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Artists, musicians, philosophers, and especially politicians have tried in vain to identify one element—other than the shared Spanish tongue—that would bind all Latino groups into a cultural fellowship capable of rendering us all “one.” Ed Morales, an intrepid self-described “sociocultural critic,” is the latest to take up the challenge.
A knowledgeable and reader-friendly journeyman, Morales offers a spin-worthy alternative to Latino with Spanglish. He defines the term from varying vantage points: Politically, “Spanglish is about not having to identify with either black or white, while at the same time having the capacity to ‘be’ both”; linguistically, “Spanglish is Spanish adapting the crazy rhythms of English, and English inheriting the multicultural content of Latin America.” Morales also offers an example of how his idea applies culturally: “Spanglish happens when you go see a bossa nova or a jazz quintet and you don’t notice that half the band is black and the other half is white, or brown, or Asian.” But he seems ambivalent about any concrete definition. Is it a world in which race is not much noticed, or a world of immigrants living between Spanish and English? In the end, he tries to make it suit both so as to maintain Latinos’ claim to the term.
Morales’s political analysis of Spanglish identity won’t surprise anyone. He writes, “Spanglish was born as a result of the emigration of Latin American people to North America, which naturally flowed from the penetration of the south by the north.” Later on, he declares that “North Americans unapologetically raped the New World,” and seems to suggest that those of us who can be considered Spanglish are the bastard children of the corporate rape of Latin America by the U.S. Most of us already understand that the economic pillaging and political intervention by the U.S. have triggered immigration from the south.
Morales seems ill at ease in the no-man’s-land inhabited by Spanglish people, “hybrid border-crossers who can’t be at home in the U.S. nor in Latin America,” and he wants company. He wants Latinos to “become a harmonious social and political force.” Yet he also stigmatizes the recent immigrant with a class-based stereotype by inviting the reader to learn more about the development of Spanglish from “anyone working as a busboy at your favorite restaurant or stockboy at your local greengrocer, or the guy who delivers your take-out vegetarian ramen.” In doing so, he reveals that he is aiming this book at non-Latino readers who have had little contact with the Spanglish world he describes.
It almost seems as if Morales is trying to write and explain himself into existence by creating Spanglish for a non-Spanglish world. And his introduction often dissolves into sound-bite fodder; at one point he twists a familiar Spanish phrase to make the book an invitation to non-Latinos who want to be down with Latino style. His offer: “Mi raza es tu raza.” Ultimately, Living in Spanglish makes a case for an inevitable cultural homogeneity that serves more to simplify our multifarious realities than to galvanize the masses. And by informing us that “Latinos in the U.S. are sharply divided,” Morales makes the mistake of not seeing each group placed under the rubric of “Latino” as rightfully claiming its own identity and agenda. Colombians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, and Nicaraguans have different priorities (and obstacles) that determine their cultural, social, and political participation in the U.S. In fact, Latinos as a group are so stratified that a diversity of opinion exists even among folks of Mexican descent.
Morales also opens up the definition of Spanglish as not a language but a state of being; one must claim it and work toward it as he did: “I began a long struggle to understand the necessity of creating my new Spanglish identity.” This notion is contradictory and problematic. First of all, if becoming Spanglish is a contemplative process that requires one’s willingness to self-analyze (and thereby self-actualize), then it doesn’t merely happen at bossa nova performances or through inspired acting. Second, such intellectual enterprises require leisure time and material comfort. Consequently, the underpaid and overworked busboy, stockboy, and deliveryman are excluded from becoming Spanglish. Ironically, they’re the ones creating the next generation of the so-called “Spanglish” by living somewhere between “here” (the U.S.) and “there” (their country of origin).
The premise of Living in Spanglish lacks fundamental transferability. The idea that the Americas are moving toward a single identity—and that we should look forward to such hemispheric synergy—is not easily applicable outside popular culture. A casual observer can understand the influence of American rock and roll on Mexican alternative music, or the inspiration Caribbean poets might draw from Richard Wright or Sonia Sánchez, but it becomes rather difficult to imagine North, Central, and South America (including the anglophone and francophone Caribbean) evolving into a homogeneous Spanglish society.
Living in Spanglish works best as a history of the cultural and political contributions of Latinos. Chapter one has the most thoughtful, enlightening, and sometimes empowering historical portion of the book. And throughout, everyone from César Chávez and the Young Lords to Carmen Miranda and Jennifer Lopez gets reclaimed as part of the centuries-old Spanglish legacy of Latinos on and off the U.S. mainland.