop using Spanish on a daily basis once they leave home or graduate from high school? In the U.S., outside of a few emblematic cities and neighborhoods, we aren’t very good at creating communities where adults can engage practically, culturally, and intellectually with Spanish in the real world.
And that just seems like a waste of resources and a whole lot of missed opportunities.
Instead, I think that we should work on intentionally building more bilingual institutions and spaces in our communities here in the U.S., not just translate our signs and our brochures. They say a suggestion without an offer to help is just a complaint — so through Tertulia, I’m going to try to start creating some of these spaces myself.
I’ve recently been hanging out in a literary translation rabbit hole. It started with children’s literature, when I started noticing the contrast in treatment of the Spanish language in translated and bilingual books for kids (and ranted about it here). This must have switched on my awareness of the often hidden role of literary translators, because I started looking into the lives and work of the translators whose names are embedded in the information on the back of the title page, among publisher credits and ISBN numbers and Library of Congress catalogue information.
The Grand Rapids Public Library deserves a nod at this point, because they have a significant World Languages collection where I continue to find books in Spanish – both originals and translations – that I want to read. GRPL has a number of books by Valeria Luiselli in English, translated by Christina MacSweeney, but only one that I could find in the original Spanish: Papeles falsos, a collection of essays. If you haven’t heard of her yet, Luiselli is a writer born in Mexico whose work has started to win awards and gain international recognition.
In my rabbit hole of late, I read a few interviews with MacSweeney, including the one that I linked to above, but I also did some research on Luiselli. She is identified as a Mexican author, but from what I can gather she is an adult third culture kid whose childhood was spent in several different countries and who attended international schools. And she currently lives in New York.
Just as simply saying that Luiselli is a Mexican author obscures the complexity of her background, I realized that referring to her books in the “original Spanish” or the “English translation” is imprecise, as well. In this interview with BOMB Magazine, Luiselli explains that she learned Spanish and English at the same time and often writes in both languages:
“I often write in English and then self-translate into Spanish, and vice-versa too. It’s a messy process, but that messiness creates a space for more clear, lucid things to emerge. Not always, though. Often I just dwell for long periods in this completely confusing space, not knowing which language I should write in. I go back and forth and it’s very unproductive, until one day something happens and I’m able to write, at least so far. That’s what happened to me with Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd.
Also, when my writing is getting translated, I rewrite a lot, and work on it with the translator. I often bring those modifications back into the original. So the ghost of translation always haunts the original.”
There is something alluring to me about those true original texts, written in whatever language Luiselli’s creative thoughts first came into being. In my personal experience as a reader, I’ve only seen the two languages unabashedly juxtaposed in untranslated Spanish dialogue in Cormac McCarthy’s border fiction (and reflected on it here), mixed together for a specific satirical effect like in “Pollito Chicken” by Ana Lydia Vega, or eloquently mashed-up in poetry such as that of Tato Laviera. (Here is a link to Laviera’s poem “Spanglish,” published online by the Poetry Foundation.)
What language do multilinguals think in when they create is the question I used for the title of this post, but I think the answer might be obvious: whichever one comes to mind.
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.
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!
The word for “literacy” in Spanish is an example of linguistic ingenuity: alfabetización. An invented English translation would be “alphabetization,” or acquisition of the alphabet, the set of building blocks for written communication.
Over the last 10 years I have developed a strong curiosity and academic interest in adult literacy. For children with access to education, learning to read and write is an age-appropriate activity that is nurtured and celebrated. But children without access to education, or who have access but experience barriers to developing literacy, become adults who often hide their inability to read and write and have to come up with survival strategies for living in a world of assumed literacy.
The latest figures from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy showed that 14% of adults in the U.S. lack basic literacy skills in English. Within that group of the population, 39% identified as Hispanic.
Those who identify as Hispanic may not necessarily speak Spanish, and they may not necessarily be first-generation immigrants, but the term “Hispanic” is used to group people from different ethnic and racial backgrounds who all share some relationship to the Spanish language.
Let’s assume that some of those Hispanics who lack basic literacy skills in English are Spanish speakers. I have collected anecdotal evidence from every place I have lived in the U.S. that there is a subset of Spanish speakers who arrive here with little or no literacy skills in Spanish. (I haven’t found a good source to give a number here, and this information would be very difficult to collect through traditional census or survey methods which require that respondents be literate!)
One source estimates that it would take 500-1000 hours of instruction for an adult who is literate in his or her native language to acquire basic literacy skills in English. The key phrase in that sentence is “literate in his or her native language.” If such an adult received instruction for 3 hours each week, 52 weeks a year with no vacations, it would take him or her over 3 years to accumulate 500 hours of instruction. How much longer would it take an adult who is not literate in his or her native language?
Let’s go back to those children who don’t have access to education or who face barriers to developing literacy. Then imagine those children growing up to become adults who leave their countries of origin and arrive in the U.S. where they have to learn to communicate in a new language, English. There are ESL programs available to them through schools, churches, and community organizations, but when they walk in to the first session, the instructor starts writing on the board and handing out texts or workbooks.
These are courageous people.
As someone who has never experienced anything like this, I assume it would be a little bit like arriving in a remote part of Japan, where I not only do not understand the language being spoken, I also can’t decipher any of the written characters on signs or printed materials to attempt to associate the sounds I hear with what I see.
As I mentioned before, I have collected anecdotal evidence that nearly every Latino community in the U.S. probably has a small group of first generation Spanish-speaking adult immigrants who are not literate in Spanish. Those communities with large populations of immigrants from countries with lower literacy rates, such as Guatemala or Bolivia, may have greater numbers of Spanish speakers who cannot read or write in their native language. Furthermore, Latin Americans from indigenous backgrounds may speak Spanish as a second or third language, which could represent even greater barriers to Spanish literacy.
I am currently doing research to find Spanish literacy curricula developed specifically for non-literate Latino immigrants, who were not only marginalized in their countries of origin, but are also living on the fringes of a marginalized group in the U.S.
The Centro Latino for Literacy in Los Angeles has developed one such curriculum, called Leamos. You can view a video about their initiative here that includes a testimonial from a woman named Mercedes.
I will post more updates as I dig deeper into this important issue. Be grateful for your literacy skills today!
Although I now consider myself a near-native Spanish speaker and I refer to Spanish as my second language, I am definitely a product of the language classroom. I was first introduced to Spanish in the classroom as an elementary schooler, through a video-based (we’re talking VHS video, people) curriculum called “Saludos.”
(Wow, this “vintage” video makes me feel really vieja!!!)
At the same time, this was in South Florida in the early 90s, so for me Spanish was not confined to the classroom nor did I imagine it as a language spoken in a country somewhere far away. I learned how to say vestido in school, but I also learned how to order maduros at the Cuban restaurant near my house. I also learned that my friends who came from Latino families didn’t necessarily learn Spanish at home or even speak it with their parents. Some did, but not all.
Those of us who learn Spanish in school can form a lot of ideas and stereotypes, often without intending to, that can only be modified or corrected by our experience outside the classroom. This is not a criticism, just an honest observation. Obviously it is impossible for an educator to introduce every variation in language and culture that exists in an entire linguistic community.
However, I do feel compelled to present a criticism of one very specific component of the way Spanish is generally taught in the United States. As any one who has taken a Spanish class in school or in college in the US will be able to testify, all verbs are introduced with conjugations for the following persons: yo, tú, él/ella/usted, nosotros, vosotros, ellos/ellas/ustedes. In my experience, I was never tested on the vosotros conjugation of verbs, but it was always there just to make sure we were familiar with it. Every little colored box in every textbook that broke down the conjugation of a verb had it there, between nosotros and ellos/ellas/ustedes. We were taught, correctly, that vosotros was used in Spain, but that ustedes was used in Latin America. Great, thanks for making me aware, got it!
But as soon as I set foot in a bilingual office setting working with colleagues who were born in several different Latin American countries, I learned that there was another widely used second-person pronoun and verb conjugation that no teacher had even introduced to me: vos.
An example of a PSA from Costa Rica employing the voseo.
So, let’s see, there are about 47 million Spanish speakers in Spain, plus some more around the world, who use vosotros. According to Wikipedia, the voseo (use of vos) is used exclusively in place of the tuteo (use of tú) in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, but it is also used in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Chile, and in parts of Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Belize. Just the populations of Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay alone represent over 56 million Spanish speakers who use vos.
Numerically speaking, shouldn’t we be including vos in the little colored verb conjugation boxes?
All I am suggesting is that we at least expose students of Spanish to the voseo, in the same way that we expose them to vosotros. (There’s a whole other level of linguistic variation in how the voseo is used from country to country, which I am not going to get into here and probably is more detail than we need to introduce in the classroom.) Let’s help students become familiar with it, without necessarily testing them on it. As they are more than likely to come into contact with it at some point, we would be doing them a great service. In fact, unless a student is planning to go to Spain, he/she is statistically far more likely to encounter vos than vosotros.
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.