Spanglish 101 With Bill Santiago

{Published in LatinoLA.com on September 24th, 2008}

Watch out Noam Chomsky, a new linguist theorist has arrived with a comedic twist! Stand-up comedian Bill Santiago has authored a new book, “Pardon My Spanglish: One Man’s Guide to Speaking the Habla,” to help those behind the times catch up on the new language sweeping the nation. Defining the seamless switching between English and Spanish as a “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of languages: two great languages que van great together,” Santiago lays out los rules for speaking the habla. Readers of “Pardon My Spanglish” will learn the basics such as “every Spanglish journey comienza con una sola palabra,” and will soon be mastering the art of switcheo by saying phrases like “Ahora things are gonna get personal.” The Spanglish reviews for Santiago’s book are coming in with critics hailing, “I loved Santiago’s new libro. It was muy funny!”

I spoke with Bill Santiago about Spanglish 101 ahead of his upcoming Southern California book tour dates:

Q: Without responding “¡Porque, Because!” why did you decide to write a book on Spanglish? Is it something that evolved out of your stand up routine?

After the Comedy Central special, I was contacted by several publisher/lit agent types. They wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book. I said, yes. That’s always the right answer to that question, by the way. They asked me, “About what?” And I said, Spanglish. It seemed to me there was a lot more there to explore with a book as a platform. I could go deeper into the topic, both in a humorous vein and with a serious journalistic curiosity (which I still operate under as a left-over personality trait from my journalism days). I had already been collecting hundreds of pages of examples of Spanglish on my laptop and I had stockpiled lots more observations on Spanglish than I had addressed in my standup. Standup is a little more limited in that you can’t ever stray from the laughter to make your point or add context and background to a joke. With a book I could do that and flesh out the phenomenon, and have the jokes illustrate a broader perspective.

Plus I had a whole new challenge with a book – to actually write the whole thing cover to cover in Spanglish, switching constantly between languages in a way that accurately reflected (to the extent possible) the spoken language of Spanglish. When I was asked to do the book, I had already been recording hours and hours of Spanglish conversations – taping friends, family, strangers, with and without their permission. I found the opportunity of getting those examples I recorded into a book form irresistible, plus hadn’t seen any books out there like the one I had in mind. None of the many I had read actually reflected the Spanglish I knew in all its dynamism. I wanted to write a book that celebrated the intrinsic creative humor of Spanglish without reducing to the same old novelty clichés. I wanted to capture Spanglish with true authenticity, while explaining in a very accessible way, how it is that the bilingual mind operates in this fused modality. Also, they told me they would put my picture on the cover. That pretty much closed the deal.

Q: Spanglish is, at this stage, primarily a spoken phenomenon. With the book, “Pardon My Spanglish,” how difficult was it to write in constantly switching languages, and how does it read?

We wanted bilinguals to enjoy it as the real deal. All of the switching in text is based on the patterns I observed, analyzed and dissected in my recordings and observations of Spanglish over years. It’s not arbitrary. However, because it is still a primarily spoken thing, writing in this way was something new. I’ve seen it done in poetry a lot, and in some literature, of course. Most of what I’ve read, though, is highly stylized, or the treatment is superficial, adding a taste of one language or the other. What I strived for was a text, that as closely as possible reflected the way people actually switch when speaking Spanglish.

Of course there was a compromise. Number one, as a comedian, I am duty bound to go for the funny, and tweaked every thing where I could for that effect, which is its own kind of styling. Number two, because it is in fact a book, it’s never going to be as informal as a conversation. Three, we had to negotiate the right English to Spanish ratio throughout, that would be in line with the purpose and audience of the book. And if you wrote it by merely sprinkling English text with token Spanish or visa versa, it wouldn’t be a true representation, and would yield a very lame result. As it was written for the US market, we kept to an English dominant Spanglish, but that still had so much Spanish in it, that without any Spanish fluency, the book can be a challenge to appreciate. All of these things were taken into account. Also, yes, it took me a while to get the hang of it, and to learn how to sustain the written Spanglish page after page.

Q: How do gringos contribute – besides classic songs from the Texas Tornados – to the proliferation of Spanglish?

I saw a very good example of this on a blog. A young woman was taking Spanish classes in Guatemala, a total immersion, live with a Guatemalan family type-deal. She posted the following: “Tonight after Spanish class we went out bailamosing to salsa tunes.” That right there is an example of Spanglish I could never have come up with, because it’s clearly from a non-Latin angle. Look at what she did to that word, how she came up with that terrific new creation – ‘bailamosing.’ She obviously took the verb bailar in its most familiar conjugation, bailamos, which was probably lodged in her head after hearing it a million times in that Enrique Iglesias song, and added an English gerund suffix to it, tagging it up with “ing.” It made sense to me. She went bailamosing! So yes, the gringos are doing their part, and it all adds up to quite a phenomenon with input from both sides of the lingual frontera.

Q: In the movie “Selena” the late Tejana queen tells Mexican journalists in her unsure Spanish, “Me siento muy…me siento muy…excited!” What do you say to detractors that deem Spanglish as nothing less than a linguistic safety net for the more español challenged pochos of our sociedad?

These detractors are very short sighted. Both English and Spanish evolved from mixes of other input languages, from so called corruptions and bastardizations. Bastardization always precedes standardization. Switching to another language as a bridge when you are missing a vocabulary word is a part of the process of this evolution. To reduce and dismiss Spanglish as merely a modality that is used as a crutch ignorantly diminishes a much greater lingual interaction at work by Spanglish speakers. There are millions of people who are fully bilingual, perfectly fluent in both English and Spanish, and who operate in Spanglish in ways that to me approach a kind of innate genius. These Spanglish hablantes are pulling from two entire dictionaries of words, idioms, cultures, references and experiences at will in an exponentially more expressive way than any one monolingual modality would allow. I honestly think that detractors are in a secret jealous awe of the best Spanglish speakers out there, as they should be.

Q: Is Dora the Explorer an agent of the Spanglish agenda preparing the youth for a hybrid habla future?

She is certainly doing her part and there’s a backlash. I always hear radio host Curtis Sliwa railing against Dora on his morning radio show in New York. He hates her and doesn’t want his children exposed to her Spanish, because he feels… well who knows why, I can’t understand it. But people often miss that those same Dora cartoons are being shown in Latin American countries, exposing children there to English. It goes both ways and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Why would you? It’s like trying to stop hydrogen and oxygen from combing into water, because you want to keep the elements pure.

Q: Let’s talk about the politics of Spanglish. Should the two major party candidates get with the times and start speaking the habla? Should Obama be saying “Change Que Podemos Believe In?” And should McCain be putting “País First? What would los founding papis think?

Ha! Yes! That first line for Obama is great. La verdad que me pareció super. And I think it would go far towards signaling to Latinos that he has some true insight into where we are coming from. That’s very informed pandering. And I highly recommend it. He might end it with, “Yo soy el papi chulo candidate. And I approve este mensaje.” Now McCain, I don’t know. He might want to go with something like: “Un viejito you can trust.”

BIll Santiago will be signing copies of “Pardon My Spanglish,” Thursday, September 25th at 6:30 p.m. at Libreria Martinez, 1110 N. Main St. Santa Ana, Ca (714) 973-7900 and on Friday, September 26th at 8 p.m. at Tia Chucha’s Cafe Cultural, 10258 Foothill Blvd. Lake View Terrace, Ca (818) 869-1479

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2 responses to “Spanglish 101 With Bill Santiago

  1. Hi,

    I’ve just read your article which is really interested. I would like to know if there is now a journal or a magazine written in Spanglish or with some articles, commercials and other texts written in Spanglish.

    Thanks in advance,

    Best regards,

    Andrea

  2. The “Ask A Mexican” book and column by Gustavo Arellano has a healthy dose of Spanglish!

    http://www.askamexican.net

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