English only, please

A poorly translated sign at Mercy Hospital.

We have so many foreign words in English that it’s quite pointless to insist on “English Only” or that English be made the official language. For one thing, what do we do about all the Spanish geographical names of the American southwest? There are too many names to translate to English. And the reason they have Spanish names is because the Spaniards gave them Spanish names when the American southwest was still part of the Spanish colony called Nueva España (New Spain). Just think of the California cities called San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Sacramento. There is a place in California (named in Spanish by the Spaniards) called La Brea Tar Pits. In Spanish La Brea means tar pits. So if we translate the name into English, we get The Tarpits Tarpits! We could do that for all the cities with Spanish names. San Diego will become Saint James, San Francisco, Saint Francis, and Sacramento, Sacrament! Perhaps this would be an impossible task, but we will eventually translate all those Spanish names into English! Dammit!

And speaking of redundant, I am reminded of the song, “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys. There is a line in the song that says, “You’d see ’em wearin’ their baggies / Huarachi sandals, too.” In Spanish, “huaraches” means sandals, so these surfers are wearing sandals sandals! And then there’s Carlos Santana with, “Yo no tengo a nadie that I can depend on.” Hey, Carlos. English only!

In “Vertigo” by U2, the song begins with some “counting” in Spanish: “Uno, dos tres, catorce.” Either Bono doesn’t know Spanish or he just doesn’t know how to count. One of my students told me that these numbers really are a tribute to U2’s producer who produced albums number 1, 2, 3, and 14. And this reminds me of the song “Woolly, Bully,” by Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs that begins, “One, two, tres, cuatro.” He counts in both English and Spanish, but at least he gets the numbers in the correct order!

The story of the Spanish “O”

Aztec calendar = O

The letter “O” is an amazing letter in Spanish! “O” makes Spanish, Spanish. In my Spanish class, I demand that all my students to speak Spanish whenever possible. Once there was a commotion in the classroom and I asked what had happened. When a student told me that his book fell, I asked him to tell me in Spanish. He then said, “El book-O fell-O.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary even lists “el cheapo” as an entry! That’s the stereotype of the Spanish language: that all the words end in “O.” Do you understand? No problemo! (In Spanish it’s really “problema.”) How about all those snacks derived from corn tortillas? They all end in “o” with an “s” to make it plural. Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Nachos, Chipitos, Crujitos, etc. However, there are some English words that become Spanish when you add “o.” For example, insect becomes insecto, car becomes carro, Alfred becomes Alfredo, Robert becomes Roberto, but David remains David and under no circumstances does it become Davido. Nothing annoys me more than to be called Davido! False becomes falso, traffic becomes tráfico, and video, well, it stays the same, video.  But be careful with cool. Don’t say coolo! Adding an “o” to cool will make it culo in Spanish, which requires much care when saying it because it’s a swear word referring to part of the body in the nether region known as the buttocks. ¿Comprendo? [sic]

I want a corn snack-O.

New food

I am not the most graceful of people. I was just getting this walking and talking thing down pat, when what do you think someone invents? A walking taco! Basically, you get a bag of Fritos piled with chili, lettuce, sour cream, and hot sauce. Walking tacos are very popular at carnivals and local sporting events in the greater Chicagoland area. Personally, I think of tacos as a sit-down kind of food that demands the eater’s complete and undivided attention because they are tricky to eat even while sitting down. Anyway, I bought a walking taco the other day at my son’s football scrimmage game and I actually tried to eat it while walking; I wanted to see if there was truth in advertising. However, I don’t recommend this at all. Well, I was also holding an umbrella open because of the rain and I was carrying a can of pop, too. The walking taco was very tasty, but difficult to enjoy because I was afraid that I would drop either the umbrella, the can of pop, or God forbid, the walking taco. I accidentally spilled some chili on my shirt and couldn’t wipe the stain off because both my hands were full. Everyone knew what I had eaten. “How was that walking taco?” “Did you get any of the walking taco in your mouth?” Etcetera. My question is, does this qualify as Mexican food or American food?

Can I eat a walking taco while sitting down?

Me da pena

Last night, I went to eat at Nicky’s with my ten-year-old twin sons. As is typical in Chicago, Nicky’s is a hot dog / hamburger restaurant that is Greek-owned, but you only see anyone of Greek descent during regular business hours. Yesterday was Sunday, so all the cooks were Mexican. They took my order in English and spoke to me in broken English. Anyway, when my son finished drinking his pop, he asked me if they would refill it. I wasn’t sure, so I asked him to go to the counter and ask. I like to teach my sons to be independent and responsible. So he asked for a refill and got it. While refilling the cup, the cook asked my son, “¿Hablas español?” My son just stared at him. You see, my son does not speak Spanish and I am truly embarrassed by this! I was waiting for the cook to give me reproaching look, but he didn’t. My son just walked back and said, “I don’t know what he said.”

I’ve tried to teach my sons Spanish, but it’s an uphill battle. Their mother, my ex-wife, is a Mexican like me; raised in a Spanish-speaking Mexican home, but born in the USA. While we were still married, I always spoke to my oldest son in Spanish at home and he attended a day care center run by nuns from Mexico. So he actually spoke Spanish when he was younger. However, my ex would never want to speak Spanish. As he got older, he only wanted to speak English like his mother who had more influence over him than me. Whenever I spoke Spanish, my son would tell me, “Talk the regular way!” So when the twins were born seven years later, I was the only person speaking Spanish at home. I was foreigner in my own home.

Fortunately, they attend a school that teaches Spanish. My oldest son once came home bragging that he got a C in Spanish! I was so embarrassed! I wondered if perhaps the teacher was too demanding, so I asked, “Did anyone get an A?” “Oh, yeah, Tommy Sullivan.” ¡Ay, ay, ay!

I got a C in Spanish!!!


My Mexican Passport

When I was a boy, my mother took us all the way to Mexico City by train from Chicago in 1965. We took one train to St. Louis where we spent the night sleeping on wooden benches until our next train departed for Laredo, Texas. In Laredo, we boarded a train toward Mexico City.

What I remember most about this visit to Mexico was my uncle’s fascination with American culture, particularly how important brushing one’s teeth was. He wanted to know what kind of toothpaste I used, what kind of toothbrush, how many times a day I brushed my teeth. He asked many other questions about our life in the U.S., but nothing mattered more to him than American dental hygiene!

Anyway, when we were packing to return to Chicago, my mother announced that my uncle was coming back with us. All he packed was a small handbag that was very light. When the train arrived in Laredo, my uncle showed his documents to the authorities and slipped them some money. Everything was fine until we arrived in St. Louis. Some important-looking people boarded the train and questioned my uncle who presented them with his documents. The authorities then asked my uncle to go with them. I never saw my uncle in the U.S. again. I remember carrying his little handbag home and wondering what my uncle had packed since it was so light.

When we got home, my mother took the handbag for safekeeping. I was never to touch it or look in it. We would give it to my uncle when he would finally arrive in Chicago. Every now and then when I would snoop around in my mother’s bedroom closet, I would see my uncle’s handbag, but I would never open it. One day, I couldn’t resist the temptation anymore. So I looked in the bag. All my uncle had packed for his trip to America was a toothbrush and toothpaste!

Spanish in Burger King

Burger King in Mexico City

Last night, I was in Burger King with my sons. A Mexican family was standing behind me in line. I joked around with the cashier who took my order. We spoke in fluent colloquial English and I have a Chicago south side accent. The father of the Mexican family then ordered his food in broken English. Later, while I was waiting for my order, the father spoke to me in Spanish about his son who had just learned to walk the week before. I was surprised! I’m always surprised when total strangers speak to me in Spanish! I told a Mexican friend about this and she said, “But you don’t even look Mexican!”

As a boy, my father would take us to Burger King a lot. We would order our food and I dreaded waiting to hear my father’s order. After completing the order, my father would always ask, “Do you have hot peppers?” When the cashier would say no, my father would say, “That’s okay. I brought my own!” He would then pull out a jar of jalapeño peppers from his pocket. My father had hundreds of ways of embarrassing me in public.

That's okay. I brought my own peppers!