Thursday, February 16, 2012

the City College of NY and Castilian Spanish

How we value language is a reflection of how we value the other, the significant other. To judge language differences has to do more with our needs and desires than with the norms or principles that underlie language appropriateness or standards.

During my many trips to Spain or throughout Latin America I never encountered anyone who questioned my mastery of the Spanish language. After all, it is the language I learned while in my mother’s womb (some developmental theoreticians claim that the unborn child begins to learn his native language before birth) and it is the language I grew up with and studied from first grade on. Not only did I study the language but its different dialectal and standard varieties were required to be covered at different stages of my education in Puerto Rico. And so many different types of teachers: from the Spanish Carmelite nuns all dressed up in black who only showed their arms when writing on the blackboard to the rigid, dogmatic “independentistas” forcing students to name all the different authors and texts who wrote nationalistic literature: from Marti to Gallegos, as they tried to tell us that we were Latin Americans. And then, there was the stereotypical teacher of Spanish who always wore linen dresses to work, to teach the grandeurs of the Spanish language. During my secondary school years, so many moments spent practicing the verbs conjugations or so many times reading Calderon de la Barca, Quevedo, Cervantes led me to see myself, dreaming like Santa Teresa, fighting moors during la Reconquista. All that wonderful and rich education did not prepare me to face quite a few professors at City College who could not wait to tell me that they had taken Spanish courses, but that they were Castilian Spanish courses.

Well, it was quite obvious that what they were really telling me was that they did not speak that awful, underdeveloped Puerto Rican dialect. Once I tested their mastery of their Castilian Spanish, they could only say “Buenos días y gracias”. They had studied the so called Castilian Spanish but it had been a useless enterprise and most probably a big waste of money since so many of the teachers claiming to teach Castilian Spanish in the USA cannot speak Spanish at all. But the real issue here is the need to use language to step above the other, to suggest a certain kind of superiority. At a different institution, one not claiming to be progressive, perhaps a different concept or reason would have been used: historical, economical, and intellectual but not at a progressive one, thus language was the best bet.

But the College was not the only place where this categorization was used to distance oneself from the other. Caribbean Spanish and its literature have been used to create a false sense of value. When suggesting a correction to a written mistake found at a sign on a board, at a bilingual school in Manhattan the school director refused my correction. The director had written on the board: ¿Qué hicites durante el verano?” I pointed the mistake of adding an s at the end to the “pretérito del indicativo”, and she angrily and in a very stern voice said, "I am Colombian." Well, here we go again, I thought, your mistake, sweetie. Luckily, my colleague went to the school the next day and also pointed out the mistake. How can a Puerto Rican correct a Colombian or an Argentinean or a Chilean is not an uncommon reaction among Latin American immigrants as they repeat like papagayos what the groups in power want them to say.

Divide and conquer or is it the need to find somebody that would give the other a certain sense of accomplishment, to be closer to perfection? After all, Castilian Spanish is not a monolithic enterprise as Castile has so many different types of people who speak the particular varieties of their language: “¡Joder! Que en Usera no se habla igual que en Salamanca". Well, once more, what do they know about Castilians or Jíbaros aguza’os at the City College in NYC?

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