Wednesday, January 26, 2005

How many whats? do I have??

The ñ is one of the things that make Spanish unique from any other language. Other languages have the same sound -- we have the "ny" in "canyon" (which comes from the Spanish cañón, by the way); Italian has the "gn" as in "gnocchi," etc. But no other language has the ñ as a separate letter, something that needs its own key on the keyboard and has its own place in the alphabet and the dictionary. And it is a totally separate letter; it's not just an "'n' with a squiggly thing on top," as my students sometimes call it; it is the ñ.

The ñ is one of the things that complicates computer usage for Spanish speakers. Even though those of us with English keyboards can press some combination of keys to get an ñ, many times it comes out on the other end as a strange combination of letters, symbols and numbers, often resulting in something like the word piñata looking like this: pi//AAA2[?//ata.

The problem gets worse in web addresses, since web addresses definitely do not recognize the ñ. Spanish language websites that wish to use the word español are reduced to calling it espanol. I'm sure the Real Academia Española is cringing over that one.

Some resourceful users type in two n's together to respresent the ñ, while others resort to spelling words with the Anglicized "ny".

Nowhere is this more important than the word año which, without its ñ, becomes a word that only a proctologist should use. When I taught high school, I once took the opportunity to explain to my students that if they subsitute an ñ with a regular "n" in the word año, for example when they are asking for someone's age, they are literally asking them, "How many [parts of the body that you use to go to the bathroom...] do you have?" I'm pretty sure that one analogy was enough to get them to remember the difference – hopefully enough to make them include the "squiggly thing" the next time they write the word.

It's understandable with students who are just learning the language, but how about I just looked up Obie Bermúdez's new album, and it is listed as: "Todo el Ano." Yikes! Not what I really want in my CD player! Sorry, Amazon, I just can't bring myself to order that. I'll go buy it in my local Borders.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Mucho tilin tilin.....

Spanish expressions are so descriptive and so much fun at the same time. I often get the best ones from my friend Leslie, who spent many years living in Central America. Here is one of my current favorites:

Mucho tilín tilín, nada de paleta.

Literally, it means, "Lots of ding-a-ling, no popsickle."

I guess in English, the equivalent would be, "All talk and no action."

But in Spanish, it's not just an expression; it's practically a whole little story. You can just picture the ice cream truck coming down the street, jingling its little bell, attracting all the kids... ding-a-ling-a-ling... ding-a-ling-a-ling.... you go running after the truck and finally it stops .... all anticipation, you run up to the window with your money but...... there's no ice cream!

For my ice cream money, you just can't beat the Spanish on this one.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Lord is My Compadre

OK, this isn't Spanish, but it sure is language and culture.

An article in the Star Ledger yesterday described the Hip-Hop Mass that a local church is holding once a week. Here is the Lord's Prayer from that mass:

The Lord is all that, I need for nothing.

He allows me to chill. He keeps me from being heated and allows me to breathe easy.

He guides my life so that I can represent and give shouts out in His name.

And even though I walk through the Hood of death,

I don't back down for You have my back. The fact that You have me covered allows me to chill.

He provides me with back-up in front of my player-haters and I know that I am a baller and life will be phat. I fall back in the Lord's crib for the rest of my life.

Spanglish version, anyone?

Speaking of Spanglish – and I mean real Spanglish, not code-switching (and not the movie) – I think we are developing a pan-Latino Spanish that is spoken in the United States and that does indeed include many influences from English. And as a friend of mine once noted, if languages didn't change and develop differently in different areas, Spanish-speakers would all still be speaking Latin.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

La sombra del viento

Well, I found my Coyoacán-bought copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's La sombra del viento and decided to take a look at it before giving it to my mother. I took off the ubiquitous shrink-wrapped plastic that covers so many Latin American books (why?, I always wonder) and started to read. Within paragraphs, I was hooked. How can you not be, when in the first few pages you are taken to the mysterious and hidden Cementerio de los Libros Olvidados? I just spent most of the weekend glued to the book, ignoring laundry and lesson planning....and finished it only a few minutes ago.

It's a powerful book, beautifully written, and as good a read as Arturo Pérez-Reverte's best (El Club Dumás and La piel del tambor are my favorites). My cousin tells me that the translation in English is exquisite. So whether you read it in Spanish or in English, I highly recommend La sombra del viento. Just make sure you don't have a lot planned for the following few days.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A long shadow and a small world

Before I left for Mexico, my mother asked me to pick up a copy of La sombra del viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. She had just ordered the translation of the book in English, but wanted a copy in Spanish as well. She hadn't been able to find it in the United States, and was hoping I could find it in Mexico.

I looked all through many bookstores in Mexico City – not a hardship, since this is one of my favorite activities – including several in Coyoacán. Coyoacán is definitely a haven for bookstores and the people who love them.... Most of the bookstores had never heard of it. Some had it in their listings, but not on their shelves. One directed me to a book by another author named Ruiz, which was clearly rated X. (Wrong Ruiz, sorry!) Finally, in a bookstore in Coyoacán called El Sótano, success! I found it.

One week later, as I was looking through the Libros en español section at my local Barnes & Noble, what book do I see staring out at me from the shelf? Of course: La sombra del viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

I guess there are many lessons that can be drawn from this .... sometimes the things we are looking for far away are right under our noses ..... the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place ........ Barnes & Noble has a really good selection of libros en español.......

But the most important thing I learned is, now I know where to get a copy of the book, since I can't find the one I brought back from Mexico City!

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Bicho, Part 2

My son just noted that a Cuban entomologist should never go to Puerto Rico and say that he wants to study bugs.

(See Un Bicho Raro, below)

"It's not in Spanish, it's in South American"

First, a disclaimer: I love Spain; it's one of my favorite places in the entire world, I've had some of the most fun times of my life there, I love the people, history, culture, food, etc., and I have dear, dear friends there.

That said, I have to say that the attitude of many Spaniards towards the Spanish of Latin America is something that strikes me, and not always in a positive manner.

Whereas Latin Americans seem to realize that there are many regional variations of Spanish, all of which are "correct" in their own countries, many of the Spaniards I know seem to feel that there is only one real or correct Spanish, and that is the Spanish of the Real Academia Española.

So, according to the RAE and many of my friends from Madrid, it is wrong to use ustedes instead of vosotros when you are addressing a group of friends or family; it is wrong to use the preterite tense (¿Comiste?) instead of the present perfect (¿Has comido?) to refer to something that has happened within the past 24 hours; it is wrong to pronounce the word for "hunt" (caza) the same way you would pronounce the word for "house" (casa). I could go on.... and they most certainly do.

I'm used to this, and as I've said before, I love the heated discussions it engenders. But I still was surprised when the 14-year-old daughter of our friends from Madrid came to stay with us this summer, and went to watch the DVD of Finding Nemo on the Spanish setting. I asked her how she liked it, and she said,

"Well, I thought it was going to be in Spanish. But it wasn't in Spanish, it was in South American."

That was so fascinating to me, and I'm still thinking about it. In addition to reflecting the youthful innocence of a young teenager first coming into contact with other parts of the world, I think it also reflects the larger question of "What is Spanish." Everyone will have their own opinion on that. And every opinion will, in its own way, be correct.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Un Bicho Raro

If you are a native Spanish speaker, how you respond to the above title will depend ENTIRELY on what country you are from.

If you are Cuban, a bicho is a bug – the kind that flies through the air or scurries along the floor. You might also use un bicho raro (literally, "a strange bug") to describe someone as an odd person: El es un bicho raro; he's an odd duck.

If, however, you are Puerto Rican, you are probably shocked to see that word in print, and most likely would never use it in mixed company – because bicho in Puerto Rico means what we might politely refer to in English as a man's "manhood."

There are so many supposedly common words in Spanish that have an unprintable meaning in one Spanish-speaking country or another. The most famous example is probably coger, which in Spain and many other countries means to pick up something, or to take (as in "take a taxi, take a bus,", etc.), but in many South American countries means to have sexual relations. You can imagine the jokes throughout Latin America about Spaniards wanting to have relations with a bus.

To complicate matters even more, the word guagua means "baby" in Cuba, but it means "bus" in Panama. (I'll never understand how that happened.) So, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, coger la guagua could mean, alternately, "take the bus", "pick up the baby", or "have sexual relations with the bus." (I won't even write the last option.)

Other times you can meter la pata, or put your foot in your mouth, with seemingly simple and commonplace words are when you say papaya in certain countries (which can refer to a woman's private parts instead of the fruit), or even pájaro, which normally means bird (back to the "manhood" again)..... And don't even think of using the phrase ponerse la chaqueta in Mexico to mean "put on your jacket," even though that is the literal translation for that phrase and is, in fact, what it actually means in most countries. In Mexico, however, it refers to a solitary sexual activity. Try saying you want to do that as you're leaving a dinner party.....

Actually, the examples of potential linguistic faux pas in Spanish are even too numerous to count. One thing is certain: you will know that you have touched one of those linguistic nerves by the look on the faces of the people you're speaking to. If their eyes open wide, you see them catch their breath and briefly stifle a smile before politely continuing the conversation, you can be sure you've said something that has quite a different interpretation from what you intended.

Just consider it another lesson in how rich and diverse the Spanish language really is. There is always something new to learn, and always some surprise awaiting you.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

12 Grapes at Midnight

It's New Year's Eve. You have 12 grapes in front of you. As the clock strikes twelve, you eat a grape with each strike of the clock, making a wish on each grape as you go. Better eat fast.... and have those wishes ready!

I've often wondered if your first wish should be to not choke on the grapes....

I first learned of this tradition through my friends in Madrid about 20 years ago. In fact, Madrid seems to be the epicenter of the 12 uvas tradition, since it is the strike of midnight at the clock in Puerta del Sol that launches a mass downing of grapes throughout the country. Just as people in the United States watch the ball drop in Times Square at midnight, the Spaniards keep their TVs tuned to the clock in Puerta del Sol, to know just the right second to begin.

The history of the tradition apparently has something to do with grapegrowers in Spain having an overabundance of grapes in 1909, and starting this tradition as a way to get rid of them!

Since I had always associated this tradition with Spain, I was surprised and delighted to find a small basket of grapes on my table for a Fin de Año celebration last week in Mexico City. My friends and I were wondering how we could eat twelve grapes in about twelve seconds, and make twelve wishes at the same time! The pressure seemed immense..... so we wrote out our wishes beforehand. When the clock struck twelve, we were ready, and the grapes were a delightful way to welcome the new year.

I started to wonder how far the tradition of the twelve grapes had spread. I did an informal survey, asking students in my classes if they had ever heard of this tradition from family members or friends who are Spanish-speaking. Students who had connections with Venezuela and Colombia said that they had. My one student from Panama and several students from Puerto Rico had ever heard of it.

One day, I'd love to do a map to trace the trajectory of the 12 uvas, from Puerta del Sol to....... how far? Has anyone heard of this tradition in other countries? If so, let me know!

A Frida Moment

One of the main reasons I went to Mexico City was to make a pilgrimage to La Casa Azul in Coyoacán. I used to just admire Frida Kahlo's paintings, but the more I learned about her life, the more fascinated I became with her paintings, which are such stunning reflections of her soul and her feelings.

This week I've been taking the opportunity to tell my students about Frida. I've done this before – once on Halloween, when I dressed up as Frida Kahlo, unibrow and all – but this time I was speaking from the experience of having been in her house only the week before. (And I have to say that was a very powerful experience.)

I teach K-5, and the book I have – Frida, The Artist Who Painted Herself – is aimed at a fairly young audience. So I almost didn't read it to my 5th graders today; I thought they might find it too babyish, and I really wanted to get back to our regular lessons after such a long break. But I went ahead anyway, because she's such a great persona and a great story.

About three pages into the book, I started to read about how Frida had polio when she was six and had to stay in bed for a year. She was teased at school and called "Frida pata de palo," "peg leg." All of a sudden I remembered that one of the girls in the class has a condition that requires her to wear a brace, which makes her feel very different from the other kids. I looked over at her, and her eyes were huge. I couldn't tell if she was happy or upset; maybe this was too close to home, or perhaps embarrassing for her? As I read further, about Frida's bus accident and the fact that she had 32 operations, was in constant pain, and wore a brace or a cast for most of her life, I looked over again. Her face was flushed, but she was smiling. I have never seen her so excited or animated.

I left the text for a bit to describe how Frida would paint her casts with flowers and birds, in bright colors. One of these casts is still in Frida's house, sitting on her bed. One girl in the class asked if that wasn't "disgusting." I said no, I thought it was beautiful, and it was incredible how Frida turned her pain into something beautiful.

As soon as class was over, the girl who wears a brace came right up to me and said, "You know what's cool? She wore a brace, and I wear a brace! Look!" And she pulled her shirt up a bit to show me her brace.

I said, "Maybe you could decorate your brace the way Frida did, with paint or maybe with permanent markers. Ask your mom. Tell her you learned about Frida, and what Frida did with her casts."

She said, "I could draw pictures of all my friends!.... Oh, I know! I'll draw a picture of Frida!"

I'll be interested to know if she does decorate her brace. I hope she does. Either way, I know that of all the children I read that book to this week, she was the most inspired. I could see it in her face.

But Frida's stories touched so many other kids as well. Several students volunteered that they had family members affected with polio, including the mom of one student – she walks with difficulty, with a cane. Others related to how Frida had been teased at school for being different. And so many students had comments about why Frida would have painted things the way she did. Here are some of their comments:

"Maybe she painted herself uglier than she really was because she didn't think she was pretty."

"Maybe she painted Diego on her forehead because she was thinking about him or she missed him."

"Maybe she never smiled in her paintings because she was so sad about things that had happened in her life."

Frida continues to inspire, not just because her paintings are beautiful and mesmerizing and vibrant and at times shocking, but because we all can relate to the pain she felt, both physical and emotional, that leaps out at us from the canvas. And maybe we all can learn to turn that pain into something beautiful that will inspire others as well.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Los mismos monos en otro circo

Los mismos monos en otro circo. Same monkeys, just a different circus.

I just learned this wonderful expression on my trip last week to Mexico City. I learned so much about Mexico from my absolutely wonderful taxi driver, Rodolfo (contact the Marco Polo Hotel on calle Amberes in the Zona Rosa if you need a fabulous taxista; they can contact him for you). My friends and I had a great discussion with him about Mexican politics. The general feeling among Rodolfo and so many other people I talked to -- in several different cities and towns -- was that no matter what political party is in power or who the president is, nothing about the people's daily lives will really change. Hence, one can describe the political situation as:

Los mismos monos en otro circo. Same monkeys, just a different circus.

It was interesting to note that despite the fact that many people have complaints about the government, or are disappointed, disillusioned or dissatisfied, I did not sense the visceral divisions that have characterized US politics recently. We, too, have our monos and our circos at the top, but lately we as a population seem to be acting an awful lot like monos as well.

Monday, January 03, 2005

What's a Tertulia?

A tertulia is an informal, but regular, gathering of friends or "fellow intellectuals" to discuss issues of great import and interest to all. This could mean politics, literature, culture, whatever. These gatherings can occur in someone's home or, more likely in Spanish culture, in a public space such as a café.

I came across this great definition while searching the internet, which really gets to the heart of the spirit of the tertulia:

"¡Tertulia! When a group of individuals come together and share their ideas, talents and anecdotes in the spirit of interpreting life, when there is song and poetry and when there is wit in conversation, then we say that a ¡Tertulia! has formed."

Is a tertulia transferable to the Anglo world? Do we even have a translation for the word tertulia in English? As with so many concepts from other cultures, we can't translate it with just one word. But we can still bring the spirit and practice of the tertulia into our own lives. Schedule a regular gathering with your friends, maybe once a month, to discuss issues above and beyond your daily lives. And don't forget the music, wine, and spark of life – the chispa that makes it fun.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

¡Bienvenidos a La Tertulia!

Bienvenidos a La Tertulia -- welcome to a celebration of Spanish language and culture!

I'm a Spanish teacher, and have been in love with the language and culture of the Spanish-speaking world probably since a past life. I think my love of Spanish has much to do with the person I become when I am speaking Spanish. In Spanish, I have conversations about the soul. I experience life through poetry and music. I am animated, happy and fun. And I am fascinated by every aspect of this amazingly rich language, as well as the many cultures that speak it.

The linguistic and cultural diversity of Spanish and the Spanish-speaking world is incredible and, in my mind, unmatched. Spanish is the official language in 21 countries -- including Equatorial Guinea in Africa -- as well as a major language in the United States. Despite sharing a common language, each country has its own set of accents, its own special vocabulary, and its own cultural traditions reflecting its history and its people. As fascinating and rich a subject as this is, it also happens to be one of the things that makes Spanish so hard to teach, even at the simplest of levels -- in K-5, for example, which of the many words for the color "brown" should we teach? Café? Marrón? Pardo? Carmelita? (The latter is specific to Cuba, I believe, and is supposedly a reflection of the color of habit that the Carmelite nuns used to wear.) Is purple violeta, morado or púrpura? Is a bedroom una alcoba, un dormitorio, un cuarto, una recámara, o una habitación? And forget about how many translations there are for the word "pig."

Spanish-speakers love to discuss these differences, often in heated arguments in which one accent or phrase is challenged as being "incorrect" by a speaker from another country. One of my favorites was a one-hour discussion among a group of native speakers -- all Spanish teachers, by the way -- on whether it was acceptable to use the word "closet" in Spanish; our Salvadoran and Dominican companions routinely used "closet", whereas our Spanish friend insisted that only gente inculta y sin vocabulario could ever utter such a word.

For me, there is no right or wrong in this case. It is all part of the amazingly intricate fabric of Spanish language and culture, which we are celebrating here in La Tertulia.