Photo Jorge Santiago

Love in los tiempos del Spanglish

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When I first met el Gordo – antes de que lo llamara el Gordo, cuando todavía era Jorge – we spoke puro español. He had a mop of pelo negro, casi chino, a lion’s mane embracing a sweet, round cara de inocencia. Pero en sus ojos había algo más: cunning, perhaps, the slyness that emerges when he crouches to snap photos quick and unrepenting at a distance that the gringos documenting el folklor would never attempt. El jura que sólo estaba haciendo su trabajo: siendo el manager, checking up on los clientes to be sure they were getting good service, they were satisfied. The fact that I was una rubia, más guapa en ese entonces, y sola, studying Spanish at a table for two – such classic and easy prey, which makes me almost want to believe him, since he was never a gringa-hunter and abhors cliche – no tenía nada que ver, insiste. Nada que ver.

“¿Qué estás estudiando?” Me preguntó.

But I wasn’t studying – Ya hablaba español; lo aprendí en Quito, where I went when I was twenty-two and just out of college to learn Spanish and travel until the money ran out. The bastard, como presume que todas las gringas son igualitas estudiantes de es-pan-yol. But just as he took me as the wide-eyed student, yo lo vi como conquistador de güeritas, even with his pelo loco, his aire de sinceridad, that later I would learn makes it impossible to stay angry at him for long. We had a brief conversation, and went our separate ways. It wasn’t until weeks later, cuando compartimos una caguama de Victoria en mi terraza, la ciudad de Oaxaca brillando morada y dorada a nuestros pies, that our connection clicked into place. Tal vez todas las tardes sipping aguardiente with down-and-out artists in Bogotá, todos los viajes en buses de segunda clase with Peruvian farmers, apuntaba a este momento. El español era el escenario de nuestra relación. He insists that my accent was not good, que hablaba un español de la calle, crudo and strung together haphazardly like shells on a homemade necklace. But I embraced Spanish more wholeheartedly than I do now; tomaba en serio mi pronunciación, mientras que ahora I sprinkle English constantly into the conversation. Out of laziness, or acceptance que mi parte gringa no va a desaparecer. Que ella, también, quiere ser reconocida.

Jorge, mientras tanto, no tiene ese deseo del viajero estadounidense de transformarse totalmente en otro. Without fully accepting it, he clings to the natural ripples and waves of his lengua materna. His English – en ese momento que lo conocí y todavía, ahora – is the classic accented English del Latin Lover: the stress is always in the wrong spot, the incorrect intonation lifts the word up like a hill under a country road and gives it an unnatural buoyancy. Taylay-vish-ion, he says, the swoop of a tummy-twisting bump right there in the middle, taking gringos off guard. Tell-a-vij-un, I try to correct, my version like a chugging train, but it seems spirit-crushing and I give up. Saray-AL! he says, for cereal, that most Midwestern of words: see-ree-ul, like a nasal secretion. Americans wrinkle their noses and say, “What?” and he tries again, Saray-AL? Como Raisin Bran? “Ah! See-ree-ul!”

Jorge has heard tell-a-vij-un enough times now en tres años en los Estados Unidos para poder repetirla; aprendió inglés super-rápido, and es muy bueno con los idiomas, pero a part of him resists. He wants people to ask, “Where are you from?” And he says, Mexico, in the gringo way, but with a certain unshakeable orgullo that says, ese es mi país, eso es mi origen, y voy a pronunciar camera con tres syllables por que así suena bonito, forget the bulky flat assimilation of cam-ra.

And I think a part of me would be sad, would feel concerned about the loss of a certain important boundary in our relationship, if he finally mastered the short “i” sound so that he took the wind out of the sails of keeesss and feeeesh and treeep. We’d kiss and go on trips, travel by ship instead of sheep, and something would be lost, as something is always lost in relationships when one person dissolves too much into the other. Igual si yo no hablara nada más que español, si no tuviera esta parte de mi muy fuerte en inglés, the part that says “What the fuck” and not “Qué pendejada!” when I’m truly pissed off and the part that makes him say, sometimes, después de enojarme mucho, “I love you angry.” Bueno, esa no es mi única parte en inglés, pero es una parte importante y una que ayuda a prevenir cierto tipo de flirty one-dimensional inocencia que puedo tener en español; no matter how many years I speak it, no matter how much dirty street slang I use, I still come off a shade more romantic, a shade gentler, a shade softer than my English self in Spanish. “Sarita, no te reconocí,” said my friend Fausto the first time he heard me answer the phone in English. I tried to re-listen to the sound of my own voice: “Hey, what’s up? Yeah, sure, that sounds awesome, see you at eight,” y no matter the innocuousness of the exchange I realized I must sound like a general in comparison to the constant appeasing and cheery upswing of my Spanish sentences: “¿vamos por micheladas al Comala? ¡Órale!” Jorge’s long-voweled tranquilidad, my declarative intonation, son características tan culturales como lingüísticas y personales: if either of us were to bleed too much into the other’s language we would lose a dimension of ourselves.

Pero hay que negociar: no es posible, creo, para gente de dos culturas y dos idiomas diferentes existir en un solo lenguaje. A lo mejor pasa, but in our case I think eventually one of us would have begun to feel oppressed, minimized: our personalities are, after all, formed and encased in language, and they lose contours and profundidad in translation. When I met Jorge, era yo, pero era yo en español. Soy Sarah, Sarita. Bailamos salsa por la medianoche en la calle de Crespo, como una película romántica but not cheesy because it was in Spanish, the moment as well as the conversation as well as the two of us. And especially yo. We existed in Spanish, nosotros, yo existí en español, yo, not me. Escuchamos a Bebe, la cantante española con voz de grava y plumas, “El aire se respira…” y yo era más espontanea, más leve, removed from the context of a childhood in suburban Columbus Ohio and a solid college education and the need to assert a sort of liberal-arts-precociousness over pitchers of Bell’s Two-Hearted in dark wooden bars. Relationships always recreate us, allow us to reinvent ourselves and to see ourselves anew, but in another idioma el proceso es mas cabrón, nos permite salir de nuestros roles predecibles y de las categorías que nos definen al instante en nuestros países: Midwestern, leftie, academic, traveler. No son tan importantes en español, donde soy gringa, viajera, sobre todo. There is so much room to be this new person, Sar-ah, Sarita, who in many ways exists purely en el momento, un mito, como todos somos mitos cuando nos enamoramos: mitos a nuestros mismos, mitos al otro. Idealized visions of ourselves, of our best momentary qualities, without all the assumptions and shadows of our pasts: existimos como pura invención.

Walking home at 4 a.m. from the Central, borrachos, practicing the conditional: “Si no hubiera llovido habríamos ido al parque.” El mundo, anew, para los dos. La flaca, la rubia, in the culture and the language but just out enough to be different, to be excused certain things, to not carry all the cultural weight de una mujer mexicana. Sarah a la mexicana. Las referencias culturales de Jorge, mientras – que es de la Sierra, que estudió aquí y trabajó allá, were all new for me, lacking the depth of context que me permitirá asignarle una cierta categoría predestinada. Our pasts meant little to each other beyond the broad sweeping categories of Mexican, American, rural, suburban, de este lado o del otro.

Pero the flip side is that in esa reinvención lingüística, ese lack of cultural signifiers – Columbus and Guelatao meant nothing to either of us at first, had no cultural ring – we lacked dimension. Yo, Sarah a la mexicana, was not also Sar-ah. Strong, sarcastic, a writer. It’s as if the Spanish dilutes or alters the meaning of certain core characteristics. These have to, can only be realized, in English. I am a writer, yo soy escritora: no significan lo mismo. The former is truer and speaks to more than the latter. Jorge in English is not el orgullo de Guelatao, as his friends call him: a prodigy, a wry artist, witty and quick-talking. He is stiffer, quieter, more serious, with dorky Dad humor. His spontaneous natural warmth in Spanish hardens a bit, just as my hardness in English, mi voz y aspecto en general, softens in Spanish and seems looser and freer. But these qualities don’t disappear; they’re just not expressed, y eventualmente si no se puede expresarlos, explotan, I become entirely hard and he entirely soft, me totally serious and him a total jokester, and we back into our respective cultural corners.

In any deepening relationship nuevos sides aparecen en las dos personas: secrets, profundidades, fears, ugliness, anger, celosidad, modes of behavior. This is inevitable and necessary: the progressive acceptance or negotiation of these revealed qualities determines whether the relationship will succeed or not. But in only one language, one person is denied la capacidad de revelar todo: una persona se queda estática. Yo, en español, or Jorge, in English. Yo creo que Jorge nunca entendió eso en México, lo que es vivir todo el tiempo en otra idioma; we had met in Spanish, fallen in love in Spanish, and he took it for granted que eso era yo, pero no era, no totalmente.

Cuando nos mudamos a los Estados Unidos en agosto de 2010, he saw. He understood. It took maybe one, two months, saliendo a bares con americanos y yendo a MFA readings en la universidad: he felt the rug of himself pulled out from under him and él mismo marooned in this contextless land of inglés. ¿Quién era? We spoke nothing but English, a rule he instituted in order to become fluent and adapt. Our relationship seemed utterly foreign. I was excessively voluble; he, simple and stiff. Our conversations might have been those at the beginning of an arranged marriage, lacking all spontaneity and warmth: “This Indian food is amazing, isn’t it?” “Oh yes, so spicy.” “The humidity is terrible.” “I know, so hot.” Agonizing. Forced, as if each person is standing several feet outside of his or her true self and can’t find a way back in. ¿Cómo vamos a sobrevivir?, I thought, in ¿inglés? ¿Aquí? Pero we have to. There was no way out; I couldn’t exist forever as Sarita, he had to know Sarah. He also had to know what it meant to be Jorge en los Estados Unidos, what it meant to lack history and depth in social contexts and to exist solamente en el momento, de puras características personales: inteligencia, calor, humor, responsiveness. He had to know what it meant to exist without signifiers other than Mexicanness; without all the markers of status and self-definition que se entiende instintivamente in one’s own culture. No one here could picture Guelatao, or what it meant to have worked at the Centro Fotográfico, como nadie en Oaxaca entendió lo que significaba entrar en un M.F.A., trying to make it como escritora en los Estados Unidos. He had to fight that void, know it, accept it, and reinvent himself within it como yo lo hice, o lo intenté hacer, en México, hasta que el ingles también corría por sus venas, complicaba su personalidad, como el español did for me, yo, Sarah.

Now he will give soliloquies in English. He will pontificate in a way only Americans can pontificate, with an assertiveness, a definitiveness I would not have recognized in him years ago. Now he says, “What the fuck,” y cuándo lo dice me da miedo. Habla como gangster de una película, toda su cara cambia, he’s learned this American anger. But also become more confident, more solid, less constantemente juguetona y less of a dreamy artista, complaciente en su rol en su ciudad. He has had to let go of all the easy givens of quién era and to photograph winter trees on my parents’ farm, mandar a gringos to stand in a straight line please with the grandparents in the front at las bodas americanas from which he now makes his living. He takes more risks. I think he has more hunger, and understands my hunger for wider experience. A veces cuando quiere expresar algo muy profundo lo hace en inglés, just like I sometimes will only share my most personal fears in Spanish, cada uno está concediendo algo por el otro, cada uno wants to be sure the other one really understands in all the resonances of su propio idioma. Like a plea, es importante, entonces voy a decírtelo como tu lo entiendes deepest and best.

Ahora hablamos una mezcla de idiomas: “Vas a sacar los doggies por los woods o los pastures?” o “I was manejando el otra día y el pinche tire came right off!” It is a third terrain, like the oceans stretching between continents on old maps, filled with hybrid, mutant, hand-drawn creatures. There we swim. El Espanglish, el territorio multi-lingüístico, multi-cultural, de saray-AL. Each of us have been fortunate to reinvent ourselves in another language, like being given another shot at sketching ourselves from the ground up: here, try again, esta vez en español, this time in English. Tenemos mundos y idiomas into which we can retreat to reinvent ourselves, to revisit parts of ourselves we want to feel again as salient. Yo quiero ese lightness of Spanish, ese little-girlishness I never get in English; Jorge quiere el machismo que, irónicamente, nunca tiene en español but that comes out with that downward well-son-that’s-how-it-is cowboy talk of English.

But still, at the very core of things, we are who we were in the very beginning: the gringa, the mexicano con pelo loco, we are each of us always inevitably entrenched in the cultural-linguistic selves of our first meeting. And we like this, the way it keeps each of us always a touch exotic to the other, the way we will always have worlds that are ours: el inglés siempre será mío, y el español will always belong to him. También las tlayudas, también las noches de Oaxaca, whereas sledding, whereas driving with the windows down across the plains, are mine. Siempre, however, I love you is in Spanish. Te amo, desde el principio, y hasta el fin.






  • mexicoretold says:

    This absolutely the most vivid, beautiful and real expression of what it is like to exist across cultures and love across language and culture too. Thank you Sarah, this made my day and I know so many people who will relate to this entirely.

  • This is fantastic, I’m a linguist interesed in how the spanish has taken force and it’s not only “pochear”. Thanks for sharing!

  • Love love love this!!! Add some Flemish to the Espanglish and you could be talking about me ;)

  • Megdalyn says:

    This was lovely, I went to Guatemala a few years ago to find new ways to exist by learning a new language and this resonated deeply. Thank you.

  • Something to be savoured… Even though I don’t speak Spanish I was captivated by this piece!

  • James says:

    Sarah, it has been a long time since I have read something as compelling and captivating as this. Several years ago I spent nine months in Salamanca, Spain, como estudiante, and I can completely relate to this muddled mundo de Espanglish.

    One of my closest flatmates, a straight-talking (y rubia) canadiense who also peppered her sentences with “what the fuck!”, had a voice so similar to yours it is uncanny. Her manner of speaking was the same, down to the way she pronounced “Jorge”, and for a few months she also had a relationship with a Mexicano. His name was Alfredo, from Guadalajara, and he was the kind of person who would dance all night and then dutifully attend Sunday mass, even if he was half-drunk.

    And it is so true that we take on a different personality when we speak in another language. In Spain, cuando hablaba español, I became a more confident, more expressive version of myself; I learned the Bachata and struck up friendships on the dance floor. To this day I still swear in Spanish – it seems much easier to say “no me jodas!” and “mierda!” than their English equivalents.

  • Wow, Sarah. As a fellow young American woman who has been living in a spanish speaking country (Spain) for the past three years and who also found love abroad, this spoke straight to my soul. You’ve beautifully expressed thoughts I have never been able to articulate and I’m longing for the day when my novio’s inglés is good enough to understand the other half of this beautiful essay.

    For me, the irony of this essay is that the people with whom I most want to share it can’t understand it because they aren’t fluent in both languages, and those who can understand the essay probably also understand and have experienced the same feelings you’ve expressed.

    Anyway, thank you for giving me the best kind of chills.

  • thefolia says:

    Viva la second language…viva la amor! Your effort is amazing and reminds me of my relentlessness to master another language when I was your age. The photo is breathtaking!

  • Sarah, thank you for this. I lived in Mexico in my 20’s and fell in love and married a Mexican man who came to the U.S. with me when I returned. You described my experience beautifully. Something I have never put into words. I wish I could share this with so many people who are important to me. But without speaking Spanish, the piece would be lost on them.

  • Ana Maria says:

    I love this! I’m a panamanian who lived for a year in Massachusetts 10 years ago. Didn’t fall in love but loved many ‘gringos’ and ‘gringas’ and this story spoke to me, deeply! Thank you!

  • Erik R. says:

    This is fantastic. -American in love with Spaniard

  • I had never been a big supporter of spanglish, having always heard that spanish mexicans speak when thy live in the US and pretend to forget their country, or just always associating it with something negative. I had never seen the beauty and furthermost the need to express yourself in both languages until I fell for an American during my exchange semester in Munich; and though we lived in english, laughed in english, loved in english… a part of me was missing, the one that only comes in spanish, the one that does’t want to say “I really like you or I care for you” when the best word to describe my feelings was “Te quiero.”

    Your essay is beautiful and honest, and gets to you all of us bilinguals in a very personal way I’m sure. Felicidades, y te seguiré leyendo! :) Si tienes tiempo, I decide to make a blog myself, y en inglés para variar.


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