Poco a Poco: On Spanish Language and Political Correctness
I have a really bad habit of translating thoughts from English to Spanish when I want to communicate, which anyone will tell you is completely disruptive to language learning. Nonetheless, after 3 years, it’s a bad habit I’ve been steadfast at keeping. This summer, I’ve been turning over a new leaf by poco a poco reading more in Spanish, writing down and looking up colloquial phrases when they come up. A side note to newbies who think that you absorb the local language through osmosis perhaps when you move to another country, that’s sort of not true, especially when you make your living teaching another language. And it’s particularly not true for people like me who don’t have the greatest memory. For example, I’ve probably heard ‘mucha tela’, a good colloquial translation for ‘hard work’ 10 million times in the three years I’ve lived here. But I actually have to hear other people say it, at least, 20 million times in order for it to flow in my own conversation. As the learning curve happens, thank goodness for translator and dictionary apps.
So one day, as I often do, I opened my trusty phone dictionary app, Word Reference whilst writing a Whatsapp. As you can guess, I was looking for the colloquial translation of the above mentioned ‘hard work’.
The first translation was of course the literal, trabajo duro and then my eyes scanned down to the WordReference colloquial translation, trabajo de negros. For at least 30 seconds to a minute my heart dropped. Still when I think about it (and I’m not really a particularly sensitive person) it’s a weird combination of confusion and sadness. Confusion because the image this conjures gives me flashbacks from one of the Moses movies with African people carrying stones on their backs to build temples. And sadness because at the very least it confirms what I already knew, that other people think that’s who I or we are, at least on a subconscious level, mules.
So I mentioned it to my Spaniard boyfriend to get his thoughts, although to be honest I already knew what they would be and I was right. It was the typical response that basically all people of European descent give (even those in America) “no pasa nada or don’t take it personal”. But last I checked, words have meanings and those meanings effect the way we think.
Spanish colonialism, much like slavery laid its foundation through language, it was psychological. The act of reducing people to colors was a function of these institutions. After all, white is pure and black is obscure by its very nature right? People are not colors scientifically though, they have histories and come from continents and countries. But among other things, the existence of a history must be denied in order for these institutions to work. The way that we think about ourselves and other ethnic groups, that psychology is transferred and reflected through language.
Although the American and Spanish histories with African and Native peoples are different, the unconscious vestiges of these relationships remain active through language in the exact same way today. You’d be hard pressed to find any positive word associations with the color black in English or Spanish, and beyond that it is not a scientifically substantiated descriptor for a person. There is no black land or white land, these people are African or European by descent.
There is only a slight aesthetic difference between the United States and Spain in the way that we deal with language. Americans have a pretty haughty attachment to political correctness and our language probably changes with more frequency in comparison to the Spanish language. Unfortunately, we rarely talk, learn and decide about the language we use to describe one another in any kind of scientific formal environment, so when it changes it is more or less haphazardly. And of course none of this actually addresses the language we use at home, which reflects how we really think. Everyone knows we have two faces: the one we show to family and friends and the one that we show in public or with colleagues. Meanwhile in Spain a few weeks ago, some Spanish friends were laughing at a little boy on the local news who used a derogatory word to describe a South American boy while talking to a news anchor, presumably because he simply didn’t know the correct word. As my friends were laughing I was thinking to myself, basically the only difference between here and the US is that they are outwardly laughing about the ignorance of this little boy and in the US, no one would publicly express amusement (at least not in mixed company) about something so offensive.
The more I travel and live I learn that there really is no one magical country that has fewer social problems, but I’m convinced that the root of most problems can be traced and reflected in the language. If I choose to be more accurate and objective about the words I use in English and Spanish, the quality of my life improves in small yet discernible ways. I found a new café nearby that makes consistently great coffee so I’ve been going there a lot recently. Plus the owner is cool, so we have nice conversations. After my third or fourth visit he asked me my name, I said “Ayan”. He said “that’s hard for me to say, can I just call you morena?” I said, “well morena isn’t a name, nor is it my name.” Then I explained how the subjunctive preterite perfect in Spanish uses the same pronunciation. Then said, “besides that, if I can say Gustavo, you can say Ayan”. He said, “good point¨” and then said “Ayyyaan” with a really exaggerated Spanish accent. I said, “poco a poco”.
Ayan lives in Sevilla, Spain and her least favorite question is ¿de que parte de EEUU eres? She's basically a Southerner, equal parts Louisiana and Tennessee, with some Oklahoma and Texas mixed in. She looks at the world in big picture terms and enjoys learning about psychology and history. Even though her default facial expression is serious, she's actually equal parts serious and funny, but always blunt. She loves DIY anything, playing and watching tennis and adding new music to her Spotify playlists. She's currently working on developing a way to make a career out of all these unrelated interests, until then she teaches English.