Speaking Spanglish
'Cool' language hybrid popping up in pop culture

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post
Feb. 18, 2003

It's a moment of high drama, the kind of which Tony Soprano would heartily approve.

"Ensename la carga," a mob boss orders his flunky, rubbing his hands with anticipation. The very idea of la carga has him literally jumping up and down.

"A ver . . . A ver que tienes! A ver que tienes!"

The flunky opens his SUV and out comes tumbling la carga: the bloody, bullet-ridden body of a DEA agent.

It doesn't take a linguist to figure out what's going on in Kingpin, NBC's new drama about a Mexican drug lord. Which is exactly the point these days as snippets of Spanish, sometimes translated but often not, increasingly crop up on the big and little screens.

As the U.S. Latino population expands to 37 million, on-screen life is gradually changing to depict la vida latina. That means Spanglish - the mixing of Spanish and English - is the featured act in mainstream Hollywood fare, from the movie Traffic, where a substantial part of the dialogue was in subtitled Spanish, to John Sayles' almost-all-Spanish Men With Guns, to both Spy Kids, where Spanish words were tossed about, to Spike Lee's 25th Hour, where untranslated dialogue floats around like background noise, to John Leguizamo's Empire, to Real Women Have Curves, in which the Latina protagonist is fluent in both California-ese and her parents' native tongue.

On the smaller screen, there is George Lopez, in which the Latino comic peppers his speech with orale. For preschoolers, there's Nickelodeon's bilingual Dora the Explorer.

Lalo Alcaraz's comic strip La Cucaracha uses Spanglish to poke political fun at Anglos and Hispanics alike. In literature, Junot Diaz's highly acclaimed short-story collection Drown incorporated elements of Spanish, as does Sandra Cisneros' Caramelo. Puerto Rican poet Giannina Braschi recently published her all-Spanglish novel, Yo-Yo Boing! (Discoveries).

Spanish is hip, a flavoring, a punctuation, a way to express cultural pride - and an awareness of the rapidly changing U.S. landscape.

"Latino culture is moving from the periphery to center stage," says Ilan Stavans, author of Spanglish: The Making of New American Language and professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

"Mainstream Americans are absorbing this and thinking that it's hot. I've even seen Spanglish Hallmark cards," Stavans says. "This Spanglish thing is very cool, even if you don't speak it. It makes you attractive to younger people, to a particular audience that's out there and that corporations want to address."

Which means that, at times, the use of Spanglish is nothing more than a marketing move, a wink-wink way to acknowledge the nation's new reality without doing much more.

"I find it just interesting that certain elements of me are fit for consumption but certain aspects of my culture are not," the Dominican-born Diaz says. "I'm not sure the appearance of Spanish means much for the masses of Latinos who are struggling for social justice or . . . just trying to have better lives."

In Hollywood, few Latinos have the power to greenlight a project and, therefore, the power to control Latino images. Showtime's Resurrection Boulevard, one of the first TV dramas to be written by, produced by and star Latinos, put some 500 Latino actors to work during its three-season run - more than all four networks had done in the previous 10 years, according to Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The show has been canceled because of poor ratings.

George Lopez made it to ABC, thanks in large part to executive producer Sandra Bullock.

Stand-up comic Lopez wanted to create a mainstream sitcom about a family that just happened to be Latino - no stereotypes, no bad accents.

So, his first season, he dropped only one bit of Spanish into the mix: He called his TV grandmother a "crazy old vieja."

"We've been invisible for so many years," Lopez says. "I want to bring what's really out there, culturally, with language. Latinos have infiltrated every aspect of the culture. It's a connection that we are making when TV is not as milquetoast as it's always been.

"It's like food - it adds flavor."

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