Monday, September 12, 2011

Más Respeto, Por Favor.

The new, astonishing figures for the Hispanic population in the US:

I find this very interesting. There are almost 32 million Mexicans in the US. The next large group is Puerto Ricans, with almost 5 million people, and the next, Cubans, with almost 2 million.  Although Mexicans are six times as many as the next big group, for some reason they seem to be under served and under represented.  Other groups, like the Cubans in Miami, make much more noise and seem to have far more political clout, even though they are actually less relevant. Here in the East Coast, Mexicans are almost invisible. We see them cooking and delivering our food, but otherwise, they don't make a political racket. They barely have political representation. My guess is that recent arrivals come from poverty and are severely undereducated. They are concerned about surviving, sending money to their families, and they are not used to having a political voice. They have been abandoned by their own government at home and they are not about to trust the one here. I hope that with new generations of Mexican kids born in America this will change. I'm hoping that they will integrate better and get to be Supreme Court judges, mayors, presidents of this country. They need to get out of the ghetto. And for this, they all need to learn English.
When I arrived in New York in 1992, the Hispanic advertising business in the East Coast was run by people from Cuban or Puerto Rican origin. There were a only a handful of Mexicans working in this industry and being Mexican turned out to be a huge asset for my career. I always resented, and still do, that every time I wrote copy, someone would ask if a person who wasn't Mexican would understand it. Not that I was writing Mexican slang, but once in a while, a legitimate Spanish word that was perfectly commonplace in Mexico would jump out at people. Some thought that Mexicans were too uneducated to understand perfectly commonplace words (there was a lot of ignorant prejudice from some quarters and there still is. Some people like to feel superior to Mexicans, because of race, economic status and education levels). In my mind, I was writing for the majority even then, and the majority rules. I still feel the same way. If the communication is national, it should speak to the majority. If it is regional; that is, if it's only going to air in Miami, then do it in Cuban and let the minority get used to it. Native speakers, whatever their country of origin, are deeply sensitive to regional accents. So in Miami they are used to Cuban, as in the Southwest and California they are used to Mexican, and here in the East Coast, to the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean islands. I believe that there is a neutral Spanish accent that is perfectly fine, and this is the neutral Mexican accent, which pronounces all the consonants, and which, without the melody, is as neutral as the Colombian accent from Bogotá, without the singsong. And whoever doesn't like this, should take a look at the numbers above and zip it. 
One of the problems I have with the "Hispanic" market, is that because we strive to include everybody, the Spanish language that we use in mass communications has become impoverished. It is hard to write ads with humor, not because it is impossible, but because someone will always question whether the others will understand it. Advertising and marketing categorize people into targets until it dehumanizes them, as if people from different national origins are inscrutable aliens from a different galaxy that have no connection either to one another or to the rest of humanity. This results in people looking at every word in a sentence as if it was devoid of context. As if the way we speak is by understanding every single word in a sentence separately, without connection to what precedes it or what follows. In short, common sense leaves the building.
Let me give an example: popular idioms and expressions enrich communication. They are part of our culture. So if I want to use an expression like "sale más caro el caldo que las albóndigas", "the broth ends up costing more than the meatballs", which means something similar to "pound wise and penny foolish", everybody understands the gist of it, but it will have to go through a gauntlet of people who will admit they understand it, and even like it, but they are afraid that someone from the Dominican Republic might not. You can rest assured that it will never go on air. This is, among other reasons, why you can barely find good commercials in Spanish in the US.
The Spanish now used in mass communications in the US is for the most part an insipid, generic language that has no personality, no bite, no irony. Often times, it is sloppy and grammatically incorrect, or it is a lazy, literal translation of English idioms. As I was trapped in Cancún by hurricane Irene, I was watching the coverage on CNN en Español. I was appalled at the poverty of the Spanish of the newscasters and reporters. They sounded like nothing recognizable because for the most part they were speaking in some sort of awkward, literal Spanish translation of English; whenever they didn't know a word in Spanish, which was very often, they just said it in English. I cannot understand how a network with the resources of CNN can't hire good journalists, reporters and anchors who are native speakers of Spanish, and are fully bilingual and know the structural differences between the two languages. They can't be that hard to find.
The problem is bigger than advertising. Since this is not a Hispanic country, we don't have a solid literary and verbal culture. Our Spanish is poor. Children at school do not learn poems, songs, expressions, games, and literature in Spanish. We don't have good Hispanic-American literary writers who write in Spanish. We barely have a handful of good Hispanic-American writers who write in English. Our TV channels are a disgrace in terms of content. There is no cultural content. Newspapers and magazines leave much to be desired. And advertising, which in its best form should contribute to pop culture, is for the most part lame, artificial, generic and it belongs to no one. By trying to include everyone, it really speaks to no one.
So I have two points to make:
1. Our Spanish sucks, and we should do something to improve it. Making it generic makes it poorer.
2. Because there are almost six times as many Mexicans as any other Latins in this country, Mexican-influenced Spanish should be the language used to speak to the majority of Hispanics in the US.*

*By the way, if there was a Spanish-speaking majority from another country, I would stand by this, as much as it may pain me. It's only fair.


  1. Anonymous7:24 PM

    I like the Tide commercials their airing in Spanish they have three families Mexican, Cuban, and Argentinian. I like that they used phrases in those countries 'spanish' and not try to make just commercials about detergent from the literal english translations.
    Theres some commercials that have the literal translations of english ,and they are horrible some i don't even know what they are saying.

  2. What is the source of those numbers? Are there any corresponding figures about how many of those people are legal and how many illegal?