I watched the season premiere of "Law & Order SVU," and I was excited to see that it covered a topic I've reported on for the last year — sex trafficking of women in Mexico — and that a very rich cast of Latino actors were featured on the show. But man, that good feeling stopped almost as soon as I heard them speak.
The Spanish and Spanglish used in the show was embarrassing. When it comes to Latinos on the screen, Hollywood keeps missing the mark on the way we speak.
One of the "SVU" story lines focused on a young Mexican prostitute who has been trafficked to the U.S. a year or two ago. Somehow, she speaks fantastic English, just with an accent, to the NYPD detective during a long interrogation. After that, she spontaneously starts talking in very dramatic Spanish to a non-Latina detective she just met.
As someone who regularly speaks English, Spanish and Spanglish (that mix of English and Spanish), this made no sense. For American Latinos, there are certain unspoken rules about what language you speak, and to whom. I know if I ever speak to my parents (native Argentines) in Spanglish, I will get immediately corrected with the word I'm looking for — but can't remember — in Spanish. And if I ever speak to my mom in English — well, I don't do that (she pretends she can't hear me over the phone.)
I'm not alone. Other NPR listeners have chimed in on how they navigated the family politics of language. Twitter user Yvonne Hennessy wrote: "Abuelitos [grandparents] = Spanish. Nuclear family & primos [cousins]= Spanglish or English.
Gisela Castanon wrote in to say, "My parents were from Mexico & both were bilingual in Spanish and English... the rule was cuando te hable en español me contestas en español, y cuando te hable en inglés,e contestas en inglés. When I talk to you in Spanish, you reply in Spanish, and when I talk to you in English, you reply in English."
Listener Marly Perez wrote, "I speak Spanglish with my sister, but not with my relatives. It's Spanish only. They don't get annoyed if I do — they just call me out on it."
If you're a Spanglish speaker, it's not just your family calling you out. Anti-immigration activists in the U.S. are also fervent critics. They point to Spanglish as a symbol of everything that's wrong with Latino immigration. Look! They aren't assimilating! Hispanic invasion! Destruction of the English language! Gah! Interestingly, that distaste is shared by plenty of Latin Americans, who wrinkle their noses at the mere mention of "Spanglish."
As a South American myself, I've heard plenty of snide inside jokes about "those" Latinos in the U.S. who don't fully master the Spanish. In certain circles, Spanglish is seen as a "contamination" of the Spanish language. A few years back, the Spanish Royal Academy created a small controversy when it inducted the word "Spanglish" into its dictionary, but defined it as "deformed elements of vocabulary and grammar from both Spanish and English." Ouch.
But for some Latin cultures, losing Spanglish would also mean losing their identity. Listener Paola Capó-García wrote, "it's definitely a part of everyday living in Puerto Rico, not just the US Latino experience....I think we're taught to think Spanglish is a failure, that it's 'imperialist' or that it's 'uneducated' or 'unattractive,' but I've come to accept/appreciate it...I like the hodgepodge."
I like the hodgepodge too, but only when it's done right. Too many U.S. movies and television shows get it wrong, even when they pride themselves in being authentic. Many people singled out the show Breaking Bad, and the character Gustavo "Gus" Fring, for falling flat on language. Tamara Vallejos writes, "Gus' Spanish and accent were so painful to listen to, and it made me super angry that such a pivotal and fantastic character would have such a giant, noticeable, nails-on-a-chalkboard flaw."
I will say there are examples of Hollywood doing it right. The film Chef is a great example. The film stars Sofia Vergara, but with a script that doesn't force her to overdo her accent or screech her way through the boisterous Latina stereotype (which is how many of us see her in her Modern Family). In the film, she isn't playing a Latina stereotype. She's playing a concerned mom who happens to be Latina. The Spanish and Spanglish happens when it's supposed to, and it just flows very naturally.
This is the way it's supposed to be, and it's the way it could be. There are over 50 million Latinos in America, and surely scriptwriters can find one of us to check the script with.
Until then, I have this thought: Here's a word I love in the Spanish language: ningunear. It's a verb that comes from the noun ningun, or "none." It literally means to turn someone into nothing, to condescend. Dear Hollywood: stop with the ninguneo.