Where it's hip to speak Spanglish

Far from being an ugly duckling, New York's third language is efficient, alluring and often funny

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It is Thursday night at the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe and Aladdin, a stand-up comic, is picking on the white guy in the third row who has four attractive girls in tow and a cocky air. "Hey, you, down there, Larry Flynt," he jibes, evoking the infamous publisher of Hustler. "You are a regular papi chulo." The line is a good one because the punters instantly erupt. But Larry's face is all confusion. Pardon?

Seeing that a good half of his audience are Hispanics, Aladdin is spicing his gig with a shot of Spanish. (Papi chulo, roughly translated, is playboy.) More accurately, he is sliding into a dialect that, for the rest of us - the non-Spanish speakers in the house - is at once familiar and infuriatingly obscure.

Welcome to Spanglish, secret third language of New York for which there are no handy Berlitz dictionaries nor any professional interpreters, not even at the United Nations. Think "Franglais" to understand the principle involved - an irreverent merging of two quite different tongues - but imagine a progeny that, far from being an ugly duckling, is efficient, alluring and often funny. It is Spanish without the tongue-twisting verbs and it is English con romance and rhythm. Que brilliant! No? Si.

Aladdin is on a roll. Next he lampoons Frank Purdue, King of the American chicken breast, who, unadvisedly, stars in his own ads on Spanish-language cable TV here. (The southern-accented Mr Purdue is about as close to being Hispanic as haggis is to a Madrid ham.) "Si usted comprare mis pollos (if you buy my chickens)," mocks Aladdin, "yo becomo muy rico (I get to be jolly rich)". Up front, however, Larry is getting restless. Much more of this Spanglish and he is going to becomo mucho bored.

Spanglish - known as Tex-Mex in southern Texas and Cubonics in the Cuban enclaves of Miami - takes many forms. It can be a straightforward Spanish-English blend, where sentences can begin, say, in English and end in Spanish. But it can also be more complex, jammed with words that are themselves confections created by the collision of the two original languages. Verbs are often derived from English (maybe because they are shorter, like "becomo") but can be conjugated as if in Spanish.

"Nuyorican" is an elision meaning New York Puerto Rican. The cafe, which was founded 20 years ago as a haven for struggling Latino writers and performers, is located in Manhattan's "Loisaida" (Lower East Side).

That some kind of Spanish-English pidgin should have evolved here is not a surprise. Spanish speakers already make up 11 per cent of the US population; according to the latest census projections, one out of four Americans will be Hispanic in 2040. As millions of Hispanics arrived in America in the Fifties and Sixties - from the Caribbean and Latin America - they found themselves adrift between languages and cultures. They, and even more so their children, had to adapt. In the great melting pot, cultural identities inevitably leach into one another. So do languages.

"It is a culture clash and right there, with Spanglish, you have a metaphor for what is going on," explains Aladdin, whose own parents settled in Spanish Harlem, though they were themselves from Bangladesh. "These are the first generation Americans who have been bought up to assimilate with society around them while trying to communicate with parents born in Spanish-speaking countries."

Millie Pena, a 44-year-old who came from Cuba 30 years ago, agrees. "Even my name is Spanglish," she laughs, confessing she was christened Milagros (Miracle). "At home, with my children, we speak Spanglish all the time. I think it is partly because we speak so fast and sometimes an English word is just easier." If Ms Pena, who has a cookware business, wants her daughter to pass the kitchen mop, the full Spanish version should be: "Traeme el palo de trapear". What she will actually say is: "Traeme el mop".

No one has suggested imparting any special respectability on Spanglish by, for instance, trying to elevate it into a curriculum language in the way some black American educators tried last year to elevate so-called Ebonics as the tongue of African Americans. By contrast, as the growth of Spanglish becomes more apparent, some voices of protest are starting to make themselves heard.

The fact of Spanglish and of its popularity is recognised, however, by the commercial world. Spanglish is spoken by Hispanic television presenters and radio DJs, chanted by rap singers and liberally used by advertisers looking to penetrate the Hispanic communities. It has been the inspiration for several new glossy magazines. There is Generation n in Miami. New York has Latina.

Launched last June as a bi-monthly, Latina is aimed at young Latinos concerned with fashion, beauty and sex. "Magazine Bilingue" it says on the cover. Inside, stories are printed primarily in English with summaries in Spanish, but Spanglish abounds, especially in the headlines. "Finger paints for adultas," begins one beauty segment; another, on tanning, is tagged "Mas brown, mas bella". (More brown, more beautiful).

Christy Haubegger, Latina's 28-year-old publisher, is an unabashed fan of Spanglish and says she speaks it all the time in the magazine's offices. "People use it when they want to express emotions or just because it's fun. And it also helps Latinos to preserve their identity. It is a coping mechanism that is emblematic of the fact that we have had to bridge two cultures, two languages and two sets of values."

Ms Haubegger, who was born to a Mexican but adopted by first generation German Americans, has not escaped the wrath of the purists. They tend to be older Hispanics - first generation immigrants - for whom Spanglish is an affront. Among them also are academics such as Roberto Gonzlez Echevarra, a professor of Hispanic studies at Yale University.

Assailing Spanglish on the comment pages of the New York Times, he suggested that it "poses a grave danger to Hispanic culture and to the advancement of Hispanics in mainstream America. Those who condone and even promote it as a harmless commingling do not realise that this is hardly a relationship based on equality. Spanglish is an invasion of Spanish by English." And if Spanglish were to spread into Latin America, he warns, it would amount to "the ultimate imperialistic takeover".

But at Latina, Ms Haubegger is unrepentant. "A lot of people think that we are advocating the bastardisation of not just English, or of Spanish but of both them. We are not advocating it, we are reflecting what is out there and addressing our readers in the way they address each other." And a lot of time that is in Spanglish.

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