Like millions of my generation, I grew up in a household that encouraged the use of English at the expense of everything else.
My father, J.D., an admitted Hispanophile, was obsessed with the Spanish language, often telling us tales of his father, who’d traveled overseas and acquired a command of several languages, the most important of which was Spanish.
The contradiction here is that a person so enamored of a language would fail to actively teach it to his children. Spanish was used between Mom and Dad as a means of camouflage: when they didn’t want us in on the discussion, they used Spanish. Dad used to say that German was the language one uses to call the horses; English was used for everyday affairs, and Spanish was the language of the gods.
Like many others in northern New Mexico, we picked up a lot of Spanish on the streets. And to be sure, we siblings contributed our share. Any indiscretion on our part would cause Mom to call us “atascados,” which means “stuck” or “mired,” but in Mom’s parlance meant inept. It was not a term of endearment. If we used Mom’s connotation of the word “chayote,” as a means to describing a sloppy person, we got blank stares. Chayote is really a kind of squash looks like the torso of a man who didn’t know whether the style was to tuck the shirt in our leave it out, so he compromised.
Instruction at Immaculate Conception School was in English, except for Beginning Spanish. Although the teachers there admonished us to speak English on the playground, I’m not aware of anyone being punished for speaking Spanish. Speaking Spanish around those who don’t understand it is considered impolite, but certainly not a reason for punishment.
Northern New Mexico continues to have a distinct quality. The omnipresence of television, in addition to a modern freeway system that enables people to travel more and therefore interact, have done much to make our Spanish much like that of other areas.
Now, with satellite TV available almost everywhere, people whose grandparents grew up speaking only Spanish now get a multi-lingual menu, with the result that the lines between Southern, Eastern, Northern and General American English have blurred.
Daily, people are losing the peculiar accents and inflections that were so apparent in the earlier part of the century. People didn’t get to town much in those days, and their exposure to how other people were speaking Spanish was limited. Thus, many regional writers and historians refer to demographic pockets in which the language of Cervantes was spoken.
In the middle of the 20th century, however, things were different. But we members of a family that had never ventured past Albuquerque, felt ready to take on the world.
For the wedding of my sister Dorothy, in 1953, we siblings traveled with our parents to Las Cruces. It’s a short hop from there to Juarez, a place we’d never been. It was a chance to say we’d been to another country. Intrigued by the endless procession of vendors hawking their wares, we thought we could get by with northern New Mexico Spanglish.
One of us needed change and asked for “change-oh.” Big mistake. Mom told us to try “feria.” Still no luck. Finally, Dad told us to use “cambio.” That worked.
Even then, American currency and coins were legal tender in Mexico. But I got nowhere offering “un nicle” or even “un daime” for a souvenir. While it is true that languages borrow from one another, our relabeling of coinage, including “quata” and “haffe” didn’t fly with the Juarez folk.
One thing we had taken to Mexico was the misuse of certain verb forms, of which we had not been aware until some of the natives set us straight. The second-person singular past tense of many Spanish verbs ends in “-iste.” Thus, to inquire as to whether a person has eaten, we ought to ask, “¿Comiste?” But in New Mexico, that form is often jeered at by people who instantly “correct” and tell you it’s “comites,” and call you a pedant. Retired Highlands University languages professor Sara Harris calls the idea of transposing sounds “metathesis.” Although she’d apparently prefer that people use the more accepted form of the verb, she doesn’t correct those who don’t. “To me it’s still communication,” Harris said. But in addition to economy of effort, i.e., whatever pronunciation is easier, Harris posits that the “comites” syndrome occurs because in Spanish, verbs in the second-person singular end in an “s.” Thus, “tu andas,” for “you are walking,” may lead people to want to end all such Spanish verbs with an “s,” regardless of tense.
We hear metathesis when people pronounce “Gabriel” as “Grabiel.” Among the generation in their 80s and 90s, who grew up speaking Spanish, I’d hoped to find the “correct” usage. But while working on the U.S. Census in 2000, that wasn’t to be so. So instead of the hoped for form of “fuiste” for “you went,” we got “fuites.”
There’s merit to the idea that language usage is neither right nor wrong but whatever people speak. So if most people agree it’s “ites” instead of “iste,” who’s to say they’re wrong? Even labeling something as “correct” is iffy. Correct according to who?