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Habla Español?
Is Spanish a threat to American English?

Talking with Mi Gente
Learn about a distinctive dialect common to the Southwest

Spanish in the US
The many dialects of Spanish spoken in America

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Power of Prose Index

Power of Prose

Border Tongue

Bilingualism: The Literary
Politics of Language and Identity

American literature is unique in the number of voices and cultures it conveys, giving it the power to transform opinions and challenge stereotypes in both obvious and subtle ways. Christa Smith Anderson  explains that on the border between the United States and Mexico, bilingualism breeds a new “border tongue” that’s neither English nor Spanish, but both somehow.

Contemporary American literature increasingly reflects how American literature is not written only in English. Nineteenth- and early  twentieth-century American literature only sometimes captured the French, German, and Scandinavian languages spoken by characters, some immigrant, some not (as Kate Chopin did with French). Today, a rapid rise in the numbers of Hispanic-, Latin-, Mexican-American and Chicano communities is resulting not only in more frequent -- and unitalicized -- use of Spanish in American literature, but also in a language that some consider entirely new.

Although many Chicano English speakers, particularly third generation or later, know no more Spanish than any other Americans, the growing amount of Spanish heard across the country is often reflected in American literature. Although in American literary works, italics are frequently used to emphasize non-English words, a new absence of italics attests to the growing number of bilingual Americans. The characters in Denis Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girls serve as an example:

“Did you call, Daddy? Oh Buenas tardes, Regino.”

“Buenas tardes. ¡Ay, qué muchacha tan bonita! She’s a pretty girl, just like her mother. Sí, compadre, debiera estar muy orgulloso de las muchachas."

“Their mother’s done a good job”

“Ay, mi comadre es una santa! She’s a good woman, your mother, Merced.[1]

Border tongue is spoken by Central and North Americans who mingle two or more languages to create their own distinct languages

Writer Gloria Anzaldúa calls this blending of languages “border tongue.” Although it incorporates bilingual elements, with both Spanish and English, border tongue describes the speech of Central and North Americans who mingle two or more languages to create their own new and distinct languages. “Border tongue” might be represented in the uniquely American experience of some Chicanas and Chicanos who are neither Anglo nor Castillian, raised in communities where English and Spanish are not necessarily viewed as separate languages but rather used interchangeably, with many variations. Anzaldúa’s border tongue includes the following:

1. Standard English

2. Working class and slang English

3. Standard Spanish

4. Standard Mexican Spanish

5. North Mexican Spanish dialect

6. Chicano Spanish (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California have regional variations)

7. Tex-Mex

8. Pacheco (called calō)[2]

Language proved central to one Chicana writer’s discovery that she is, indeed, Chicana. The family of Alicia Gaspar de Alba believed that Chicanos “‘ruined’ the Spanish tongue by mixing it with English.” So, growing up, Gaspar de Alba spoke one or the other, English or Spanish, but refused to use “switch back and forth.” In college, a Chicano literature course helped her to realize her heritage -- and that there was no shame in using the singular blended language.[3]

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Chicano English, Learn more about this distinctive American dialect.
  • Denise Chávez, This author's work provides an authentic portrayal of her Chicano culture, bilingualism and humor.
  • Gloria Anzaldúa, often writes about  the condition of women in Chicano and Latino culture.
  • Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. New York: Plume, 1992.
  • Duran, Roberto, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Gustavo Perez-Firmat. Triple Crown: Poems by Roberto Duran, Judith Ortiz Cofer, and Gustavo Perez-Firmat. Tempe, Ariz.: Bilingual Press, 1987.
  • Gillan, Maria Mazziotti, and Jennifer Gillan, eds. Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
  • Poey, Delia, and Virgil Suarez, eds. Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

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Christa Smith Anderson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia. After several years producing and writing television news, she is now a federal government employee by day and a fiction writer the rest of the time. She received the 2002 Cynthia Wynn Herman Scholarship from George Mason University and has published non-fiction in So to Speak, a Feminist Journal of Language and Arts.

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  1. Chávez, Denise. The Last of the Menu Girls. Houston: Arte Publico Press, c1986. 174
  2. González, María C, ed. Contemporary Mexican-American Women Novelists: Toward a Feminist Identity.  New York:Peter Lang, 1996.  63.
  3.   López, Tiffany Ana, ed. Growing Up Chicana/o.  Bio. Entry on Alicia Gaspar de Alba, just before her story, “Juana Inés.” p. 70.

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National Endowment for the Humanities Hewlett Foundation Ford Foundation   Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Carnegie Corporation

National Endowment
for the Humanities

William and Flora Hewlett
Foundation

Ford
Foundation

Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
Davis Foundations

Carnegie
Corporation of New York