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The Modernist Imagination
By John S. Christie, Ph.D.
Chapter Three (Part II): Latino Voices and "English con Salsa"
We see again the importance of loyalty to a language in Vea's La Maravilla. Beto's wayward mother angrily rejects her parents' poverty in favor of the American dream of "sliding aluminum windows with real glass" and toilets and a refrigerator: "You are sickening people. Sickening, old superstitious people. You still live on mud and you shit down holes in the ground and you're telling me how to live my life! I got out of this place..." When she switches to English for the benefit of her companion ("unhappy about this time wasted in a foreign language"), her mother, Josephina, is genuinely hurt:
"Not English," Josephina cried, "not between la familia."
"It's English from now on," Lola said, turning on her heel and heading for the car. "Get used to it."
Despite the vehemence of her daughter's earlier insults, it is the switch away from the language of "la familia" that constitutes the real betrayal in the mind of the mother: "'Malinche, Malinche,' she sobbed, invoking the name of the traitorous Indian woman who betrayed the entire Aztec nation for the love of Hernan Cortes -- the only word strong enough to express the faithlessness of a daughter" (22). As a sort of final insult against her mother, toward the end of the novel, Lola will return to collect her son, accompanied now by a man named Jose Pescado who plans on changing his name to the ludicrous English equivalent, Joe Fish. This is a man who admires the fact that "not one American soldier in the Philippines had ever pronounced his name right or even tried to" (274). It will be left to Beto/Alberto to hear the "soft whispers in Spanish and every Indian language" (278). Beneath the tension here over language exists a series of rifts between parent and child across a wide range of cultural oppositions: family/independence, rural/urban, poverty/material wealth, mysticism/rational practicality, old ways/the new. In short, this conflict over language is simply the overt manifestation of a deeper generational division over how one lives one's life.
In Hijuelos's House, Mercedes Santinio is a woman emotionally and intellectually controlled by her Cuban past. English phrases are "painful" for her to learn" (48), and she reads English as "if some words hurt her" (127), yet because of her distorted nostalgia for a lost paradise with her abusive father, Spanish as well is contaminated for her second son, Hector. It is "the language of memory, of violence and sadness. Callate! Callate! No me toques! Mi papa se murio Yo sufro mucho!" [Shut up! Shut up! Don't touch me! My papa died. I suffer a lot!]. The Spanish he learns comes from his mother's memories of Cuba, and is tainted by her painful childhood experiences. The English he gets from her haphazard and unselective classes is equally limited. English enters him: "from the street, from opened windows, from stores. Fuck you, suck my cock! Good morning! Be quiet down there! How many? English words were long lists of medicines and snippets of books that added up to confusion" (128). Hector becomes deaf, enters a "twilight zone" (190) in part, because of his inability to cope with linguistic schizophrenia. He comes to believe Spanish is "an enemy;" it reminds him of his drunken father (103). Like Pilar Puente who is eventually betrayed by her Spanish speaking lover Rub?, he finds himself in a linguistic limbo common to Latino protagonists.
Retreating from the language of the dominant culture, in this case English, may signal a type of defense mechanism. Hector's mother, for example ("the greatest invalid of all time" 208), withdraws "into her silence" (213) becoming one more in a series of what Cristina Garcia labels the "untransplantable" Cubans. Rechy's Amalia is another example of a victimized Latina culture shocked into silence. She rejects English. She hates to be called "mom" which makes her feel "fat and vulgar and ugly" (68, 92) whereas "Am?quot; and "Amita" are linked emotionally to her first son, Manny (37). She despises the gringo pronunciation of Ellay [for L.A.] (4) and the "mocking Anglicized inflection" the boy Lalo gives her son's name: "Were they after John-nee?" (111). She resents her daughter's English cursing and her slang words (92). Her children switch to English when they are mad, she notices, which provokes her increased dislike of the language. Yet we discover that what Amalia hates isn't English, but the way this language is used by others to control and dominate her; she hates people defining her which is why she resents Mick's drawling pronunciation of her name: "Am-al-lee-ah" (96). She rebels against the teacher who chides her for pronouncing "sh-sh-sh" and not "ch-ch-ch" (18), ultimately pretending she isn't capable of understanding the difference rather than acquiescing to the teacher's instructions. The power of language to influence memory is related to linguist's notions of "scripting" where a word or phrase holds a string of information: an event, the context of the event, even the emotional impact of the event. As we saw earlier, while "la bodega" connotes one set of representational information to a Puerto Rican on the island, and where "market" suggests a different script of data to a native New Yorker (or a native Vermonter), the word "la marketa" carries a distinctly separate chain of connotations and emotional meanings that may or may not have anything to do with either "bodega" or "market." Those characters equipped to express themselves through interlingualism, like their creators, define themselves on their own terms. Latinos "struggle for language" (Rebolledo 157) searching, as the Puerto Rican poet Luz Maria Umpierre puts it, to express themselves "in any voice, / in any tone, in any language that conveys / [their] house within" ("Mishaps").
To explore further the dynamics of the Latino writer's hybrid language, it seems sensible to examine how translations (or the lack there of) influence specific Latino stories or novels. We can focus upon the translation of Spanish since our texts are written in English. It is usually argued that to translate, to begin with, is equivalent to being a traitor, so the writer's methods of translation will frequently point to his or her attitudes and purposes within a text. Untranslated Spanish within Latino fiction instills the English text with the patterns of sounds of Spanish words and the musical rhythms of Spanish syntax. Of equal importance, Spanish transmits elements of Latin American culture tied to it which makes its allusive quality noteworthy.
Bilingual European literature is nothing new. From Tolstoy to Thomas Mann, there are thousands of examples of works that when translated into English contain long passages of a third language, often French. The western european reader is expected to understand French, because, as Anzaldua sarcastically remarks, it is more "cultured" than Spanish (Borderlands 59). One can appreciate then, the importance of Hemingway's treatment of Spanish for Latino writers since he is one of only a few writers of English who compel the reader to adapt a Spanish mode of comprehension. Some part of the Latino writer's agenda is certainly, however unobtrusively, to demand equal respect for Spanish. Latinos are well aware of how the Spanish language is growing increasingly influential, especially in the U.S., and they are directly combating hundreds of years of French influence upon the English language. As "Americans," Latino writers are absorbed in the task of reversing linguistic stereotypes and prejudices that date back to the Norman Invasion. Further, as Gonzalez-Berry, mentions, the use of Spanish has been, since Colonial times, a way "to affirm cultural identity" and the "Spanish word [is] an amulet against imminent displacement" (Paso por Aqui Intro 5). To put it in post-colonialist terms, Spanish therefore becomes an alternative to English and the "discourses of domination." This is particularly true for Latino populations who recall, as many Chicanos do, the enforcement of rules forbidding the use of Spanish in public schools. It is equally important for Puerto Rican Americans whose families have endured the imposition of English on the Spanish island since the "invasion" of 1898. In fact, Teddy Roosevelt's educational system "demanded that Puerto Ricans teach in a foreign language [English] to students who did not understand the English their teachers could not speak" (Fernandez Prisoners 28). Most Latinos share this sense of violation as they battle what Roberto Fernandez calls, the "tongue brigade," a satirical label for the forces demanding "English Only."
William Carlos Williams, an especially important poet for Latino writers, said "It isn't what [a poet] says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes, with such intensity of perception that it lives with an intrinsic movement of its own to verify its authenticity" (Essays 257). In Latino literature, some of that intensity is necessarily lost if Spanish vocabulary is merely translated into English with a superfluous repetition. This is what Earl Shorris rightly objects to in his book Latinos, labeling the effect "comic redundancy" (389). Judith Cofer, for example, writes the following: "Someone had said huelga, a strike. They were planning a strike" (Line 226), and "Asi es la Vida, hijas: that's the way life is" ("Nada" 58). It is interesting that Shorris chooses to belittle the work of Sandra Cisneros (calling Mango a "retreat from the sophistication of [Tomas] Rivera" - Latinos 389) when she, perhaps more so than any other Latino writer displays an aptitude for variety and flexibility of translation techniques. Hugh Kenner quotes Pound's advice for translators: "Don't translate what I wrote, translate what I meant to write" or "Don't bother about the WORDS, translate the MEANING" (Kenner 150). Cisneros seems to have inherited Pound's attitude toward translating, that is, a belief that the sense and the sounds of languages creatively manipulated yields greater meaning than literal substitutions or what Kenner calls "lexicographic lockstep" (554). Take for example, a Spanish word often employed in Latino works: "Sinverguenza." Owing something to Eliot or Pound, Cisneros blends the translation into her sentence in such a way that a unique rhythm is established that depends upon the use of both languages for sound, yet clarifies the meaning of the word to the English audience at the same time: "That is when she burned the cucumber pushcart and called me a sinverguenza because I am without shame" ("One Holy Night" Women 32). Other writers need this word, but almost always rely upon the direct, redundant method of clarification for the monolingual English reader. Castillo leaves it alone: "Ayy, And how that sinverguenzo coulddance" (So Far From God 105). Arturo Islas merely explains it: "The word is untranslatable; literally, it means 'without shame' and can be used as a noun" (Rain God 57). Even Vea's attempt: "You are shameless! Sin Verguanza" (21) fails to avoid a repetitious quality though his choice of word order prioritizes the Spanish, and initiates the reader into Spanish rather than reducing the Spanish to translation (148). Here, as is true elsewhere in the novel, the order of the languages mirrors Beto's grandmother's mental progression, following her mind as it glides toward her Spanish memory.
Oddly enough, Shorris speaks glowingly of Hijuelos's work when Hijuelos is often guilty of the awkward, redundant translation: "Abuela, abuelo, estoy muy contento de haber venido aqu? Grandmother, Grandfather, I am very happy to have come...Yo te quiero mucho, I love you very much" (Fourteen 214). This is writing that no longer requires reader participation in a bicultural atmosphere. What Shorris also fails to notice is that the repetition translation can be used creatively as Vea shows in the opening section of his novel. The ghost narrator ends her introduction to the book with a haunting repetition of the line "Hay gente en esta pagina conmigo. There are people with me on this page" (3). The writer inverts the final word order: "in this page with me, with me on this page" thereby creating a lyrical and haunting, incantatory effect essential to the timelessness of the story to come.
The embedded translation flows naturally where the added repetition in English merely absorbs the Spanish into the English in such a way that negates its power, and subsumes the emotional quality its sound brings to a reader. Adding a translation in English makes the Spanish superfluous, a mere cosmetic extra. In "Remember the Alamo," Cisneros inserts the Spanish but disguises the translation: "That's how it is. Say it. Te quiero. Say you want me. You want me" (Women 66). Though the other levels of meaning of the verb querer (to want, to love, to like) are ignored here, the sense of the Spanish word is carried in the syntax, emphasis and repetition and still the language authentically fits the mind of the speaker. In another example, she combines the Spanish numbers with a childhood memory of a staircase in the much anthologized story, "Tepeyac." In this context, Spanish, runs deeper in the child than English does, and connects, like a scent, directly to her emotional memory of her "abuelito" [grandfather]. The counting in Spanish juxtaposes two languages, two worlds and forces the reader to share the power of the Spanish one, to contemplate the narrator's past as fundamentally linked with the legend of the virgin of Guadalupe. The narrator's climbing the stairs parallels the worshipers climbing the hill of Tepeyac where Juan Diego saw the Virgin. The remembered images are tied together in this chain of Spanish numbers which because they continue even after the "twenty-two" steps up to veintisiete (27) suggest the years of the narrator's life and distance of time. In the same way the story's long opening sentence is a series of images linked by prepositional phrases. The list, like the string of numbers, pulls the reader into the story, the past, and the Mexican flavor of the narrator's memory.
Because Spanish cuts deeper than English, Latino writers let this language set off Bakhtin's "sparks of carnival bonfire" by which he means the language of laughter and bodily pleasure, the unofficial speech of the marketplace and unrestricted freedom of expression (Rabelais 17). A look at Latino billingsgate should clearly demonstrate this. Rarely do Latino writers feel obliged to translate profanity. Rather, they exhibit a certain degree of pleasure in the sounds of the words, intentionally allowing their musicality and connotations to reverberate in the minds of bilingual/bicultural readers. Even in earlier fiction, like Anaya's Bless me, Ultima, expressions like "this jodido Tenorio" (125), or "chinga tu madre" (124) go unexplained. Similarly, we find expressions of Puerto Rican street slang laced throughout Spidertown which are all but indecipherable to the uninitiated: "What a fucken pato" 103) "co? meng"(161) "quemando telo, brodel" (106), or "enough attitude to pull fly chavas" (175). Hijuelos facetiously defines the untranslatable "pendejo" as "ball-busting predatory louse" (Mango 38) -- a rendering which simultaneously demonstrates the inadequacy and uselessness of translating (the word may or may not have anything to do with this English equivalent), and at the same time pinpoints the writer's delight in the original. Character after character (with their respective creators chuckling in the background) relishes the sound of every syllable of the word "pendejo," or the exclamation, "Cono," a word that exudes a special humor lost in translation. This is why Pilar Puente envies her mother's Spanish curses which make her own English "collapse in a heap" (Dreaming 59). The Spanish curse is a frank and free dismissal of official English and the hierarchies associated with it, and it is particularly powerful among Latino characters and writers because it lies outside the mainstream. Cursing together is a form of comraderie. Even when the actual words aren't used, a writer like Cofer attempts to communicate the flavor of the Spanish curse: "I'm going to kill that son of a great bitch" (60). In the vernaculars of Rechy's LA gang members, Castillo's New Mexican mestizas, Hijellos's Miami Cuban reactionaries, or Rodriguez's Spanish Harlem drug dealers, one finds a combination of Spanish swearing and epithetical phrases among friends, compadres, and commadres.
The inability to translate effectively may be partly responsible for a writer's maintaining the original Spanish within a work of fiction written primarily in English. Yet more is involved. Estella Portillo Trambley's simply inserts Spanish vocabulary into her novel Trini, most often in the form of nouns. Portillo Trambley's authenticating of Spanish names within an English text is a form of rebellion, however mild, and constitutes a sort of renaming of the world. She gives validity to an outsider's perceptions. Rebolledo and Rivero see this as a narrative strategy of resistance which names the Latina's identity "by detailing the cultural signs embedded in it" (Infinite Divisions 17). Ana Castillo frequently neglects to translate Spanish words, in essence, demanding that the reader make the adjustment to a bilingual text. When she speaks of "the favorite chisme" (So Far From God 40), her purpose is more than to harass the monolingual reader. The English word "gossip" simply doesn't fit. To begin with, "chisme" refers to the "piece of gossip" and not the person, and carries less of the English word's heavily judgmental (and one could argue, sexist) connotations. Further, the perfectly acceptable practice of talking about others has a greater significance within an orally defined, in this case fairly poor, mostly rural Indian/Latino culture. To cite another example, Castillo makes a conscious decision to describe the "red ristras...hung on the vigas of the portales..."(170) instead of reworking such a description into a cumbersome sentence about the red strings (of garlic for example), hung on the rafters or beams of the entrance. She is talking about chilis (using the Spanish spelling), and the chili-roasting month in a New Mexican town, and she feels there is no more need to transform (and betray) the original language than there is to translate the word "chile." The assumption being that the reader will simply adjust as he or she is expected to have already adjusted and adapted to "chile," a word whose extensive meanings and connotations fill cookbooks throughout the world. Furthermore, when she states that these "ristras" are hung in the doorways in order to "welcome visitors and ward off enemies," Castillo is partially legitimizing the seemingly superstitious idea held by the townsfolk which could have sounded somewhat ludicrous in an English translation. The exotic nature of the language serves to tolerate the belief, while the picture created, once understood accurately, portrays a scene outside official U.S. existence.
Untranslated Spanish words within English sentences may also point to the writer's desire to reflect the Latino's linguistic practices of either "borrowing" or "code-switching." According to Rosaura Sanchez, "borrowing" between languages occurs when the vocabulary is transformed to abide by the phonological or morphological rules of the new language. Anzaldua describes anglicisms used in Tex-Mex speech like "bola from ball, carpeta from carpet, machina de lavar (instead of lavadora) from washing machine." Borrowing accounts for the Tex-Mex "created by adding a Spanish sound at...the end of an English word such as cookiar for cook, watchar for watch, parkiar for park..." (Borderlands 57). "Carmela tambien, hombre," Mickey Acuna says at one point in Gilb's novel, bending an English word, "calm," into a Spanish shape (128). Code-switching refers to the incorporation of a new word which brings along its grammatical system. Take for example a piece of dialogue between Fausto and his daughter from the first chapter of Arias's Road:
'You scared me. You weren't asleep, were you?'
'No, mijita. I thought I was dead.' Fausto sat up. 'It happens, you know. From one day to the next, poof! Al otro mundo.'
Well, you come down and eat in this mundo." (20)
Fausto's use of the endearment "mijita" [my little daughter] and the phrase "al otro mundo" [to the other world] and Carmela's sarcastic response are cases of code-switching because the Spanish is incorporated into the English grammatical system and the "two systems are maintained as distinct entities but juxtaposed within the same discourse" (Sanchez 140). In a looser definition, Celia Genishi defines code-switching as "the alteration of languages or dialects to convey social meaning" (133). Regarding the example from Arias, the meanings have to do with generational differences between father and daughter, affection between them ("mijita" and the kindly tolerance of Carmela's sarcasm) as well as each character's state of mind concerning practical versus spiritual realities. Carmela, in fact, seems to undercut her father's emotional drama by forcing the practicality of English upon him.
Later in the novel, Mario, the young Chicano who guides Fausto through his strange journey, says good-bye to the older man with the following remark: "Take care, man, allate watcho, and if you ever want to get together..." (32). While the Spanish phrase is plugged into the English sentence intact, the English word "watch" is transformed into the Spanish grammatical system, becoming in this instance, a Spanish verb and subject to standard verb conjugation. This, then, is an example of borrowing within an example of code-switching. It may be that such distinctions are not always necessary for the purposes of this study, yet it is clear that the mixings and complications resulting from these practices are of vital importance in reaching a sophisticated understanding of linguistic subtleties at work in Latino fiction. Code-switching is related to the dynamics of the speech event, as Rosaura Sanchez argues throughout her study Chicano Discourse. It is a product of intersecting variables involved in the language situation. The person addressed (the addressee) or the function of the language often determines whether a speaker will change codes. According to Sanchez, for example, talking to peers (as opposed to parents) or the speaker's desire to boast will "trigger the shift" (143). The shifting itself may serve as an "identity marker of membership" to certain bilingual communities which accounts for its prevalence among youthful urban characters in works by Rechy, Rodriguez or Arias (Zentella 130). The speech of an older man in The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, littered with code-switches, demonstrates his emotional ties to the gang society of his past:
She [Amalia] came home from work to hear an old man who lived nearby bragging to a cluster of boys, children, that in his day 'las gangas' had real 'huevos' --balls, real courage. 'We used to face the other vatos, bring them down with chingazos.' His wrinkled face brightened at the memory of the blows he had inflicted...'Nowadays the vatos drive by in their cars, shoot, run away, get their courage from drogas, not huevos'...His voice gained authority. 'And we dressed, manos --pegged pants, classy hats, pocket chains.' He shook his palm, low, from the wrist, a wordless gang expression of grandness. 'Everyone knew who we were...When we were real chingones, the toughest' (72).
Recognizing the advantage of taking into account the environment encompassing pieces of dialogue, because, as Zentella mentions, the "linguistic function and social meaning of code-switching vary in each bilingual speech community" (109), the reader must analyze fictional instances of code-switching with a broad understanding of factors surrounding any specific utterance. As Bakhtin argues for the study of all speech acts, one cannot separate language from audience (the influence of the addressee) or context (Speech Genres 93-100). It should follow then, that focusing attention upon the "genre" of code-switching will reveal some deeper aspect of Latino fictional dialogue. The fact that linguists have noted that code-switching often occurs when there is "a shift in the mode of discourse;" that is, it is brought on by emotion, by the need for "expressive speech... emphatic speech...[or] elaboration in speech" (Huerta-Macias 153) should be helpful to the critic interested in the psychology of a novel's characters. Knowledge of the reasons for code-switches should eventually lead to writers avoiding didactic (and cumbersome) explanations such as the following from Hijuelos: "'Are you all right?' Isabel asked her. '?Todo esta bien?' repeating the question in Spanish, the language she used when wanting to be more emphatic, or affectionate" (Fourteen 23).
For a discussion of "scripting" consult Nelson, K. (1986). Event Knowledge: Structure and Function in Development. New York: Academic. and Griffiths, P. (1986) "Early Vocabulary" in P. Fletcher and M. Garman (eds) Language Acquisition (2nd. ed. pp. 279-306. New York: Cambridge U. Press
Citing Freud, Suzanne Jill Levine mentions the "well-worn" pun: "taduttore, traditore, meaning 'translator, traitor,' the most oft-used cliche in translation debates, betrayed of course in translation" (The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1991.
The importance of Williams's Puerto Rican background is explored in Julio Marzan's book, The Spanish-American Roots of William Carlos Williams. For writers like Judith Cofer, who writes of urban New Jersey (specifically Patterson), Williams is certainly influential.
In an interview with Bruce-Novoa, Arias
made it clear that English was his family's "practical language" and that his
parents downplayed Spanish for practical reasons (Bruce-Novoa Chicano Authors
242); He stated that the "living language around us has become English"
(Interview 247), and thus Fausto is here linguistically revealing his
impractical nature which the text will certainly confirm.
Last Updated: February 26, 2011
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Copyright 2006 Latino Fiction and the Modernist Imagination, John S. Christie