Sunday, February 8, 2015

Exposure to Ghetto Street Spanish

I was in a job interview for an employment counselor position where the clientele would include some monolingual Spanish speaking immigrants. When the subject of my Spanish came up, I explained to the interview panel that my Spanish was influenced by a large Puerto Rican population in New York City where I grew up. People as far away as Perú and Ecuador where I traveled thought that I myself might be Puerto Rican (or Cuban).

One of the panel members who is not even Latino immediately began frowning, and asked is this street Spanish? Although, I thought that it was very prejudicial for this panelist to assume that all Puerto Ricans speak street Spanish, all of the panelists were very understanding when I explained that Puerto Ricans speak Spanish with a Caribbean accent just as Jamaicans speak English with a Caribbean accent. However, a woman directly from the island of Puerto Rico told me that I sound more like a New-Yorican (a New York Puerto Rican).

Naturally, Spain gets all the glory for speaking the highest form of the Spanish language. While Spaniards have been known to to look down on Latin Americans and their version of Spanish, Latin American people have been known to look down on the Spanish that has more African influence, such as that of the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, and the Dominicans. This point is clearly expounded upon in an article entitled Do Puerto Ricans Speak The “Ghetto Version” of Spanish?

A Latina acquaintance spoke of a time when she was being interviewed for Spanish tutor position. Once the Argentinian hiring manager heard Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico as the source of her Spanish, she knew that she did not get the job, and needless to say, she never got a callback.

Many overlook the fact that language is a fluid, human creation that changes and evolves over time. The Spanish spoken in Spain has its own diversity depending on the region of the country. There is Castellano, Gallego, Galician, Asturian, Vascos, Catalán, and other dialects. Thus, Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America have their own dialects as well.  

During my interactions with Latino-American people in the US and in my travels, I came to realize that every country has its own ghetto street talk as well as formal. When I was in Cuba, I heard the Spanish of common, everyday people as they spoke in super-rapid fashion, but when I was on campus at the University of Havana, the Spanish spoken among students, staff, and faculty was formal and clearly understood. 

People, including some blacks, on campus, frowned and turned their heads in embarrassment when they heard me using some slang that I learned from a cab driver. I thought I was impressing them with my knowledge of local ghetto speak, but in Cuba, like any other Latin-American country, speaking formally or speaking the dialect of the barrio (the hood) is an indication of your level of class.

As much as I enjoy using the every day Spanish of the common people in the countries that I visit, I learned to discern the difference between formal and street talk and when to use them. Just as I would not use street talk in a formal environment in the U.S., like a job interview, the same applies to a formal environment in Latin America.

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