Mock Spanish (Why "no problemo" is a problem)

089aI grew up hearing Spanish—my first tongue and the language of my home—mocked, wherever I went. It seemed to be a very subtle, innocent, and humorous thing. A white American would pretend to speak Spanish by adding an el before a word or an o at the end of a word (e.g. no problemo). When I started attending a predominately white college, such gestures intensified around me. But something always felt wrong. Often as the only Latino in the vicinity, I would remain silent, I wouldn’t laugh along with anyone. Jane H. Hill’s anthropological-linguistic work on “Mock Spanish,” which I discovered later in college, helped me to understand the dissonance I was experiencing. She coined this term to describe the phenomenon, or linguistic system, of pseudo-Spanish phrases commonly used by Anglo-Americans. Hill found the use of Mock Spanish to be most prevalent among middle and upper-middle income, college-educated whites. Even though Mock Spanish users often considered it harmless and humorous, she found that native Spanish speakers considered it insulting. Ana Celia Zentella, a researcher in anthro-political linguistics, has also addressed the phenomenon in an article. She highlights its double standard: the fact that Hispanics are still expected to follow the linguistic norms of American English while Anglo-Americans ignore the grammar of the language they are borrowing from. Zentella argues that Mock Spanish is a discourse in which “Spanish is minimized and dismissed as a simple language.”

These linguistic theorists clarified what I was already experiencing. I did not understand why people around me commonly used, and seemed to enjoy using, Mock Spanish. They did not use pseudo-Korean or pseudo-Yoruba phrases. Perhaps it’s because Spanish is more accessible in the United States; perhaps it’s because Spanish is perceived to be a “simpler” language. Whatever the reasons, even the best of intentions are not enough to redeem this vicious form of cultural appropriation. Mock Spanish, I found, thrived within spaces that were fundamentally disconnected from Hispanics and the Hispanic community.

The double standard is real. While native Spanish speakers hear their language butchered and belittled by people who rarely face any consequence for such usage, they themselves often face serious consequences for how well they speak English. As a son of immigrant parents, I know. As someone who went through an ESL program during elementary school (bilingual education was not offered), I know. And I’m constantly reminded. Just a couple of months ago, I went to see the eye doctor. While I was sitting in a rather large waiting room, a woman approached me asking for help. She was seeking clarification on how to fill out some of the forms but the secretary at the front desk had refused to help her because of how she spoke English.

Hearing Mock Spanish, for some reason, makes me recall this passage from the New Testament:

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”  (Acts 2:5-12)

This passage is part of the Christian story of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit falls upon the apostles. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the apostles are able to declare the wonders of God in many languages. Those passing by are then astonished to hear their own language being spoken.

6a00d8341bffb053ef0133ed88862a970b-800wiAs a passerby, I’ve often been astonished to hear my “language” being spoken—except it’s not truly been my own language, but a distortion of it, a false performance of it. As a Christian, I wonder: what if Mock Spanish can be understood as a false performance of Pentecost? Here there are people hearing their own tongue belittled, and they are amazed, perplexed, and wondering deep down (perhaps like me): what does this mean?

When I now hear people use Mock Spanish, I’m ready to correct them and inform them. Correcting others is not always necessarily appropriate or convenient. Honestly, due to its sheer prevalence, I don’t always have the energy to point it out. But out of respect for myself and for my community, and out of faithfulness to the call for Christians to live Pentecost, resistance in some form is necessary.

Next time, if you try to speak Spanish, instead of saying no problemo, I suggest you try de nada or a la orden