Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language
Ilan Stavans
2003, HarperCollins
274 pages

AN ENCOUNTER with an angry Latino student in the US from ‘Istlos’ (East Los Angeles) who drops out of the author’s course because she realizes that she is only there to fill an ethnic quota was the point of departure for this groundbreaking work by the critic Ilan Stavans. To get things off her chest eloquently, she expresses herself in a very particular mixture of Spanish and English – Spanglish – found in the US by virtue of its large and growing Hispanic population. When the writer realizes that there is a cultural barrier to communicating with his student, he decides to adopt the same style of speaking: although he cannot persuade her to stay, he realizes there is a need to define this medium.

Stavans sparked an important debate with this original work, but the main criticism that has emerged from this attempt to define Spanglish is that it fails to approach this phenomenon sociologically, and seeks to position the tongue within the evolutionary continuum of Castilian in the Americas that began with the Conquest. Indeed, Stavans talks from the perspective of language, when the very existence of Spanglish reveals the limitations of the term: it is not a language, dialect, patois, creole or cant, although it is possibly an infant pidgin. It has no standardized vocabulary, although Stavans has tried to provide one, and is unrecognized by any academy. That may reflect the purist snobbery and the resistance to change of the Spanish academy itself – a charge that is all too easy to make from the New World – but it also reflects a painful truth about the country that Stavans himself has prospered in: Spanglish is no more than the linguistic reflection of barriers to integration that, as an upper-class Mexican, he has never faced.

It would have been far more relevant, and in the long term far more valuable, for the author to have resisted the temptation to showcase his own knowledge of etymology and to have explored the failures of the education system and public authorities in the US to address the need for Spanish-language instruction and recognition. Instructing Latinos in their mother tongue would create more brokers and bankers than farmhands and truck drivers. As a result, Stavans’ translation of the first chapter of Don Quixote in Spanglish represents an interesting swipe at Real Academia Española, but is ultimately contrived. It probably would have been better to have translated Das Kapital. Now there’s a thought. – GJ

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