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College Row
Piano and saxophone performance
Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and Israeli pianist Alon Yavnai play ebullient Latin jazz at the closing event of the First International Conference on Spanglish.

Amherst hosts controversial language conference

The notion of hybrid vigor got a fresh application this spring as Amherst hosted the First International Conference on Spanglish. An organic (some would say illicit) conflation of English and Spanish, Spanglish has been gaining adherents in the United States, South America and Europe over the past 10 years. In academic circles it was particularly brought to the fore two years ago, when Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, produced a controversial Spanglish translation of Don Quixote. The language gained even more attention when Stavans published his recent book Spanglish: The Making of an American Language, which included an extensive glossary.

“I’ve spent about 10 years in the study of Spanglish,” says Stavans, who organized the conference, “and I wanted to go beyond what my own research had provided. I wanted to legitimize it on this campus—and through this campus in the larger academic world—in a way that would be interesting and provocative and stimulating to students and faculty alike. The conference was very successful in that sense.”

Stavans invited participants from Sweden, France, Spain and Argentina, as well as the United States and Canada, and made a point of including critics of the language as well as supporters. “We wanted rowdiness,” he says. “We wanted debate, we wanted controversy, which Spanglish brings with it, so to put aside the controversy would be wrong.”

Some scholars fear Spanglish is diluting the purity of the Spanish language. Others deride it as nothing more than the linguistic stumblings of uneducated people. One of the panelists at the conference, Joaquin Garrido, of the Instituto Cervantes in Madrid, questioned whether Spanglish even existed as a language. “Native speakers of Spanish in the U.S. do not speak Spanglish,” he said. “They are not taking part in…‘the making of a new language.’ They are adapting, while still speaking Spanish, to a culture and a society where English prevails. Their Spanglish is actually adaptive bilingualism.”

Another panelist, Los Angeles Times reporter Daniel Hernández, said that Spanglish was assuredly a language, but a controversial one, calling it “the language that dare not speak its name.” He said he would never use Spanglish phrases with a stranger unless he sensed that the other person might use them, too. “This,” he said, “is what makes Spanglish fun (a
word not commonly associated with the tongues of the canon): the seeking out of others who playfully abuse languages like you do, the cheeky secrecy of it.”

In recognition of the pan-cultural nature of Spanglish, Stavans invited not only academics, but also poets, writers and musicians to offer their views at the conference. Several poets gave readings, including Giannina Braschi, whose street epic “The Mole and the Rat” explored the social and political implications of multilingualism: “The problem with foreigners speaking English / Is that it doesn’t play by the same rules / It has its own passport / It could barbarize, it could terrorize / It could plant a bomb in the Oval Office / Destroy national treasures / Beat and cheat on the roots of the White House lawn / Minorities will become majorities if we don’t patrol the borders.”

Cuban saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera compared Spanglish to jazz, noting the creative fertility that comes from combining disparate forms of expression. He also observed that both Spanglish and jazz have had difficulty finding respect. “Many people,” he said, “still think that Louis Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon.” One of the highlights of the conference was a concert by D’Rivera; his wife, soprano Brenda Feliciano; and Israeli pianist Alon Yavnai. The performance combined elements of classical, jazz and Latin music to effervescent effect, vividly demonstrating D’Rivera’s observations about hybridization.

Overall, Stavans says, the conference succeeded in raising the profile of Spanglish as a legitimate subject of academic study. Senior Lecturer in Spanish Cesar Alegre, who organized the event with Stavans, is editing the proceedings for the University of Wisconsin Press, and Northwestern University has invited Stavans to produce a Spanglish reader. International news agencies covered the event, and scholars from Barcelona are already discussing holding next year’s conference there. “I think that as Spanglish becomes a more legitimate topic of conversation,” Stavans says, “so Latino culture will be taken more seriously. And I think that’s wonderful for society at large.” He praises the college for supporting what might be seen in some quarters as a renegade conference, and he says that this willingness to engage popular culture is to the college’s credit. “I think that in a global world like ours, to isolate the campus or the classroom, to separate it from what’s happening out there, is not only mistaken but morally wrong. The campus has to be connected to what’s happening in the world. If we professors or intellectuals don’t become bridges, we are failing our own mission. We cannot just study everything scientifically. We have to get dirty. We have to mingle with reality and let reality shape us.”

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Photo: Frank Ward

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