Spanish Disquisition

The reason I bother to pass on this morsel of juvenilia is that, as a child growing up in university towns in the Midwest and Southwest, I studied French and German and Latin with fervid devotion, but reacted to the sound of Spanish pretty much the same way Edmund reacted to the sound of Aslan. Even then, 20 years ago–before J. Lo and Shakira, John Leguizamo, Vicente Fox, Nuevo Latino cuisine, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Penelope Cruz–even then, nobody would have refuted the fact that Spanish was a useful language for a North American to learn; and I certainly accepted its popularity and practicality. Nonetheless, for me, Spanish lacked some indefinable prestige that I associated with other foreign languages. I had an illogical distaste for Spanish, and the Edmund/Aslan parable is the best way to explain it.

I often have encountered other linguists, non-linguists, professors, and people in other professions who confess that they, too, dislike the sound of Spanish. “It’s ugly,” a typical Spanish-averse friend–an elegant woman with an advanced degree and knowledge of two other foreign languages–once declared to me without embarrassment. She passed on a bit of gossip she had heard and found amusing. Apparently, Ivana Trump’s son, Donald Jr., once told his mother he wanted to learn Spanish. “Why?” she had retorted. “So you can speak with the servants?”

Like her, anti-Espanol Americans don’t see the point of learning Spanish (or, more tactfully, say they just don’t care for it). Well-meaning detractors say their objections are aesthetic; although French is plenty nasal, it is Spanish that strikes them as nasal in an unpleasant way. Although German is guttural, it is Spanish that they find unpleasantly guttural. Russian sounds slurred, but it is Spanish whose slurredness bothers them. It is an irrational mindset. It’s worth “sharing” this with you, as Dame Edna might say, only because a sizable minority of Americans still have the Edmund/Aslan hangup about Spanish.

The Spanish language suffers from an unaddressed image problem in this country, connected to Southwestern and urban impressions of Hispanicity that sink the language and culture in the grim border zones of Texas and California and in the ghettoes and elevators of metropolises. A study on a touchy subject like this probably never has been conducted, but the Spanish-language-shunners of my acquaintance (including my Hispanic friends who intentionally choose not to understand Spanish even though it was their parents’ first language) associate the sounds of Spanish with negative qualities–not evil ones, like violence, anger or malice–but weaknesses, like laziness, passivity, poor education, anti-intellectualism, and a perverse refusal to enunciate.

It may seem counterintuitive to assert that the Spanish language has a bad reputation in this country, when you consider that, as of the last census, there were some 35 million self-described Hispanic-Americans residing here, and that projections show these numbers will only increase. The papers report that forward-looking Bobos, eying long-term demographic and employment trends, are now jousting to get their kids into Spanish-concentration magnet schools. The president sprinkles Spanish (clumsily pronounced, but he’s trying) into his speeches; politicians in southern states like Texas carry on entire debates in Spanish. Of the 1.2 million American college students who studied a foreign language in 1998, more than 650,000 of them–more than half–took Spanish.

Nonetheless, several authorities on American cultural trends agree that ingrained animosity towards Spanish persists in pockets throughout this society: from the Europhiles in the upper echelons who find the language dclass to the middle-classic Hispanic-Americans who want to shed their hyphenated backgrounds (or want their children to), to the struggling laborers in the lower strata who resent the growing Hispanic presence in the American workforce and see the Spanish language as the embodiment of their competition.

“This goes back to high school in the 1950s,” says Joseph Epstein, lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University and author of the new book Snobbery: The American Version. “In the old days, the brightest kids took Latin, the dullest kids took Spanish and women took French. If you wanted to do science or medicine, it was thought best to study German. For the rest, there was Spanish.” The old, informal language channeling system has eroded, and Spanish is now popular among both male and female students. Four years ago, nearly six million of America’s 13.5 million public high school students were studying Spanish. And yet, Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and author of The Hispanic Condition, firmly believes that the old prejudice lives on. “The perception of Spanish as a language of barbarians, of not fully civilized citizens, has remained with us, even though Spanish is in any college the most popular language. We still retain the impression that if you learn French or German, you’re going to be closer to the heart of things Western.”

Indeed, historically, Americans and Europeans alike have often skipped Spain when they considered countries responsible for the creation of Western culture. A casual scan of high culture tells the story: Nearly all the great operas still performed are sung in Italian, German, French, or English. In classical music, non-Spanish European composers predominate: Rossini, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart, Bach. Great literature? With the single exception (and what an exception!) of Cervantes, the canon does not speak Spanish; Stendhal, Balzac, Goethe, Mann, Tolstoy, Dante, Dickens, Chaucer, and others drown it out. In art, Goya and Velzquez stand alone amid a United Nation’s-worth of Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, and Dutch. Needless to say, there have been significant Spanish contributions to Western culture, even if we don’t know here exactly what they were–it was probably a P.R. problem all along. But until the 20th century, the Spanish influence on Western culture was certainly under-emphasized.

Over the last 100 years, the cultural record has slowly broadened and Hispanicized–largely thanks to the oeuvre of the three Pablos–Casals, Picasso, and Neruda. Over the last four decades, the Spanish-speaking newcomers to the evolving canon have mostly come from Central and South America, which has heightened the allure of the American hemisphere’s brand of Spanish. Pablo Neruda won his Nobel Prize in 1971, Gabriel Garcia Marquez won his in 1982, Octavio Paz won his in 1990. When you add to these high culture contributors the unending list of Hispanic pop culture figures who have gained prominence here since, say, Ramn Estevez became Martin Sheen, it’s easy to understand why North Americans now think of Spanish as a language that is spoken south of the border, not south of the Pyrenees.

In other words, for Norteamericanos, Spanish now registers as a non-European language–as opposed, for example, to French. For Americans, French still evokes the country of France in a way that Spanish does not evoke Spain. The idea of Frenchness still evokes elitism, privilege, the diplomat class, savoir-faire and luxury–the gamine Gigi learning how to spot good emeralds while Maurice Chevalier warbles leeringly nearby. The idea of Spanishness has come to evoke Mexico, Puerto Rico, Jennifer Lopez, and support for the common man.

Part of this transformation has been unconscious, part has been intentional. In U.S. colleges in the ’60s and afterward, an ideological divide formed between people who studied Spanish for literary and aesthetic reasons–old-schoolers–and people who supported Spanish because they opposed U.S. Latin American policy (think Castro, Pinochet, the Sandinistas, Che Guevara)–new-schoolers. The old-schoolers (who sometimes liked to study French, or Greek, or Russian, or Chinese) wanted to preserve the study of languages for its own sake. The new-schoolers saw language as a political statement. The Harvard student who learned Spanish in 1975 often did so to follow Che’s motorcycle route on a South American road trip. The girlfriend who accompanied him might have studied French, but she didn’t want her boyfriend to think she was a snob, so she took Spanish instead. She wanted to seem like a woman of the people.

Like the girlfriend, today’s politicians have found that a Spanish vocabulary is useful for disguising silver-spoon roots and expressing solidarity with the masses. Our president, George W. Bush–who comes from a famously privileged background and had a diplomat-class upbringing–demonstrated this in May at a press conference in Paris, when he scolded an American news reporter for having had the effrontery to ask President Jacques Chirac a question in French. Bush huffed to the crowd, “Very good, the guy memorizes four words, and he plays like he’s intercontinental.” When the reporter, stunned by the hostility, countered that he knew many more than four words of French, the president’s disgust only mounted: “I’m impressed. Que bueno (how great),” he said snidely. He clearly meant it to sting–a not-so-veiled suggestion that the reporter was a member of the effete liberal class that was responsible for all that’s wrong with American politics. At his birthday this July in Kennebunkport, Bush wore a baseball cap printed with the words “El jefe” (the chief). The message was clear: French is poncey, show-offy, elitist. But Spanish is all-American.

And yet, even as Bush deploys Spanish to shore up his regular-guy bona fides, a significant portion of the nation’s elite still does not look forward to an America when “Yo quiero Taco Bell” will lisp from every television screen, and Shakira will replace Edith Piaf as soundtrack of choice for smoky cafes. Joseph Epstein discovered how strong the resistance to pro-Spanish peer pressure can be in late June, when he discussed his snobbery book on the National Public Radio call-in show “Talk of the Nation.” “A woman called up who was a high school French teacher, and she seemed ticked off at the spread of Spanish,” Epstein recalled. “She said she felt Spanish was being emphasized at the expense of French and that it was being emphasized in a kind of multicultural, and–oddly enough–non-Western way. She felt there was a kind of We must all learn Spanish now because we have so many Spanish countrymen’ thing going on that had a kind of rudeness about it–whereas she felt French was a more highbrow, grander language.”

I can sympathize with the French teacher. As I grew older, I chose again and again not to study Spanish, preferring languages that to me seemed more exotic. The notion that the comparative ease of the Spanish language might actually recommend it for study eluded me–in the superego phase of life, what does not seem hard can seem not worth doing. When my open-minded father learned Spanish, I stopped my ears when he played his language tapes and repeated perro (dog) 20 times. I loved foreign languages, but didn’t think Spanish counted as one. In Oklahoma, where I went to high school, many of the Hispanic kids in the high school took Spanish for an easy “A” or “B” because they already spoke it at home. “Villa Allegre” was on television, and on “Sesame Street” they taught us abierto and cerrado and peligro. Ads for sazon Goya ran alongside ads for Coca-Cola and Cottonelle. What was exotic about that?

As my education continued, I kept up the French and German, and added Russian and Italian. When I acquired friends from Puerto Rico or Mexico, they spoke to me in Spanish, and I responded in Italian or French. I wasn’t a xenophobe; I traveled great distances in search of immersion in other cultures–to France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Africa, Japan–but avoided Mexico and Spain. When I went to Central America, I chose Belize, the only English-speaking country on the landmass. In New York City, where I moved after college, I assumed that the subway signs in Spanish, the Spanish newspapers, and the Spanish-speaking people around me had nothing to communicate that I couldn’t ignore. Don Quixote and A Hundred Years of Solitude were available in translation, Death in the Afternoon was written in English in the first place, and I figured that would hold me. But then, like Edmund, I came around.

These days, Spanish is my favorite foreign language. The irrational mindset I once had against Spanish has been replaced by an immoderate, visceral passion for it. I love Spanish more than French, more than Russian, more than Italian (nobody loves German). I subscribe to the bi-weekly Spanish-language glossy women’s magazine Vanidades, read it from cover to cover, and cook the recipes in it. Over the last two years, I have read and spoken so much Spanish that my French is now changed: I unconsciously say y when I mean to say et. The weight and rhythms of Spanish expression transport me; its physicality, drama, and lack of trumpery I find breathtaking. I just can’t get enough. Illogical as this turnaround may be, I would like to try to break it down for the diehard Edmund/Aslan/anti-Espanol contingent, to see if I can’t convert them, too.

Every time you speak another person’s language, you wrap your mind around another way of contemplating the world. Language dictates perception. You can not frame what you see, or what you think, without coding it into language. For instance, in my opinion, French is a lovely, but preening language–judgmental but insincere. It is best used to spout longwinded, more-or-less empty intellectual declarations, to issue artistic judgments, or to unwrap pretty curlicues of flattery and praise. Part of the problem is that too much rhymes in French. Willy-nilly, you find yourself putting together words that sound good paired. Try to speak in French for 10 minutes without praising or criticizing something immoderately, or without saying something you don’t actually mean. It can’t be done. It’s a language of persiflage and artifice, in which, even when you mean to build a simple cabin of words, you end up with a wedding-cakey Garnier opera.

Russian is a sentimental, even mawkish, language, richly mined with hidden menace and self-deceptions. Consider only two of Russian’s aural confusions: Lubyanka, the longtime headquarters of the KGB, sounds very much like liubyashy, which means “loving.” Lyubit means love, ubit means kill. Does Kyrill lyubit or ubit you? You might not find out in time. Also, Russians use the word Mama more frequently than probably is healthy for grown-ups. Furthermore, it’s vaguely distressing the way the Russian language exaggerates and caresses dreary realities. For instance, a nice-looking woman is called a “bread-roll,” bulochka. The language even contains a specific, affectionate term to describe the endearing (to Russians) wetness of a baby’s diaper, mokrinky. Meanwhile, the word mokritsy, different only by one consonant cluster from mokrinky, means woodlice. You see the trouble.

Italian’s rolling flow invites exaggeration–with your mouth forming o’s all the time, you find yourself incessantly thinking about food, or marvelling at things. The German language’s severing of verb from subject maroons you in gray, indeterminate thought, plunging you into existential worry–does anyone or anything matter? You could find out at the end of the sentence, if you could keep yourself awake–sorry, that is: if you still yourself awake keep could. And no matter what you say in German, somebody always wants to correct you.

If you have managed to absorb these capriciously drawn psychological language Rorschachs (feel free to edit and personalize them according to your own individualized takes), you can recognize that any scene or situation you might wish to describe has a separate identity that depends upon, and is constrained by, the language you use to evoke it. Each translation calls up a different scene because each language apprehends a different reality. At the moment, the Spanish reality is the one I would choose.

My amour fou for the Spanish language began six years ago and has been building ever since. In 1996, a friend insisted I rent a video of a Spanish bedroom farce called Belle Epoque. Watching the coquetterie of four sisters in a sun-dusted country house, all of them vying for the romantic attentions of one guileless young man, I finally saw that there was a Spanish culture that had nothing to do with blood, bulls, Civil War, lunch delivery, or frijoles. And in the sultry susurro (whisper) of the sisters, and in the zarzuela singing of their philandering mother, I finally heard that the Spanish language was suitable for romance. When the lovestruck youngest sister, Luz, lost all patience with the strapping stranger (who had bedhopped from one sister to the next, always skipping her) and finally screeched at him, “Y yo que?!” (And what about me?!) I was dumbfounded. What about her? What about Spanish? Why all the others and not her? Why all the other languages and not Spanish? Why indeed?

That movie started the thaw, and also coincided with the crossover of a number of Hispanic cultural phenoms on the North American scene: Ricky Martin, J. Lo, and, of course, Penelope Cruz. Soon after seeing Belle Epoque, I bought a copy of Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. Then Octavio Paz. A couple years later, when friends suggested we go to a Latino dance bar, I went willingly. It was there I received the turbo-boost to this thawing, which, predictably, came in the form of a South American boyfriend, the scion of a family of plantation owners, who rode horses, surfed, did something in finance, read Noam Chomsky, instructed me to thank the Seor (God) every day for the joy of being alive, and told me, without any anxiety (at my prompting) that, on the whole, he thought it would be prettier if I grew my nails and had long blond hair, but he didn’t mind if I didn’t feel like it. He called me every endearment in the diccionario and looked like Beastmaster, so I indulged him. His clarity, directness and warmth came to symbolize for me the qualities of the Spanish language. So many other languages are good for dissembling; Spanish is good for revealing.

Because of this boyfriend, who was far too laissez-faire to bother teaching me, I began to learn Spanish by reading my favorite novels in Spanish translation: Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, Balzac’s Pre Goriot. I started out speaking Italian to my boyfriend, sprinkling in words and verbs that I thought were Spanish; but as I read and learned further, I began to integrate the Spanish from my reading into my speaking. I would memorize and recite entire phrases from El Revs de la Trama (The Heart of the Matter) and try them out for sheer drama. “Ya crea que habamos terminado con eso,” I would say gravely (“I thought we had finished with that”). It was so firm. Kind of harsh, but so real, and playful under it all. The boyfriend would laugh at me. Before long, I was speaking in Spanish, period, though none too correctly, and my Italian was gone.

The best side effect hit me on the New York City streets. I felt like a child who had read a favorite book over and over, not realizing it was pop-up. Everywhere I went, a parallel New York seemed to emerge from the streets I already knew; in bars, libraries, bodegas, clubs, parks, swimming pools, a second conversation had been going on all along, all the years I’d lived here, only I hadn’t heard it. I began to notice the difference in cadence and speed and intent between Puerto Rican Spanish, Madrileo Spanish, Argentine, Chilean, Mexican, Dominican. There was so much to learn and absorb. Once when the boyfriend and I were chatting, sitting on a picnic blanket in a park in Brooklyn, a man at the next blanket over, sitting with his kids and his dog, leaned over to joke with us because his dog was sprawled on its back on the grass, paws in the air, with a ridiculous expression on its face. “El perro esta muy cansado . . .” the man said jokily. “The dog is exhausted.” The television acquired new channels–Spanish news, dubbed movies, bizarre variety shows. I never learned the future tense in Spanish, but my boyfriend said that was sensible, because he would be leaving soon. Novio, the word for boyfriend, also meant fianc how usefully sneaky! I found a word, deslizarse, which means to slip out of some entanglement–“like a lizard” was my mnemonic. The word enchanted me. The whole Spanish vocabulary seemed runic, like incantations–disfrutar, to enjoy, evoked ripe fruit; malapalabra–bad word–sounded like a magic spell. Caderas meant “hips” and sounded triumphant, and sturdy and pro-femininity. Salpimentar meant to salt-and-pepper something. Joy, food, bodies, spiciness, undercurrents, movement, efficiency, acceptance.

After the boyfriend moved, I discovered the defiant ballads of the Peruvian pop star Shakira. Her song, “Ciega Sordomuda”–“Blind, Deaf and Dumb”–which sounds like an Alanis anthem sung by Linda Ronstadt– intoxicated me: “Bruta, ciega , sordomuda, torpe, traste, testaruda; es todo lo que he sido, por ti me he convertido en una cosa que no hace otra cosa mas que amarte. . .” (“Ugly, blind, deaf and dumb, torpid, worthless, stubborn–that’s all I’ve been since you turned me into something that can do nothing but love you.”) The strength in admitting weakness amazed me. She was so abject, but so cheeky–unafraid of pain. Not sentimental or dippy like an American or French lovesong–passionate, a little crazy, and vaguely threatening. When I try to convince my Spanish-resistant friends of the virtues of Vanidades or Shakira, I meet with limited success. But what they think doesn’t matter. No lesser an authority than Paul Fussell, author of the Bible of the American caste system, Class, told me, “I believe quite sincerely that in 50 years Spanish will be the absolute equal of English as a social and financial and serious alternative to English in this country. America will be bilingual, absolutely. The bright people will be.” My fervent hope is that, despite my newfound love of Spanish, the bright people will be trilingual–English, Spanish, and something else, too.

Last summer I went to Spain, but I made the mistake of going with a British friend who is still caught in the grip of the Edmund/Aslan anti-Espaol spell. Tapas distressed her; sangria struck her as “naff.” And when, at two in the morning at a disco in Alicante, we found ourselves talking to the son of a bullfighter and his entourage–she finally took me aside and exploded, “WHY must we keep talking to all these . . . Spanish people!” I looked at her sympathetically, remembering what it had been like. “Because, we are in Spain,” I responded. What else could I say? One day, like Edmund and Aslan, she’ll come around. She will have to do it on her own. It will be gradual, but once it starts, it won’t stop. And I say . . . arriba.