"Spanglish": The Language of Chicanos

Rosa María Jiménez

Writer’s comment: During my freshman year at Davis I decided to take an English class to improve my writing skills—and they needed much improvement! In English 3, I quickly became very frustrated because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t manage to get a grade better than a C on my papers. I was disappointed in myself, but instead of sulking, I put all my effort into writing essays. I would consult the tutors at the Learning Skills Center and seek advice from my professors. After three years of writing papers in History and Spanish, I took English 101—not because I wanted to, but because I had to fulfill my English requirement. To my surprise my professor, Elizabeth Davis, asked me to submit my final paper to the Prized Writing contest. I did, and it paid off—just a little example of how perseverance and practice pay off, to encourage my peers.
        As a Mexican living in America, I wrote about an aspect of my culture that is part of my everyday life—my language. Most bilinguals code-switch to varying degrees, but rarely do we think about its meaning. To many, code-switching (Spanglish) may seem insignificant or confusing, but I feel that analyzing this process will demystify code-switching and reveal its importance in the Chicano community. This is especially important for Chicanos themselves; pride in ourselves is only the first step para mi Raza (for my people).
—Rosa María Jiménez

Instructor’s comment: The last assignment in an English l0l—Advanced Composition—course was for each student to be inspired by one of our model authors and write an essay, with references, based on some aspect of the “model’s” published argument. A particular element in James Baldwin’s famous l979 New York Times essay, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” provoked Rosa Jiménez. Inspired she was—to write a compelling argument defending Spanglish. Baldwin blasts white readers for calling Black English a dialect. It is nothing less, he argues, than the only window whites have into the black experience, if they would only look. Rosa takes a milder but, all the same, self-assured tone. Her essay combines personal asides with sociological observations. Clearly, she modeled Baldwin’s way of making subtle distinctions about how a language can comfort, protect, and define a group.
—Elizabeth Davis, English Department

In his essay, first published in the New York Times in 1979, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” James Baldwin attempts to legitimize black English as a unique language. He argues that black English is a valid language because of the role it plays in the lives of black Americans; it serves as a means for blacks to control their own circumstances, define themselves, and obtain power. Baldwin justifies black English by applying George Orwell’s argument that language is “a political instrument, means, and proof of power” to the black experience (Orwell 436). Like black Americans, Chicanos have developed a language all their own—Spanglish. Just as black English plays a vital role for black people, Chicano speech serves an important purpose for Chicanos. Purpose, Baldwin argues, validates and makes language authentic. It is then the social, cultural, and political significance of Spanglish in the lives of Chicanos that legitimize it as a language.
         The term “Spanglish” is not the official term for Chicano speech, but I have chosen to use it because it best reflects for me what the language is—a combination of Spanish and English. I define Spanglish, or code-switching as it is more commonly termed by academics, as the practice of alternating between two languages when speaking—in this case between Spanish and English. Speakers switch single words, phrases or complete sentences. The following examples illustrate this process:

1) El libro me costó twenty dollars. (The book cost me twenty dollars.)

2) I’m going home pasado mañana. (I’m going home the day after tomorrow.)

3) I got a new car this weekend. Me lo compró mi papá. (I got a new car this weekend. My dad bought it for me.)

         Code-switching can be classified by the following features: “1) Each switch into Spanish or English consists of unchanged Spanish or English words, and 2) these words are pronounced by the speaker as a native speaker of that language would pronounce them” (Valdés-Fallis 2).
         Code-switching, however, should not be confused with linguistic borrowing. In the process of linguistic borrowing the speaker takes an English word and molds it into a Spanish one. For example, a speaker might say, “No puchen el carro.” (Don’t push the car.) In this case “puchando,” from the English word push, is pronounced in Spanish and used as a Spanish word. Similarly, the speaker has borrowed “carro” from the English “car” and assimilated into the Spanish language. Many times linguistic borrowing leads to the creation of an entirely new form of speech, no longer English or Spanish, but a mix of both. One such example is “Caló,” a form of Chicano slang popular in Southern California barrios. Linguistic borrowing is a form of communication separate from standard English and primarily used in social situations.
         Linguistic borrowing and slang are different from code-switching, where all words and phrases are used in the original languages to create an innovative speech. Many bilinguals practice linguistic borrowing, code-switching, and slang because they become frustrated with their substandard language skills. When I was a little girl I was embarrassed that I could not speak Spanish with the same proficiency as my parents. I was also frustrated because at school I was unable to master the English language like the rest of my American peers. To make myself understood, I would code-switch or make up words. I remember one day when I got so mad at my sister for tagging along with me and my friends that I told her to stop bothering me. Only instead of using the English verb “bother,” I borrowed its Spanish equivalent, “molestar,” and transformed it into an English word. Big mistake. I shouted, “Stop molesting me!” The kids on the playground who overheard teased me for weeks. This is how code-switching and slang can get Chicanos into trouble.
         In order to code-switch, speakers must have a degree of proficiency and flexibility in each language, but they need not be completely bilingual. The traditional meaning of bilingual refers to the ability to master two languages equally or almost equally well. However, linguists use bilingual to include varying degrees of proficiency in two languages (Valdés-Fallis 3). I am not concerned with the traditional meaning of bilingual: academic mastery of two languages. Instead, I will use bilingual as a term for those who speak two languages to varying degrees, because this best describes most Chicanos who code-switch.
         I must clarify that code-switchers usually are individuals who learn English out of necessity and not by choice. According to Valdés-Fallis, people who master a second language in an academic setting choose to become bilingual, but rarely will they code-switch. Social, cultural, and political purpose are essential to Spanglish. In general, non-Latino bilinguals will interact in either Spanish or English for different situations. In contrast, “natural” bilingualism will occur at those times when the speakers’ first language will not meet all their communicative needs” (Valdés-Fallis 3). Most Chicanos must learn English to get an education, obtain employment, and communicate with society. Bilingualism is born out of necessity. Code-switching then evolves out of this kind of bilingualism.
         Some educators criticize code-switching as a “bastardized” form of English and Spanish that hinders Chicanos from mastering any one language. They claim that the code-switcher will always possess substandard language skills. Unfortunately, many educators, who do not know or misunderstand the significance of code-switching, erroneously label their Spanglish-speaking students alingual. (By terming Spanglish a “bastardization,” are they also implying amorality?) Simply because I switch between both languages does not mean I am alingual. Por favor reconozcan mis capabilities! (Please recognize my capabilities!) I am bilingual, and my language does not lack morality. Understanding code-switching illuminates the linguistic potential of the bilingual individual. “Code-switching is an indication that the speakers have a set of linguistic competencies that permit them to alternate languages in a meaningful and communicative manner” (Aguirre 83).
         Effective code-switching largely depends on the ability of the individual to understand the workings of both English and Spanish. Bilingual speakers are aware that each of their languages has certain strengths and that they can use both languages simultaneously to convey precise meanings (Valdés-Fallis). For example, if I say “Respeto a mis padres . . . I always will,” I do not mean the same thing as my white friend Susan does when she says “I respect my parents . . . I always will.” I mean that I respect my parents and their authority in a country where they have suffered humiliation, poverty, and disrespect. In contrast, Susan may mean that she respects her parents because they are doctors. In English “respect” has become a cultural formality, while in Spanish respeto is loaded with deep cultural meaning.
         Code-switching takes skill. The bilingual speaker cannot simply jumble together any English and Spanish words—the result would be neither harmonious nor effective. For example, to say “Yo am going to the baile in the noche” (I am going to the dance at night) reveals that the speaker lacks proficiency in one of the two languages. Bilingual speakers would cringe to hear this sentence; it simply sounds wrong. There exists a set of unwritten rules or constraints that an effective code-switcher must control. Although most code-switchers may not be able to verbalize these rules, they can speak Spanglish effectively, and success has largely to do with sound and sense. As Valdés-Fallis suggests, rather than being alingual, code-switchers operate within the rules of both languages in a uniquely complex manner.
         But why do individuals code-switch? Code-switching is not a phenomenon without meaning or purpose. First, speaking Spanglish classifies the bilingual person in a certain ethnic group, principally Chicanos, but also other Latin Americans living in the U.S. Language, an integral element in defining a people, makes Spanglish an expression of our complex identity as Chicanos. Before uncovering the purpose of code-switching within the Chicano community, I need to explain who speaks Spanglish.
         Chicano is a term used to define individuals who recognize that they no longer are purely Mexican and realize that they are not completely accepted by America. Alternative terms like Latino, Mexican-American, and Hispanic also exist; however, each term has a distinct meaning. To put it simply, Latino refers to all people from Latin American roots, Mexican-American is a person born in America, but who has Mexican origins, and Hispanic is a term created by the American government, for statistical purposes, to group together all Spanish-speaking people. Chicano connotes a stronger political significance than Mexican-American, and the individuals who define themselves as Chicanos attempt to legitimize themselves in a country which proposes to absorb or erase them. Regardless of which term Spanglish speakers use, we are all connected by the common struggle of being Latinos in America. For Chicanos, code-switching has developed into a cultural, social and political tool.
         Spanglish is culturally significant because it reflects our identity. Culture consists of customs, traditions, food, clothing, music, art, and language. In the same way that Spanglish unites the strengths of the English and Spanish languages, so too are Chicanos a union of the American and Mexican cultures. Code-switching not only reflects our identity, but also provides a means for us to strengthen each other. By speaking Spanglish, we restore pride in our language and in ourselves. If my friend says, “Rosa, hay que irnos a la fiesta temprano because it’s Cinco de Mayo and there’s going to be a lot of people,” I feel a deeper cultural link with her than if she simply says, “Rosa, let’s go early to the party because it’s Cinco de Mayo and there’s going to be a lot of people.”
         In addition, Spanglish provides the means for Chicanos to transmit social information with emotion, solidarity, and trust. We code-switch with people we feel close to and who are also bilingual. Spanglish reflects our experience as bilingual, bicultural people. We combine English, America’s official language, with Spanish, Mexico’s official language. Chicanos are a product of the influences and cultures of America and Mexico, and we have created a language that mirrors this reality. When I arrived in the clean, safe town of Davis I thought it was isolated from the “real” world. I laughed one day when I saw what seemed to be the entire police force, three ambulances, and one fire engine attending to a minor car collision downtown. Most of the people in Davis seemed sheltered from the struggles of unemployment, racism, and violence. I would confide in my friends, “Me siento tan confundida . . . I feel so out of place en este lugar made for rich Anglo-Americans.” (I feel so confused . . . I feel so out of place in this place made for rich Anglo-Americans.) The use of lugar (place) in the context of Spanglish points to its meaning as a geographic, social, and cultural location. Being able to express myself in Spanglish, the language which represents who I am as a Mexican person living in America, encouraged me to feel “in place” in this socially and ethnically different world. Code-switching in social settings gave me a sense of unity with others who also faced the cultural shock and alienation of being Chicano in an institution where we are so under-represented.
         Chicanos may also use code-switching to mobilize their community towards political power. Our language grants Chicanos control over their experience. “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances or in order not to be submerged by a situation that they cannot articulate” (Baldwin 436). In a society that has historically negated the value of different ethnic groups, Chicanos have developed a language with which to define their unique experience. We do not wish to use exclusively a language that has been an instrument of discrimination and oppression. At the same time we constantly struggle against being in a state of limbo. By living in America we have been exposed to another culture and another way of life—no longer are we strictly Mexican. Having been influenced by the American way of life, we have developed a new culture and language to express and control our circumstances. Given this significance, Chicanos can code-switch to effectively convey their social plight and deepest feelings. Exclaiming “Únanse a la causa . . . support affirmative action!” has more power than “Unite with the cause . . . support affirmative action!” because it is said in Spanglish. There is something in the sound of Únanse that makes us feel like one body. “Únanse . . . support,” the two words are truly Spanglish. In this way we gain support, make our voices heard, and turn the personal into the political.
         As Chicanos, we have our distinct language and culture which help us to seek equal access, opportunity, and justice without being absorbed by mainstream society. Spanglish allows us to communicate in a language that reflects the complexities of the Chicano identity. It is an innovative language that defines, unites and empowers the Chicano Community. “Qué Viva the Spanglish language!”

Works Cited

Aguirre, Adalberto, Jr. “Code-switching and Intuitive Knowledge in the Bilingual Classroom.” Chicano Speech in the Bilingual Classroom. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t A Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” Fields of Writing, 3rd. ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1968.

Valdés-Fallis, Guadalupe. “Theory and Practice: Code-switching and the Classroom Teacher.” Language in Education. Virginia: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1978.