"Those spices . . . that beat. Latino-culture beckons. It promises
to fill the sensory vacuum of Anglo America. The frightening nothingness
inherited from Puritan england and northern Europe. In an American novel
a black character pressed by a white lover to explain how white folk
smell answers that what's unpleasant about htem is that they don't
smell. No funk. Likewise, when Latinos are pressed to explain what they
find lacking in American food and American sexual attractions, the
answer is no tiene sabor. No-sabor. Horror vacuii. Come fill
+ salsa. Salsa x 2.
Latin music and Latin food. Culture moves and expands through the same process
as demographic growth, through seduction. Hear my music, eat my food, you are
mine, you are me. Politics shakes its angry fist, theorists polemicize. Cultures
keeps on cooking. Culture just happens, and it happens most suavely when it
Taste. Sabor. Food and music must have it. Sabor--flavor--is
what Latino life is about. It is the quality of our difference. The flavor of
salsa, both the spicy dance and the spicy dip for tortilla chips. The flavor of
passion, the flavor of an everyday life that is not life if it is not highly
spiked with pleasure. Highly. Every day.
"Why does your mother cook with such little seasoning?" asks Miami
salsa star Hansel in his hit song "Americana Americana," a song
lamenting the differences between a Latino boy and an Anglo girl. ¡Que Rico!
is the phrase most heard in Spanish-language food commercials. It's also the
words most heard in Spanish-language beds. ¡Ay, que rico! Salsa means
"sauce" and mutatis mutandi it means saucy latin music. At
first it was a purely commercial term of no musical significance, invented by
record labels intent on marketing the dance grooves that had evolved from the
Cuban mambo and taken root among New York's Puerto Rican community in the 1940's
and 1050's, the era of the mambo kings. By the seventies, when this Latin dance
music really came into its own, African--American music was called not by a
specific beat or genre but by an ineffable quality: soul. Eager to cash in on a
marketable, simple word, the Latin labels came up with a somewhat more concrete
metaphor. If black music had soul, Latin music had . . . sauce! . . . salsa!
In the eighties, another Latin music genre with a culinary metaphor for a name
invaded New York: merengue, from the Dominican Republic, brought in by a massive
immigration that would only get larger. In Spanish the word meant
"meringue," and it was an appropriate term for a groove that was
frothy, rich, and, as anything from the Caribbean, filled your veins with sugar
energy. It wasn't new or exclusively Dominican; one finds merengues in the folk
music of other Latin American countries, though they sound quite different.
But Dominican merengue is the only one internationally popular for dancing, one
of the Latin classics like the Cuban rhumba, mambo, and cha-cha's. As far
back as my childhood I could remember merengues that swept the Latin American
hit parades. Particulary one superhit titled "El negrito de batey,"
with lyrics like "I like to dance sideways / dance good and tight / with a
very yummy Negress."
I have deliberately translated the lyrics as literally as possible to underscore
certain cultural attitudes. One is a casualness toward race. The word negrito
in the title means something like "little black boy." Words like
negrito and negrita are used among some Latinos with the same nonchalance as
"nigger" in the street talk of African Americans. Except that it lacks
the ugly violence of American racial language; in fact, negro, negra,
the gentler diminituves negrito and negrita, and the humorously
sexy augmentatives negron and negrona are common terms of
endearment in the Spanish Caribbean, used by black and white folk alike to
address loved ones of either race.
But what about the "negra bien sabrosa," the yummy Negress the
singer wants to dance the sideways step of the merengue, holding her good and
tight? We have entered that curious chamber of the Latin house: the
bedroom/kitchen, where sex and food fuse in an insouciant synaesthesia. Comer,
"to eat," is the verb of choice ins ome Spanish-speaking countries for
sexual intercourse; not oral sex, as in colloquial English, just sex. Quiero
comerte, I want to eat (fuck) you--you're good enough to eat--you're a negra
bien sabrosa--your body is flavorful--I want to taste you and in our love
the senses run into one another--your mouth--my mouth--your sex--our flavors--¡Ay
A Dominican lady, twice burned in the fires of matrimony, told me recently that
if she had known years ago what she knows now, the first thing she would have
asked a man is "Do you like platanos?" A man who doesn't like platanos,
she has learned the hard way, is quirky and untrustworthy. One who does is a
regular guy. Not perfect, but regular. A Latino mensch.
To love platanos is to be a good old boy, since they are the
quintessential criollo food. When a Spaniard goes native in the
Caribbean, he is said to be aplatanado--all plantained up. Though platanos
is another name for bananas, we're talking plantains, bananas' tougher, bigger
cousins, always served cooked and seldom for dessert. Plantains can be a full
main course when stuffed with aa spicy ground-beef picadillo mixture. Or
they can be chopped into Caribbean stews, along with cassava, peppers, and corn.
Mashed with vegetables and meats, they are shaped into the tamalelike dish
Puerto Ricans call pasteles and South Americans huayacatas. They
can be sliced paper-thin and friend like potato chips.
Treasonous as it may sound to my compatriots--and to my Dominican lady friend--I
have never loved ripe platanos. Ny mother's cooking was more Spanish than
criollo and my taste buds are not sufficiently aplatanado. The
cloying sweetness of fried ripe plantains insinuates itself on my tongue like
corruption. Still, most Cubans die for that taste. To experience the difference
between Spanish and criollo food, try a basic tortilla española,
an austere dish of eggs, potatoes, onions, olive oil, and salt. The sample a tortilla
de platanos, which uses ripe platanos, which uses ripe plantains
instead of potatoes. Can you just taste how all the Spanish austerity is seduced
by the platanos?
Latin food, latin music. I walk the full length of Miami's massive Latino street
party, Calle Ocho, named after the center strip of Little Havana, S.W. 8th
Street. As I emerge my ears are ringing with clanging cowbells, slapped drums,
rasping gourds, blaring trumpets, and the aggresively nasal come-ons of feisty soneros.
My skin is covered with a thick layer of garlic-scented pork fat from hundreds
of steaming Cuban sandwiches. I am so saturated in sabor that I need to
switch on the Evianwater-flavored jazz-fusion station on the car radio in order
But I go back for more. The nearest Latino restaurant to my midtown Manhattan
office is almost a mile away. There are days when I just have to walk it. On a
visit to San Antonio I can't resist ordering a side bowl of menudo to my
breakfast of huevos con carne seca. More flour tortillas, senora, please.
And when a conjunto accordion beings to moan, I just want to feel this way
forever. Virgen de Guadalupe, if I must die in your Amerindian soil instead of
fanned by Afro-Caribbean breezes, let it be like like this, among frijoes and
chiles, acordeones y cervezas.
Cross the threshold of Latin music and food and everything changes. Your heart
expands, your soul relaxes, if you're not careful you'll break down and cry.
What is styled, camera-ready has no place here. Artifice is blatantly
artificial. Sexuality is lurid as hell. And if anything is revved up it's moist
sentimentality and Hotspur machismo, not cool attitude.
Twenty-five million Latinos in the U.S., probably more. By the year 2010, more
Latinos than African-Americans. Latino Cassandras predict that Latinos will
become the country's underclass, peons to our aging, glutted, conceited
generations of Anglo baby boomers. Latino Pollyannas predict the Hispanization
of the U.S. More likely, the future will be dialectical. There will be some of
both the bleak and the joyful. There will be serious trials. Where African
Americans provoke powerful emotions in the Anglo-American soul, deep fears and
deep guilts, Latinos provoke more disdain. Like pests. Like something that
shouldn't be there in the first place. Already, Latinos are at the bottom of any
social problems one can think of: the most destitute homeless, the
least-cared-for aged, the most-troubled war veterans, the highest school dropout
rate, not to mention Latino casualties in the gang and drug wars that ravage our
Among the findings of the Latino National Political Survey, a study of our
political attitudes undertaken by important Latino researchers, is the lack of
identification with labels like Latino and Hispanic, with each
group preffering designations like Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Mexican
American, or mexicano. The implication is that we don't bond with
each other; we are assimilating. We are not Latinos; we are almost Americans.
What could unite a light-skinned Cuban settled in a deluxe condo in Miami's Key
Biscayne and a dark-skinned Puerto Rican living in the projects of south Bronx?
Yet we have in common a Caribbean variant of Spanish. A nostalgia for the very
same landscape and climate. A shared history of nationalist struggle against
Spain and against Uncle Sam. Practically the same food (except the Puerto Rican
love of cilantro and the Cuban preference for black beans over gandules).
The same body language. The same music.
The mix of Spain and Africa (unless one subscribes, as far too many of all races
do, to fascist notions of ethnicity, one must conclude that all Cubans and all
Puerto Ricans are, culturally, mulatto).
No two Latino groups could be more different of more at odds with one another
that Mexicans and Cuban Americans: Chicanos forged their political identity in a
revolutionary civil rights struggle based on a dispossesion by Anglo-American
foes. Cuban Americans forged their political identity in a struggle against
revolutionaries that led them to the warm embrace of Anglo Americans when they
were dispossessed by leftist ideologues who think and talk suspiciously like
Chicano activists. Chicanos and Cuban Americans compete fiercely in the business
and political arenas; in the arts and academia, they are, at best, distant. Some
Chicanos hate Cuban Americans, and vice versa.
Yet they share a language lost or beleaguered. A Roman Catholic background
infused with and deconstructed by non-European belief systems. A Spanish sense
of formality and, most important, honor. An ease with the realm of the passions.
A common vocabulary of pop culture dating from the day when Cuban music invaded
Mexico and Mexican film invaded Cuba. The geographical proximity of both home
countries that has always made travel and exchange frequent and common. A
Ah, but how do you translate loss, nostalgia, honor, passion, nevermind the
flash of pop culture or the twists of the baroque into the discourse of social
science? What is the language of your tenderness, your wrath, your
lusts--Spanish or English? What us the language of your dreams? What do you feel
like or want ot be, americano or latinoamericano? When a Mexican
says pinche gringo, do you identify with the speaker or the object of the
speech? What is your desire? My questionnaire to Latinos would ask not
"What are your attitudes?" but "Where lie your passions?"
Unlike African Americans, Latinos do not share a visible sign of bonding, and
because our presence in this country is both ancestral (we were here earlier)
and recent (we just crossed the border), we are not a cohesive group. But I
believe we are seeking--we will seek--each other. A common culture binds us.
Those who fear the emergence of one more bothersome and populous minority must
feel reassured by our apparent disunity. I am here to tell you that you should
not rest easy. We are not about to dissolve into manageable microminorities. Our
currents run deep.
So what is the Hispanic heritage, or at least that part of what we inherited
from Spain, that we should be proud of? Here is my list of what's Hispanic worth
1. HONOR. If anyone wants to understand what makes Hispanics tick, they should
go read Spanish seventeenth-century honor plays--or catch them at the Spanish
Repertory Theater on East Twenty-seventh Street in New York.
In the Spanish worldview, honor is a human being's essence. Without it, you're
not even human. You're nothing. Only the honorable deserve to have rights,
never mind priveleges. In our society, where everyone is clamoring for their
rights, it might make sense to demand honor in return.
2. FORMALITY. The word formal is downright negative in modern American
society: "Oh, he's so formal." Not so in the Spanish-speaking world.
First of all, it has nothing to do with wearing a black tie. It means that you
live up to your word--that honor again--and do what must be done.
To accomplish in moderin English means to excel in order to fulfill your
personal ambitions, while cumplir in Spanish means to excel in fulfilling
your obligations to others. In Spanish, no one wants to be informal, or be
around anyone who is.
3. HEART. I never understood all that New Age blarney about "getting in
touch with your feelings." To be unfeeling has always been an aberration in
the Spanish-speaking world: typically, Spaniards attribute it to their
archenemies, the English.
Of course you feel. Of course your heart breaks. This, however, does not mean
you loosen up your formality and disregard the demands of honor. On the
contrary, the great tragedy of being alive is that one must do the right thing
and feel, to the hilt, the pain that inevitably follows.
4. HUNGER FOR THE EARTH. Death is the big no-no in American life,
the big nuisance. In traditional Spanish life, death has been a faithful
companion. From Spain's bullfights to Mexico's laughing skulls. Hispanic culture
not only accepts but celebrates death, even plays with it. In southern Spain,
wrote the poet Garcia Lorca, some people never are as alive as the day they
carried out of their houses dead.
Morbid we are, but never depressed. One reason Hispanic humor is so difficult to
translate into English is because its nearly always black humor, cruel and
terrible. However, if you swing with it, it's very funny. We're all gonna die
someday, so why take it seriously?
Hispanic tastes are deliciously morbid. Centuries before New York downtowners
imposed their fashionon the world, King Phillip I made it de rigneur to
wear all black, not only at the Spanish court but at all the great courts of
Europe, where Spanish black was aped. And Hispanic food: the passion for
reconsituted food--brought back to life--like beans and salt cod, and for ham
and sausages and cheeses dried into a state of voluptuous mummification. And
music: The pained wail of flamenco or the woeful songs of Spain's Celtic north.
In Spanish culture, death is rich with life.
5. LOVE. Spanish is a loving tongue, as the old cowboy song says. That making
love is better in Spanish is such a cultural stereotype that one should rush to
deny it. Instead, one is likely to rush to try it.
Certainly those of us who live bilingually will tell you that Spanish love songs
release feelings that are hard to express in English. I've interviewed both
Gloria Estefan and Linda Ronstadt on why they sing in Spanish when they're big
pop stars in English and, well, they just gotta do it.
So, let's let this be our finest Hispanic heritage: A language unabashed in
lovemaking. We don't have a patent on it. We got it from Spain and, like all
languages, it's there for the taking, for the talking, for the singing, for the
loving. It's yours, mi amor, mi corazon.
Which language comes most naturally to you?" a Latin American writer asked
me not long ago, "Spanish or English?" "Neither and both," I
replied. "My natural language is Spanglish." The writer, who was
fairly fluent in English, urged me to try some Spanglish on him. I couldn't. He
was not a Spanglish speaker. Only with another like myself could I speak this
yet uncodified tongue. With Spaniards and Latin Americans I use, not
without some strain, a curiously formal Spanish of uncertain origin. But with my
fellow HIspanics here in the entrails of the monster, I can relax into our nuevo
Like all languages, Spanglish comes in many different flavors and shapes.
Tex-Mex and East Harlem variants sound nothing like each other. You don't use
the Spanglish to sell dope uptown as to discuss metalinguistics at Yale. But
Spanglish, like Don Juan, has made it in the humblest cabins and the loftiest
places, east and west, all around the town, country, even the world. How does it
work? How do two languages fuse?
The most obvious mix is in vocabulary. English and Spanish words are juxtaposed.
In a business transaction you could ask ¿donde esta el invoice? That new
person you met was bien nice. Or you can take an English word and add a
Spanish suffix, as in coolear, Spanglish for to cool out, or, my
fave, hanguear for "to hang out," whence comes the word hangueadores,
the people you find in clubs night after night. That's not all. You can start a
sentence in one language, switch to the other one, then back again, and so on.
And that's el Spanglish, man, a language que es bien nice if you know how
to usarlo, ¿comprendes?
But why usarlo at all when you've got dos languages que son
perfectamente fine para expresar what you mean? Well, you might not
have the words in one language. No sooner does an immigrant arrive on these
shores than the media begins its bombardment. So, ¿como se dice Brillo pad,
Dolby sound, Miller Lite en espanol? The answer is no se dice en español, you
say it in English. There are Spanish words that have perfect equivalents in
English but lack the emotional ring, to a Hispanic American, of the words we
learned at home from la familia. Or we may use the Spanish words because of
their power of identification, a way of drawing others like ourselves into a
circle and keeping out whoever whoever doesn't share this bilingualism. This
works in two ways. Interjecting Spanish words in an English discourse proclaims
one's Latin-ness; interjecting English into Spanish proclaims one's hipness.
I'm making it sound like everyone is highly conscious of the language they use,
when, in fact, we open our mouths and words come out. We harely know what we're
saying util we've said it. It we, speakers of Spanglish, paid attention to our
discourse we might notice, to our horror, that when we switch from one language
to another we're switching worldviews, attitudes, personalities, Schizophrenia?
On the contrary, Spanglish is an emotional safety valve for the strain of
straddling two different, often antagonistic cultures. I believe the switch
comes when the pressure of one language reaches a critical level and it's
necessary to seek the shelter of the other worldview.
Some years ago, the brilliantly written bilingual sitcom Que Pasa USA? explored
these cultural and linguistic turns within a three-generation Cuban American
family. The grandparents spoke Spanish and knew only a handlful of English
words. The kids spoke English and could muster only a few phrases in
Spanish. And the parents switched constantly back and forth, mixing the two. The
funniest bits in the show came when the oldest or the youngest generation
spectrum could not understand. These outbursts were pure comic relief. Relief
from the pressure of being too Latin in an American world or too American in a
Latin family. This show, which still stands as the best TV presentation of U.S.
Hispanics, was written in Spanglish, a clever, fresh, deliberate Spanglish.
Though is touched bilingual Hispanics in a particular way, it could be
appreicated by anyone. And it proved that Spanglish was a viable language.
Not everyone finds the phenomenon charming, however. The reaction against
bilingual education reflects a fear among Anglo-Americans that their linguistic
heritage is being eroded. And that's nothing compared to the concerns that
English-Spanish fusion has raised on the other side of the Atlantic. Spaniards,
who have seen their language gradually submit to the English invasion provoked
by Spain's entry into the modern world in the last few decades, are now raising
a cry of alarm as the computer revolution threatens to deform the shape of their
beautifully archaic tongue. Technotalk is rampant in Spain and there's a lively
debate over what to do about it.
Some of the smartest Spanish writers on the subject have pointed out something
that should be obvious if one knows linguisitics but can be easily overlooked.
Language, as the semioticians explain it, works along two axes of signification,
two ways of meaning--vocabulary and syntax. A U.S. Latino and a Spanish
technocrat will mix Spanish and English words, but, most significantly, they
will also arange the words of one tongue, the new technology has meant that the
lovely curves of Spanish result is an awkward Castilian that would make the
great writers of the Spanish Baroque spring from their graves, sword in hand, to
punish the offenders.
But if this is true for anglicized Castilian, it must also be the case for our
homegrown Spanglish. I know so from my own experience. I can tell a U.S.
Hispanic from a Latin American by the former's awkward syntax in Spanish, an English
syntax. My own Spanish is the same, though thanks to the good fortune of higher
education and a lifetime of reading Spanish literature, I compensate by adding
rococo flourishes to my español. It works the other way too, as my
editors well know. I bend and twist English in unnatural ways. Editing my copy
requires a hot iron and a firm hand. Editing as conk job.
Therefore, if the massive Hispanic immigration has some influence on the
American language, this will be more than just Spanish words entering English,
like the hoosegow, calaboose, and desperado of the Old West. Look
for exuberant shapes missing from the Queen's English since the Elizabethan era.
Look for hyperbatons, redundancies, excess. Look for the death of economy,
pithiness, terseness. Look for rhetoric. Look for a new language that will sound
like a concierto barroco. Look for too much. More es mas.
Those spices . . . that beat. Latino-culture beckons. It promises to fill the
sensory vacuum of Anglo America. The frightening nothingness inherited from
Puritan england and northern Europe. In an American novel a black character
pressed by a white lover to explain how white folk smell answers that what's
unpleasant about htem is that they don't smell. No funk. Likewise, when Latinos
are pressed to explain what they find lacking in American food and American
sexual attractions, the answer is no tiene sabor. No-sabor. Horror
vacuii. Come fill me.
How does sabor/seduction work? In that gorgeous morality play, John
Ford's The Searchers. the John Wayne character relentlessly pursues his
kidnapped niece in hope of catching up with her and her Indian abductors before
she comes of age, before she can be tainted by miscegenation, before she becomes
a mother of a mestizo, a mother of an hijo de le chingada. After a
good long time his search is more of a reflex than an obsession. And somewhere
in la frontera, the searcher relaxes. His clothes are loose, his drink is
Mexican, his body language Latino. Of course, it is at that very precise moment
of his mestizaje-through assimilation that he finds his niece: ripe y bien
chingada. But it's too late for righteousness. The Puritan knight who began
the search has yielded to the seduction of the Other. Is the Other. As was the
Duke himself, that Latinophile, tequila head, mestiza lover. The searcher
has found himself.
from "Currents from the Dancing River"
Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry
edited by Ray Gonzalez