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Work of Art: Linguistic tyranny

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By Art Trujillo

Growing up on Railroad Avenue, the place we called “Tough Street,” presented manifold problems. Having left that barrio about 50 years ago, I still retain many quite lucid memories of that place.

Mom and Dad, like so many other parents raising families in the ‘40s and ‘50s, probably believed children needed to acquire English as their primary language, and if we were to pick up a bit of Spanish along the way, well, that’s even better. But to be fair, this behavior was a regular feature of our parents’ generation, and it has faded somewhat during ours.

Regardless of their intentions, I for one struggled, especially among kids I played with in the neighborhood and those I went to school with, at Immaculate Conception, for 12 years.

We hear endless tales of how children got punished for speaking Spanish on the school playground. I never witnessed such a punishment, although others’ tales abound.

I recall an incident early in my school years, when we were playing ball and one of the boys, involved in a game of keep-away, wanted the ball and, accordingly, blurted out in Spanish, “Tira me la bola (toss me the ball).” To that, the nun on playground duty, Sister Mary Krankenzimmer, told Alfred, “On the playground, you are not to speak in Mexico.”

What? Alfred’s reply was, “I’m not speaking in Mexico; I’m speaking in the United States.” I believe that retort shortened his  tenure at I.C. School, and Sister M.K. was instrumental in Alfred’s removal.

Like many others, I understood more than I spoke. And I must have spoken it oddly. For example, once time Dad sent me to Peña’s Grocery, across the street, to buy a couple of Roi-Tan cigars. Well, what is Spanish for “cigar” if it’s not “cigarro”?

I asked the owner, for cigarros, and when he produced a few packs of cigarettes, I pointed instead to the cigars.

Well, that led to a lesson on the difference between these types of smokes. And of course, Mr. Peña told me what I should have ordered were “puros.” And his daughter, Lucy, who worked at the store, called me aside to explain the difference. Meanwhile, a young neighbor girl who had been taken in all the drama, rushed out to tell the neighborhood, in Spanish, “Manny (my nickname) doesn’t know what a cigar is in Spanish — and he talks funny.”

Now in those days, w-a-y before the Internet or cell-phone texting, messages spread much faster than they do today. Was it going to be necessary to leave town for a few months until the humiliation abated? Would I never again be allowed to play neighborhood games?

So, whatever Spanish I learned, I picked up on the street, and later in school. And much later, at the University of Virginia I managed to pass a gruelling written and oral exam in Spanish.

• • •

As a self-appointed language cop, I enjoy reading signs and listening to people and discovering unusual uses of both English and Spanish. A former Highlands student recently showed me an assignment he’d submitted on the uses of Spanish expressions in his hometown of Pojoaque. Is there a difference between what we speak here and what’s spoken in Pojack?

Portions of the student’s research will be covered in a future column. For now, I’ll just mention our tendency to tack a Spanish ending to an English word and hope we can get by. Thus, for “typing” we’ll say “taipiando.”

I’ve never learned the “proper” way to say “back up,” as a car, in Spanish. So what’s wrong with saying “baquear”?

I learned recently that the Spanish verb, “fregar,” which we   interpret as to “bother,” or to “mess up,” also describes what we do to dishes after dinner: we scrub them.
“Wachate” is common for “watch yourself.” Had Zeus been a Latino, would he have said “wachate” to Narcissus?

• • •

Northern New Mexico is dotted with little communities, usually with Spanish names, that are taken from a founders’ name, a geographical feature, a carryover name for a previous site, or simply something on the land, like a fragua. What’s a fragua?

A reader, Sonya Berg, asked about the origin of Sapello, the village between Las Vegas and Mora. T.M. Pearce’s “New Mexico Place Names” calls Sapello “one of the most puzzling names in NM place history.” Pearce really struggled with this one. Among the speculations are “toad,” “burial” and “scrubbing brush.”

Pearce’s volume even cites Fray Angelico Chavez, who refers to a river called “Shapellote.” And Chavez posits that the word could be of Kiowa Indian origin, “chapalote.”

• • •

Richard Lederer, the author of Anguished English, has a language blooper a day in his new desk calendar. Here are some:

• The concert held in Fellowship Hall was a great success. Special thanks are due to the minister’s daughter, who labored the whole evening at the piano, which as usual fell upon her.

• A monkey has a reprehensible tail.

• Winners at the card party were Miss Wilma Schmidt, a turkey, and Mrs. Ethel Riggs, a chicken.

• The pianist has the fastest fingers ever to set foot on stage.

• An article in Saturday’s local edition incorrectly reported that a suspect who had been indicted by a federal grand jury had been identified as “Fnu Lnu.” “Fnu Lnu” is not a name. “Fnu” is a law-enforcement abbreviation for “first name unknown” “Lnu” for “last name unknown.”

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.