English, espanol mingle at border

SUN JOURNAL

Tex-Mex: Infuriating to some, second nature to others, the Spanish and English languages pop up in the same sentences where Mexico and Texas meet and greet.

March 23, 2001|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

McALLEN, Texas - At the Texas-Mexico border, where American and Mexican cultures have grown so close that there's no particular difference between the two, a common dialect has spawned that's neither standard Spanish nor standard English.

It's called Tex-Mex - a scramble of Spanish, English and Spanglish slang.

It's spoken everywhere, from bars to boardrooms to the evening TV news. "Camioneta," or truck, becomes "troca." "Cuidado" - that is, "watch out" - becomes "watchale." You need to know a smattering of both English and Spanish to understand the phrase, "Watchale, here comes la troca," which is standard Tex-Mex.

Linguists call it code switching, and in south Texas, it's the most effective way to get a point across.

A jingle on south Texas radio advertises "Lightning fast dinero. Fast cash!" A surety agent named his business "Sacame Bail Bonds" (Get Me Out Bail Bonds). "McAllenear" is the verb Mexicans use when they talk of driving from Reynosa across the border to shop at the mall in McAllen, Texas.

"Tex-Mex is not a Mexican thing or an American thing. It's about communicating," says Antonio Zavaleta, vice president of external affairs for the University of Texas at Brownsville. "To me, it says we've found our way to function. It's an interesting creation of a pidgin language."

"It's certainly not Spanish and it's not English."

Tex-Mex follows its own grammar and syntax, depending on function and street talk instead of formal rules and dictionaries. The only rule is that there's no uniformity. Food with a kick can become "bien spicy," or "very picante," depending on what slips off the tongue of the speaker.

The blending of the languages may have been unavoidable because of geography - a million people from both sides of the border easily cross "la frontera" every day to go to work, school or shop, and some 90 percent of the Rio Grande Valley population claims Mexican heritage.

"The languages are used interchangeably in the same sentence," says Daniel Cavazos, publisher of the Brownsville Herald, who grew up in the valley. "For us it's like breathing air. It's part of every day life. Tex-Mex is part of the culture, it's the language of business, of customs."

Tex-Mex gained fame in the United States a few years ago when a chatty Chihuahua told the televised world in no uncertain terms, "Yo quiero Taco Bell." The commercial took off and the dog's words became a catch phrase from New Mexico to New York. Those who didn't know Spanish quickly figured out what the tiny dog was talking about. If he had used his deep voice to proclaim, "I want Taco Bell," it would have been far less endearing, would have won fewer hearts and probably less "dinero" for the fast-food chain.

"Yo quiero Taco Bell" has a catchy sound, just as Ricky Martin's song "Livin' la Vida Loca" has a sweeter ring than if the Puerto Rican rock star sang the English translation, "Livin' the Crazy Life."

Not surprisingly, cyber Tex-Mex has also emerged for users of the Internet, giving birth to such terms as "chatear" (to chat), "forwardear" (to forward), and "el maus" (computer mouse).

Tex-Mex Web sites such as loquesea.com (whatever.com) advertise "In The Barrio you can check out new amigos, design cool homepages and fall madly in love, all at the click of a mouse. Checkalo!"

True Tex-Mex talkers pick their favorite word from whichever language they want to use in conversation. The speaker and the listener often don't notice that they have switched languages.

One of the most common examples is the word "pero" (meaning "but"). It's nicer sounding than "but" and it rolls off the tongue easily. So you hear people say: "I want to go there, pero I don't have time."

"People understand perfectly. You don't have to worry about that," says author Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, who is an English professor at the University of Texas in Austin. "If you can't think of the word in Spanish, you throw out the word in English." Hinojosa-Smith has written 13 books, some in Spanish, some in English, and some in Tex-Mex. "There's a lot of switching. It's functional and quite serviceable."

But maddening if you're not bilingual. A passage from Hinojosa-Smith's Tex-Mex novel "Mi Querido Rafa" reads:

"Hablando del cabron de Campbell, por si te interesa, trabaja en un Sporting Goods Store. ... So much for being the most likely to succeed."

Translation: "And speaking of that [expletive] Campbell, you'd be interested to know, he's working in a Sporting Goods Store. ... So much for being the most likely to succeed."

There's so much Tex-Mex in Hinojosa's novel that he translated it into English, and named it "Dear Rafe." The story is enchanting for people who live in the Rio Grande Valley, but few outside can fully grasp its meaning, either figuratively or literally.

Tex-Mex loyalists often pick sounds of both languages and mix them so they have a rhythmic, sometimes musical sound.

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