Archive for the 'Language' Category


Expats vs. Immigrants

The waiter approached our table and recited the specials in a flowery French accent. Because I live in Los Angeles, I assume that every waiter is an actor, especially ones who are speaking with outrageous inflections.

But as it turned out, he was the real deal. Over the course of the dinner, he informed us that former Parisians constituted most of the restaurant’s staff. Evidently, the owner was from France, and he liked to help his fellow countrymen get started in this country.

“So you’re an expatriate,” I said.

“Oui,” he answered.

Now, I’m certainly not going to claim that the French are wildly popular with Americans. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that people in this country were ordering freedom fries.

Strangely enough, I don’t recall anybody asking for a freedom kiss. But I digress.

The point is we can all agree that Europeans, in general, receive kinder greetings here than do people from Latin America. In fact, it’s in the very terms we use.

The French waiter was an expat. It’s a word that evokes a daring and exotic nature, an upscale sensibility. It’s a positive term.

In contrast, we refer to Guatemalans and Colombians and Ecuadorians as immigrants. That word conjures up a lot of connotations, but most of them, alas, are not positive.

What is the reason for this dichotomy?

Certainly, legality has something to do with it. I presume that the French waiter has a work visa. The Mexican busboy, in contrast, may not. But as I’ve written before, the self-righteous screeching over the “illegal” part of the phrase “illegal immigrant” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s a point, yes, but a minor one.

The differentiation, according to one unimpeachable source, “comes down to socioeconomic factors… skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual laborer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labeled an ‘immigrant.’ ”

It’s an arbitrary, even unfair, definition. But it’s accurate.

Still, that doesn’t explain the difference fully. For example, we would never call someone a Mexican expatriate, even if she were a successful businessperson like the owner of the French restaurant. She is forever an immigrant.

At its most basic level, the reason that we view Frenchman and German women and British people as expats, rather than as immigrants, is because we like them better. We respect them more.

It’s right there in the language.

It works the other way too. Any American adult who chooses to live abroad is an expatriate (with the possible exception of Peace Corps volunteers). It really doesn’t matter if you bum around Europe for years or head up the international office in Hong Kong. If you’re an American living in a foreign land, you’re an expat. You won’t be called an immigrant unless a native resents your presence, and even then, you’re more likely to be called “gringo,” “yanqui,” or “member of the invading imperialist army.”

There is, of course, a long history of Americans moving abroad to have their art better appreciated, or at least to sleep with people who have more interesting accents. It’s the Lost Generation of Hemingway, and the Beat Generation of Kerouac, and the Brooding Generation of Johnny Depp (he lives in France, you know).

So perhaps I will do my part and live out that dream I have about moving to London. It might be amusing to see the British try to figure out if I’m an American expatriate or a Latino immigrant.

Perhaps I would be both.


Now Use It in a Sentence

The new year, of course, is a time for resolutions, proposals, reflection, and big shiny ambitions. However, I’ve never been one to declare things like “This year, I’m going to go skydiving and become a chess grandmaster!” I’m busy enough following through on my long-term goals.

Among those goals, as I’ve written in previous posts, is regaining my knowledge of Spanish. To that end, I’ve been studying online as much as I can. But as appreciative as I am toward the people who offer free lessons on the net, they are seriously freaking me out.

This is because I keep running into practice sentences such as “Todos tocaron la piel de zorro para que les diera buena suerte.” As we all know, this translates to “Everyone felt the fox skin so it would give them good luck.” Or I might spend several frustrating minutes trying to decipher “El traficante de armas no había leído mis libros,” only to discover that it’s the very common phrase “The arms trafficker had not read my books.”

Perhaps it’s because there are only so many innocuous, straightforward sentences that can be created. But I find it hard to believe that some of these examples will ever be uttered in the real world. While we’re at it, I’m mystified over the instructors’ fascination with the word “zanahoria” (carrot), which shows up regularly and is apparently the only food eaten in Latin America.

More disturbing, of course, is when I have to wonder if the instructors’ deep secrets are coming though in their examples. What else can one make of the practice sentence “Maté a mi amigo y tengo mucha vergüenza” (“I killed my friend and I’m so ashamed”)? Or how about “Llegaron a México los cuerpos de estudiantes muertos en Ecuador” (“The bodies of the students killed in Ecuador arrived in Mexico”). I mean, what the hell is going on at translation websites?

In any case, I will keep at it and try my best not to wonder what kind of person cranks our foreign-language examples filled with death, murder, and carrots. At the very least, I’ll be amused by phrases such as “Te perseguimos fuera de la sala de baile” (“We chased you outside the dance hall”). In fact, when it comes to that sentence, I really want to know how the story ends.


Despacio, Por Favor

As I wrote in my last post, my interest in learning Spanish has been renewed. My hope is that by chipping away for a few hours each week, I will regain my long-lost fluency.

My studying recently consisted of an attempt to watch Spanish television. Flicking on the station at random, I caught the last fifteen minutes of what appeared to be a Mexican version of the “Jerry Springer Show.”

On the program, an older couple confronted their young adult daughter about her lifestyle. At one point, the parents really let her have it over some shameful behavior.

Evidently, the woman had sex with four men in one month. Or she had a walrus for lunch. I was unsure because, like I said, my Spanish is poor. Then it became impossible to track what was going on because they all started yelling at each other. The body language, however, was easy to translate.

Besides diminishing my already low opinion of human nature, the program also intimidated me. Listening to native Spanish speakers roll out rapid-fire questions and declarations verified how much I have to relearn. Up to that point, I felt pretty confident about understanding basic sentences. But the furious accusations on the show were far removed from the leisurely paced, innocuous dialogues on my Spanish-class podcasts.

The brilliant David Sedaris has pointed out the surreal nature of learning a new language as an adult. He writes that the conversations used in language courses “steer clear of slang and controversy. Avoiding both the past and the future, they embrace the moment with a stoicism common to Buddhists and recently recovered alcoholics.”

Yes, it’s quite a leap from comprehending someone’s observation that the sky is blue to understanding what that guy is screaming about at the top of his lungs. I guess I’ll have to watch more Spanish television to fully get it.

But for now, I’m taking a break from Univision. Instead, I plan to watch the sublime “Pan’s Labyrinth” without the English subtitles. I think that will go a lot better.


Bilingual Curious

All the members of my family speak Spanish better than I do. Some of them were born in Latin America, which gives them an unfair advantage. Others took to studying the language when they were younger, while I was busy mastering “Ms. Pac-Man.”

Regardless, I am now in solid adulthood and burdened with a foreign-language aptitude that can only be described as muy malo. I could easily let it go, because despite the shrill warnings of xenophobes, English is not going away anytime soon.

After all, English is the lingua franca of American pop culture, international business, and the internet. Nobody has achieved success in America without knowing at least some English. And people from Mexico to India to China are learning that it’s in their best interests to study the language.

So with English firmly ensconced, why should I, or anyone, bother to learn Spanish?

Well, first, there is the practical aspect. According to the U.S Census Bureau, about 12 percent of U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. They range from adults who don’t know any English to little kids who are perfectly bilingual. Within this range are millions of Americans who prefer to communicate in Spanish.

At some point, you will need to talk to someone who will throw a cascade of trilled R’s at you. It will happen. And when it does, gesturing randomly or yelling louder in English will not work. Even if the situation is not critical, your feelings of helplessness will be profound.

A second reason for learning Spanish is pure economics. Among the few booming occupations are jobs where Spanish is considered a plus, if not an outright requirement. Both the blue-collar construction worker and the white-collar marketing manager are learning that it’s smart to know the difference between “Lo siento” and “Claro que se.” In these recessionary times, a little awareness of Spanish can be the difference between landing the gig or spending another day watching soaps.

In addition to these practical matters, there is the fact that we are a multicultural society. We have always been a multicultural society, in truth. It just is no longer possible to wall ourselves off and demand that everyone acquiesce to the majority’s needs. Showing respect for other cultures, and gaining a basic understanding and empathy of others, is becoming a necessary skill – not a luxury for do-gooders.

Finally, exercising your brain and learning something new will never hurt you. So don’t worry.

Of course, for me, there is another, more personal reason. Growing up Latino without a firm grasp of Spanish is culturally confusing. It gets into messy questions of identity and authenticity, and we all love addressing those issues as middle age closes in.

So I’m going to hit the books and internet sites. When I get up to speed again, maybe I’ll take an intermediate class. It will take weeks, perhaps months, before I’m ready to tackle a conversation with a native speaker. When it comes, and I stutter past the initial “Buenos dias,” it will be a sublime breakthrough.


Two Steps Back

No sooner did I celebrate a timely focus on Latino issues (see my previous post) than a couple of developments erupted this week to let me know Hispanics have not quite earned full acknowledgement of such oddball concepts as civil rights and basic dignity.

First, in New Mexico, a hotel owner informed his Hispanic workers that, henceforth, their names weren’t their own. He demanded that, while working, they Anglicize such travesties as Juan by changing it to John, and the like. The owner, Larry Whitten, justified his order by claiming that English-speaking guests would be thrown when confronted with a real tongue-twister like Rosa.

Whitten further demanded that workers not speak Spanish in his presence. He said that he was concerned that they might be saying bad things about him. I can’t imagine what negative phrases the workers would say about the guy – certainly nothing like “Can you believe this prick is making us change our names?”

Whitten’s demands have sparked an outrage in New Mexico. To help him out of the situation, I have a suggestion: If Whitten is concerned about Latino names being cumbersome for the guests, why not call all the help the same thing? After all, they have no right to pick their own names, so one might as well do away with all pretense of individuality or dignity.

Just have all the women answer to the phrase “Hey, chica!” Yes, I know it still contains a vile Spanish word, but most guests can handle the extremely tricky pronunciation. As for the men, just call them all “boy.” It’s true that this word traditionally has been a demeaning term for black males, but I’m sure they won’t mind if somebody else borrows it.

There, now Whitten’s problem is solved.

The second development came out of Dallas. We all know that Texas has a huge Latino population (including Cousin #2). But apparently, the cops there are among the many Americans who think it is a crime to speak any language other than English. And I mean that literally.


Over the past few years, the Dallas police have ticketed about forty drivers for not speaking English. Needless to say, it is not illegal to speak Spanish, at least not yet, and the Dallas police chief has apologized for his troopers’ attempts to test people’s language proficiency.

That apology puts the cops one step ahead of the hotel owner. But neither story is a reason to celebrate.


An Unpleasant First

Let me thank Macon D, Profe, Xey, Mimpiku, and Carolina, all of whom have recently commented on some of my posts. I also want to acknowledge Che, who disagreed with several of my posts (I assume he recently found the blog and read a bunch of pieces at once). But he kept the tone respectful. I thank him for that and for contributing to the site.

But others do not share the approach of these readers. Some people are determined to prove that the internet is where hate-filled wackjobs spew vitriol that they would never even whisper if they could be identified.

Specifically a reader, whose name I don’t want to publicize, responded to my post “The Most Perverse Kind of Pride.” The piece was about Hispanic gang members who targeted African Americans.

Rather than condemn the actions of the gang members, this reader praised them. The reason he endorses murder is because he hates blacks more than he does Hispanics. And yes, the n-word was unapologetically placed front and center in his tirade.

I have deleted his comment and, in a first for the Fanatic, banned him from the site.

I hesitated to give the idiot even this level of attention. But I decided to write about it just to point out that – despite the wishes, pleas, and outright demands of many people – we do not live in a postracial, harmonious world where ethnicity no longer matters.

There’s still a little way to go.


In Dog We Trust

My dog is a Boxer. Like most Boxers, she’s high-spirited and extroverted. So to burn off her ridiculous amounts of energy, we hit the dog park at least once a week. Over the four years that we’ve been going to this field of canine conviviality, I’ve noticed a gradual change.

It’s true that my dog still spends most of her time roughhousing with an endless procession of Maggies, Jakes, and Baileys. But lately, she’s played with Carlos the basenji and Poncho the mutt and, in a true cross-cultural feat, she even raced Miguel the German Shepherd.

It used to be that only Chihuahuas would get Latino names. Now I’m meeting Rhodesian Ridgebacks called Selena and hearing people yell, “Pedro, come!” at their Australian Cattle Dogs.

Is this a subtle evolution of new cultural norms? Is it a subconscious acknowledgement that Hispanic names are no less American than “Charlie,” and therefore, they’re good enough for our best friends? Or are people just tired of calling their dogs Max?

Now some may be offended that I’m amused by all these Hispanic canine names. Isn’t it, by its very nature, dehumanizing that Latinos are increasingly being equated with dogs? To those critics, I say, lighten up.

Plenty of white names are used on dogs, with no ill effects for those monikers. I once knew a Belgian Malinois named Keith, for damn sakes.

In addition, is it really an insult to be equated with the greatest species on the planet? Yes, it should be clear that I’m very fond of dogs (see my earlier post on this) and perhaps I’m bias. But in any case, a responsible owner names his pets with the best of intentions, on the basis of love or as an act of homage. They do not go out of their way, usually, to signal contempt or debase others.

My own dog is named after an Irish pop band (no, her name isn’t U2). But perhaps I will consider naming any future companions Jose or Maria… or maybe I’ll pass on that idea because, after all, too many dogs will probably have those names already.


August 2019
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