Sunday, July 31, 2005

¡Viva el Beisbol! And Hurray for the Little League!

I love Spanish, and I love baseball.

In my last post, I talked about two different "worlds" converging, when my Spanish-language-and-culture passion sometimes crosses paths with my non-Latino daily life. But here are two things that are easy to combine! Over 25% of our major league players are Spanish-speaking. And not only is baseball popular in many Latin American and Caribbean countries, but many of our English-speaking players play in the Venezuelan and other Latin American leagues during the off-season.

I always teach a unit on Latinos in baseball to my classes -- what countries do our Spanish-speaking players come from, which teams have the most (and the least!) Latino players, why do the kids think baseball is more popular in some Latin American countries than others (this is a good geography and history lesson!). The kids pick a player and make a baseball card with his stats, and draw the flag of his country.

It's a natural match: kids, Spanish, and baseball. So much so, that this week I'm planning to film the Spanish-speaking players of our local minor league team, the New Jersey Jackals, for my first Chispa video!

So today I learn that a Little League umpire in Massachusetts prohibited a coach from speaking in Spanish to his team, made up of young Dominican players. In a country still full of "English Only" sentiment, I can't say I'm surprised. What did pleasantly surprise me, though, was the reaction of the Little League International organization. They said there was no such basis for that ruling, and the umpire was dismissed.

¡Viva el béisbol! And ¡viva el Little League!

Here's the full story, from Reuters:

Fri Jul 29, 2005 6:39 PM ET

Umpire reprimanded by Little League

BOSTON (Reuters) - An umpire who ordered a Little League baseball team to stop speaking Spanish during a game this week was barred from officiating any more games this year, league officials said on Friday.

The incident occurred when a bilingual assistant coach shouted out instructions in Spanish to the team's 14-year-old pitcher and catcher, who are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and speak little English, the Eagle-Tribune newspaper reported.

The umpire, whose name has been withheld, then ordered the team to speak only English.

The coach of a Methuen, Massachusetts-based Little League squad said the umpire's ruling banning the use of Spanish on the field demoralized his team and ultimately contributed to its loss in a state tournament game, according to the newspaper report.

Lance Van Auken, a spokesman for Little League International, said in a statement, "The umpire made an incorrect decision, for which there was no basis in the Rules and Regulations of Little League."

As a result, Little League officials will not allow that umpire to work any more games for the remainder of the year.

© Reuters 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

El sexto sentido de los niños

It's always strange when two separate worlds converge .... for example, I never think that the documentary I'm making with two friends on everyday psychic experiences has any connection with my work on Spanish language and culture. But this week, I've had two of those everyday psychic experiences with my son, and both were related to Spanish.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the gender of inanimate objects; my first sentence was, "What makes a table feminine and a tree masculine?" Then the other day, I sat down in a pizzeria with my two sons, and the first thing the younger one said was, "Why is the word for table feminine in Spanish?" I said, "Have you been reading my blog?", and he replied, "What blog?" He had no idea what I was talking about, and I couldn't figure out how he came out with that, when I know I didn't mention it to him.

What followed then was a very funny conversation about why things are masculine or feminine in Spanish -- my middle son said, "'Table' is feminine because all the men are standing at the bar. And 'napkin' is feminine, because men just use their arm." But I was still surprised that the topic had come up.

Then, yesterday I was thinking about writing a post on how I regret not having spoken Spanish to my kids (and I still don't speak to them directly in Spanish, although are surrounded by it all the time, between my friends, my music, and my telenovelas). I actually stopped speaking Spanish at all for ten years, after having my kids, for reasons that are still not totally clear to me ... although I think most of it had to do with losing a part of my self -- my Latina alter-ego -- after becoming a mother, and only reclaiming that within the last 6 or 7 years. Another part was that I'm not a native speaker, and my husband doesn't speak Spanish, both factors that made it less likely for me to speak to them in Spanish. But oh, how I wish I had. And recently I've considered starting to do it.

Then last night, at dinner, this same son said, "How come you never speak to us in Spanish?"

I'm going to have to start watching what I think! And I think I'm going to have to start speaking to my kids -- at least that one -- in Spanish.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Libros –– What I'm reading these days

Summertime – and the break from full-time teaching – has not only freed me up to work more on my creative projects; it has also unleashed the voraciously ravenous reader in me. I should have a revolving account with, since a package seems to be arriving daily from them. But it is so worthwhile ...

Here's some of what I've been devouring of late, in Spanish, English and in several cases a mix of the two:

I just reviewed Killer Crónicas: Bilingual Memories, by Susana Chávez-Silverman, for Cuerpo Magazine, so I won't write that much here except to say that I have never read anything like this book in my life. It is written in a Spanish/English mix that is incredibly fun to read (if you speak both languages -- I'm not sure what it would be like to read this and not be bilingual), but the insights go way beyond fun. It is a true journey of the soul. Read the full review in the upcoming edition of Cuerpo!

Wow, I found this book entirely thanks to el destino; I was looking for another book with "Gringolandia" in the title (recommended by a friend) and came across The Chalupa Rules: A Latino Guide to Gringolandia. Because I am a complete Lotería fanatic, and the book uses Lotería images to tell its story, I had to get it. I'm so glad I did. As I was reading the introductory chapter, I realized that the author, Mario Bósquez, is one of our local TV news anchors, whom I've watched often. All I can say is that after reading that first chapter, I will be looking at him in a completely new light. He describes his story of struggling to make it, of growing up poor, of wearing threadbare jackets on camera as he was establishing his career, of sending every spare penny back home to his family. He credits the love of his family, hard work, determination, persistence, and the wisdom he learned through age-old dichos for his success as the first full-time Chicano television anchor in New York. This is an incredibly inspirational read for adults, and I can really see it as a wonderful book for teenagers as well.

Translation Nation: Defining a New American Identity in the Spanish-Speaking United States arrived in the same shipment as The Chalupa Rules, and I started reading them both at the same time. Héctor Tobar's description of Latino lives in the U.S. traces everything from one individual's border crossing to the Latino community-building that is taking place around the country and changing the culture not only of our larger cities, but more importantly, of many smaller rural and suburban communities as well. This book sends such a positive message about how many parts of our country are not just accepting la nueva onda, but thriving and being rejuvenated through the richness and diversity of the many Latino cultures which have joined their communities. One of my favorite stories is about how the town of Dalton, Georgia handled the influx of Latino children into their schools, with the percentage going from only a handful of Latino kids a decade earlier, to 80% now. I'd like to quote more on this in a later post, but I will just note that there actually are communities that see a need like this, decide to send many of their teachers to Spanish-language classes, the principal herself will go to the very area in Mexico where most of these children come from to learn more about their cultural background, and Spanish and English are heard throughout the school, from both the children and the very Anglo – but newly bilingual – teachers. With all the bad things I keep hearing about education (and seeing some of them myself, as a teacher), this was a truly inspiring story.

The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, is a beautiful book about a young girl who has a special gift of healing and becomes an important curandera and partera in the time just before the Mexican revolution. What makes this story unique, for me, is that in addition to being beautifully written and extremely engaging, it is based on a real person – Urrea's great-aunt (his tía abuela, as I just mentioned in a previous post). Urrea's bio notes that this novel "took twenty years of travel, research and study amoung the healers to write." I'd like to read more by Luis Alberto Urrea, and I'm sure I'll be ordering more of his books soon.

OK, this one you need to speak Spanish for, but if you do, buy this book and read it. I have enjoyed Gioconda Belli's powerful poetry, and have read other books of hers, but El pergamino de la seducción is completely different. It's the story of Juana La Loca, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain. I had always heard little bits about Juana La Loca, mainly that she was indeed loca and had a very sad life. This book makes her come alive, and describes the treatment she received at the hands of her parents, her husband, her political advisors, and everyone else who was able to take away her sovereignty, her home, her freedom, her trust, and worst of all, her children, while she could do nothing to prevent it. Belli takes a great deal of poetic license, of course, but she has clearly done her historical research as well... so much so that an in-law of mine, who happens to be distantly related to Juana La Loca and up until now completely bought into the "she was really crazy" party line, may actually be changing his mind a bit now, thanks to this book. Basically, Belli notes that while Juana may indeed have been depressed or bipolar, the abuse, abandonment and imprisonment she suffered at the hands of those she loved and trusted, combined with the callous and forced separation from her children and her few real friends, were certainly enough to make any one of us end up loca.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Gender Identity in Spanish

What makes a table feminine and a tree masculine?

The many forms of the word "the" in Spanish – el, la, los, las – present a challenge for kids (and adults) learning Spanish, and not just because you have to memorize which gender each noun is and then make sure you match up the gender and number every time you refer to that noun. The very concept of inanimate objects having a gender is practically impossible for those of us who are non-native speakers to really understand.

I've always loved the discussions kids have on this subject when they first learn about it, and try to figure it out in their minds – before they can learn to just accept it. They come up with all sorts of reasons for the gender of a window, a clock, a shirt. Eventually, though, they will have to internalize it, so that it becomes natural to them.

If there is a sense behind the gender of inanimate objects, I don't know what it is. Having taken my four years of Latin, I vividly remember having to learn three genders – masculine, feminine, and neutral – but not every inanimate object was neutral. So the gender identity of nouns reaches far back into the very origins of language, with reasons probably too old for any of us to understand now, even if there originally was one.

And even that designated gender identity is not always consistent. Sometimes you can use the same word with el or la, and it will change the meaning, as in the case of el radio, the actual radio itself, and la radio, the programming that you listen to on el radio. Then there are the mixed-up el and la, as in el día and la mano. And then, of course, the variations of Spanish that cause one object to be feminine in one country and masculine in another. "Computer," for example, is feminine in Latin America – la computadora – and masculine in Spain – el ordenador. (there are a ton of chistes on this subject, actually – "Why is a computer feminine" vs. "Why is a computer masculine" – but I doubt that was the original reasoning behind how the words came into use.)

Yesterday, I came across a great passage in a book I'm reading, The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, which added a whole new nuance to the subject of gender identity:


"Whereas the North Americans," Aguirre announced, "have no gender in their language."

Aghast, Tomás let out a small puff of air.

"No 'el'?" he said. "No 'la'?"

Aguirre, quite satisfied with his latest astonishment, said: "No. They have the following word: the."

"As in tea?"

"Not té! The!"

"No male, no female?"


"C'est bizarre, mon ami!"

"Los gringos," Aguirre lamented, "are hermaphrodites."

Which begs the question – I wonder if some words in Spanish can be gay?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Family relations

Having just returned from a week in France with my extended family, I was reminded of how special the "cousin" relationship is. I have always thought that cousins are the best. They're like siblings, but without the competition. They understand you, they know the quirks of the family, and they are the best cómplices you will find anywhere!

I particularly love how the "first cousin" relationship is described in Spanish -- mi primo hermano, "my cousin-brother or brother-cousin." Somehow the words "first cousin" just don't describe how close the family relationship really is. But when you say primo hermano, the bond is clear.

It's the same with tía abuela for "great aunt." A "great aunt" sounds so far removed; it's not even clear from the words themselves what kind of relationship they actually describe. But your tía abuela, your "aunt-grandmother?" You can feel the direct bloodline and the love just in those words.

Are there any other examples of this that I'm missing? Native speakers, please fill me in ....