A few years ago, while in my company's breakroom, my coworker and I were having a conversation about our weekend plans. Most of the time, we would spend our lunch break laughing and gossiping, not paying mind to what language our amusement was spoken in. We were happily minding our bilingual business when the language police arrived. A supervisor interrupted us and scolded us for not speaking in English only. I was a bilingual employee in a social services agency serving a large monolingual Spanish-speaking population, so I was taken aback. The experience reminded me of the negative connotations that Spanglish often carries in a proudly multicultural but shamefully monolingual society.
My Spanglish originated in a small Pentecostal church in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The church members, mostly migrants from Puerto Rico and other parts of Latin America, spoke primarily in Spanish. As a first generation U.S.-born Puerto Rican who grew up assimilated into an “English Only” culture, I learned Spanish among my church elders. I first began mixing my English with my Spanish while singing worship songs or "Coritos," which relied on the power of repetition, making it a great way to perfect the language. I was able to belt out the Spanish lyrics with perfect pitch and intonation. However, the introduction to the songs were always done in English. God Bless everybody tonight. I’m going to sing a Corito. Whenever I had the mic, I felt like Selena who was famously known for singing flawlessly in Spanish while speaking predominantly English. In my intros, I never translated the word “Corito”; the direct English translation is “chorus” and it didn’t quite sound right. Calling the melody a song also would not have had the same impact as the word “Corito.” Corito did not just represent singing, it represented an experience that was about to take place. The Corito was simultaneously a song, a dance and a spiritual invocation. When the church members heard the word, they grabbed the instruments. The maracas and guiros were in ready and eager hands. The word Corito, signaled a collective feeling that none of us really had a word in English for.
After the service, the church elders would compliment my singing, but I struggled to hold a conversation with them entirely in Spanish. It would always be the same scene: after a linguistically disjointed conversation with the church elders, my mother would be reprimanded by them for not ensuring that I knew how to speak Spanish fluently. Other adults would laugh and playfully call me a “gringa” who had forgotten her language. Una Americanita. A little American.
As a kid, I didn’t understand what the big deal was with me mixing English with Spanish. After all, everyone understood what I meant to express perfectly. Besides, if I had used the word “song” instead of “Corito,” there would have been more confusion amongst the elders. Spanglish extended a level of care in communicating with my community. I was determined to use only the best language to connect with them. While Spanglish was often derided as a bastardization of language, it actually allowed for a clarity amongst uncertainty. But most of all, Spanglish allowed me to access my feelings in whatever language emerged first. Spanglish allowed me to prioritize words in the best language that was going to convey the right emotion so that I wasn’t misunderstood.
As I grew up and developed a dominance of both languages, imagine my surprise when I realized that the elders spoke Spanglish too. Growing up Puerto Rican in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it was not uncommon to hear an entire conversation in Spanish with a few English words thrown in. For example, many Puerto Ricans use the word “parking” pronounced “palking” or “el palkeo” to describe a parking lot or spot. In the winter I was often told “ponte el có.” and did not realize until I was an adult that the actual Spanish word for coat was “abrigo.”
Spanglish was everywhere. Ricky Martin was “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and everybody knew what it meant when someone said, “Yo Quiero Taco Bell.” Spanish sprinkled with some English. English sprinkled with some Spanish. So why the disdain for something that appeared to be so prevalent in American culture and society? Even Caso Cerrado’s Doctora Polo, who often spoke Spanglish during her show, seemed to take issue with a contestant who said she felt more comfortable speaking in English. Although this show is largely rumored to be false, its premise demonstrated the idea that mixing of languages creates confusion and ambiguity, and that it can lead to a breakdown in communication.
Similarly to Dr. Polo on Caso Cerrado, my Boricua elders would have had you think I was doing my native tongue a disservice by speaking Spanglish. However, Spanish was not the original language of Borikén. In fact, the very names of our church instruments, the maracas and the guiro, are proof of language that belonged to the Taino people, the original inhabitants of Boriken before Spanish colonization. The enslavement of African people in the 16th century also influenced our language, words like gandule, ñame, are of African origin.
Our history with language became even more complex after the U.S.occupation of Puerto Rico in 1898, when the United States made English the primary language of instruction in Puerto Rican Schools. In 1902 The Official Languages Act was passed which made English and Spanish official co-languages. The U.S. preferentially hired English only speaking teachers from the U.S. mainland in a bid to aid Americanization efforts. Existing Spanish speaking educators had to either get with the program or find another job. Puerto Rican writer Abelardo Diaz Alfaro highlighted the absurd nature of this task in his short story Peyo Mercé Enseña Ingles. Pero Merce Enseña Ingles is about a Puerto Rican teacher who was told to teach his students English when he himself was not fluent. In 1911, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR or Teachers Association) was founded and fought to establish Spanish as the sole instructional language. Spanish once again became the primary and official instructional language until 1993 when Spanish & English returned to Puerto Rican schools as co-official languages.
In 1917, The Jones Act was passed which granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship. Migration to the U.S. began to take place with the largest influx of Puerto Rican migrants arriving to New York City from the 1940s through the 1960s. Puerto Ricans, however, were not welcome with open arms. In fact, the newly-arriving migrants were coined The Puerto Rican Problem. The Puerto Rican Problem was a post-war media campaign aimed at discussing and evaluating the assimilation — or lack thereof — of newly-arriving Puerto Ricans. One of the issues The Puerto Rican Problem campaign aimed to highlight was the fact that Puerto Rican immigrants didn’t speak English even after living in the U.S. for many years. This painted Puerto Ricans as a strange and unassimilable people.
This negative view of Puerto Ricans on the mainland encouraged employment and education discrimination and discouraged the use of Spanish among Puerto Ricans, tying the ability for Puerto Ricans to speak English directly to their ability to survive. English has long been used as a primary tool of assimilation into American Culture. In fact, a person’s ability to speak “proper” English is often code for their ability to integrate into a “civilized society.” It’s no wonder Puerto Ricans began to mix English and Spanish in their speech. This hybrid language reflected the complex cultural and linguistic history of Puerto Rico. Spanglish emerged as a way for Puerto Ricans to switch between asserting their cultural identity and navigating the expectations of American society.
Could my elders have been afraid that I would forget the language they fought so hard to keep? Perhaps. But they also spoke in ways that led me to believe that their ideas around language were also tied to respectability, value and upward mobility. On one side, my elders admonished my mom for not having taught me Spanish, and on the other, my elders lamented about how their limited knowledge of English made it difficult to find employment no matter their educational background back home. They told tales of being denied jobs, being embarrassed to speak English at the supermarket, and preferring to avoid English interaction all together. Spanglish emerged here as a language of necessity, born out of the need to communicate for survival.
Celia Cruz once famously stated “My English is not very good looking.” In a 2014 introduction to an interview with Celia Cruz, at her home in Fort Lee, NJ, journalist Larry Katz noted that he was informed by Celia’s team that his interview had to be set up in Spanish because Celia did not speak English. He added that Celia had been living in the U.S. for more than forty years as if to connote that living in the U.S. meant having to learn English. In this same interview he pointed out that he could not find one Spanish-speaking colleague to act as a translator although in 2014 the Hispanic Population in New Jersey was the seventh largest in the nation. This disparity in language diversity and expectation of English from employers would not be a surprise to my elders; many experienced the direct effect of campaigns like The Puerto Rican Problem and a culture raised on the belief that succeeding and thriving in American society meant fully embracing English American culture and language.
It’s clear that Spanglish was seen as a threat to the purity of both the Spanish & English languages. From my supervisor scolding me for speaking English in the breakroom, to my elders seeing Spanglish as a sign that I spoke “bad” Spanish, to Latin American migrants being punished for speaking “broken” English, the evolution of our language has been policed. Even the word “broken” insinuates that English is a whole and complete language by default, not one that has evolved and been shaped by the needs and culture of those who speak it. I imagine the modern English I speak now would be viewed as strange and broken in the Shakespearean era.
If we view Spanglish as the language that breaks the rules imposed on us by hierarchical systems brought on by colonialism, then we would see that there is much to celebrate about Spanglish. Spanglish is a testament to the resilience and creativity of Latines in the United States. It provides a fluidity and flexibility that represents centuries of Latinx migration patterns and the ways in which Latines flow in between cultures seamlessly. Spanglish allows our tongue to find home wherever it lands, making us "de aqui y de alla.”