One of Latinx Twitter’s favorite memes goes like this: “Chicanx poets be like: his cum / la lechera / filling / my warm / concha fresca / recién horneada.” The hard-to-pronounce “x’s” that virtue signal queer Indigenous inclusivity, the easy metaphors, and the corny Spanglish are all far too easy to make fun of. Recently, when American Dirt was revealed to be written by a non-immigrant author with questionable roots, #mylatinonovel trended on Twitter, clowning the novel’s try-hard Spanglish. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even flexed her Spanglish at the DNC. If you’ve ever cringed at the gratuitous “abuelita” or “mi amor” written into mainstream Latinx characters (both on screen and in pages), it’s because you know Spanglish is a cliché.
But clichés are so because they are true. Yes, TV characters that sound like Dora the Explorer are corny, but who among us hasn’t picked up the phone to say: “Bendición, abuelita”?
Spanglish isn’t so much a combination of two languages, or even its own third language, as it is an occurrence. It’s when your English is fine until you draw a blank on a word you only know in Spanish. Or you’re speaking Spanish only to realize half your sentence consisted of English words you simply said in a Spanish accent. Spanglish happens. It’s baked fresh with every conversation, which is why everyone’s Spanglish is unique – for Puerto Ricans, English sinks down deep into Spanish’s grammar and sentence structure. For Mexicans, it can be a simple “chequear” or “lonche” thrown in here and there.
Kat Fajardo is an Austin-based comic artist and illustrator whose work explores identity and self-acceptance. She grew up in one of Manhattan’s most densely Latinx neighborhoods (Loisada in the Lower East Side), in a family that itself struggled with the push and pull of English and Spanish. “You know what I mean? You would be speaking Spanish throughout the day and then you go to school and you have to speak English. So you’re like ‘ugh’ and it’s a struggle to switch so quickly.”
Darlene “Dee Nasty” Demorizi is co-host of Fuse’s new show, Like, Share, Dímelo, an unfiltered talk show about Latinx and millennial issues. She was also born and raised in New York City and speaks fluent yo me defiendo Spanish. “When the volume on the TV is too low, I be like, “put it up” or I’ll ask, “what they giving?” That’s something I thought was normal.” In Dominican Spanish, if you want someone to turn the volume up, you say “súbelo” and if you want to know what’s on you ask, “¿Qué están dando?”
This cross-pollination between English and Spanish is what earns Spanglish a bad name from both Anglo and Hispanophones.
In her lengthy Bad Bunny profile, Carina del Valle Schorske wrote about how often, people disregard Boricuas because what we speak is sometimes considered, “barely Spanish.” But Latinx people living in the U.S. are no strangers to the “the blame game of diaspora.” Del Valle Schorske writes: “We’ve cannibalized ‘too much’ English. [...] This syncretic, sidelong way of speaking — celebrated and circulated via popular music — archives histories of migration, resistance and, coerced intimacy barely audible elsewhere."
On one side, you have Latin America and native-Spanish speakers everywhere setting the standards for what is “proper Spanish.” Policing looks like the Real Academia Española acting as a primary gatekeeper, blocking anything remotely non-Spaniard from entering the Spanish dictionary as it trickles down into American classrooms where first-generation Americans take Spanish in school only to be taught their Spanish is “wrong.” However “proper” your Spanish though, “Speak English” is as much a demand as it is a threat of violence, and as the infamous Joe/José resumé experiment shows, even a whiff of Spanish could hurt your chances of survival. It’s a two-headed demand to fall in line with the cultural and performative demands of where we live.
For this reason, Demorizi is protective of the way she speaks: “If anyone comes around with some gate-keepy bullshit, the fact of the matter is that language is ever-changing and language is a direct result of where you come from.” Fajardo says she also has come to the realization that, “language is always evolving, it’s not a set thing and our ancestors didn’t speak Spanish or English.”
“In a perfect world,” Fajardo adds, “we would learn to just respect people’s backgrounds and the languages they speak and do our part in learning those languages and try to find a way to communicate.”
When we describe our mastery of either language, we commonly say “yo me defiendo.” We declare that we can defend ourselves because on the surface, English and Spanish are at war. But in practice, we stumble over our thoughts or mispronounce some crucial words — and if we’re among our own, we laugh. And when we stumble our way through, we create something new, that’s neither English nor Spanish. “People are gonna talk the way they talk,” Demorizi concludes. “Right now, we’re in this age of awakening and learning and unlearning and just trying to figure out what it means to be ourselves and how we identify and want to explore.”