Thanksgiving Day


The other day in Spanish class, a student asked my how to say Thanksgiving Day in Spanish. I immediately said, “El Día de Acción de Gracias.”

Another student asked me if Thanksgiving Day was celebrated in Mexico or anywhere else in Latin America. I explained that Thanksgiving Day is an American Holiday. He then wanted to know why there was a Spanish name for Thanksgiving Day.

The main reason is that there are 41 million Spanish Speakers in the United States. Most of us are thankful to be in United States, therefore we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, or el Día de Acción de Gracias in Spanish.

The USA is a mixture of many cultures. And this is one further example.

Rompiendo Malo


Rompiendo Malo. Lost in translation. If translation is the correct word to use when describing what the writers for the hit show Breaking Bad do when they write dialogue in Spanish. I feel as though whoever wrote the Spanish dialogue in Breaking Bad only studied Spanish in high school, or perhaps even the minimum required college Spanish.

Breaking Bad has a lot of characters speaking Spanish, but as a Spanish instructor, I couldn’t help but analyze their use of Spanish. When Skylar of Walter White speak in Spanish poorly, it’s understandable because they’re not native Spanish speakers. However, how can you live in the state of New Mexico with so many Spanish speakers and not know at least a little Spanish?

In general, the script writer literally translated English dialogue into Spanish and did so very poorly. In one meeting with members of the Mexican cartel, Gustavo Fring tells his guests to take a seat by saying in Spanish, “Tomen un asiento.” That is a literal translation of, “Take a seat.” If you offer someone a seat in Spanish, you should say, “Siéntense.” This bad translation is totally unacceptable because the character of Gustavo Fring is from Chile so he is a native Spanish speaker. However, the actor Giancarlo Esposito, however, does not speak Spanish and his pronunciation in Spanish is lacking. It is even more noticeable because of his otherwise good acting. Perhaps Esposito needed to rehearse his lines in Spanish a little more.

In another scene, Tío Héctor says to to Gustavo and Max while at a meeting with Don Eladio, “Quédete.” This is poor grammar and no native Spanish speaker would ever say this. “Quede” is a formal command, but the actor Mark Margolis uses the familiar reflexive pronoun “te” instead of the required formal pronoun “se.” He could have used either a formal or familiar command, but Spanish does not allow for a little of both. He needed to say, “Quédese” or “Quédate”, but never “Quédete”.

However, not all the Spanish spoken in Breaking Bad is terrible. When the actors who are native Spanish speakers speak Spanish, they speak much better Spanish. They probably read the script and said, “Wait. No one would ever say this in Spanish!” because they then say their lines in a more natural Spanish and not a literal translation into English where one word after the other is translated into English. I could tell by the subtitles in English when Spanish is spoken. In other scenes not with native Spanish speakers, the Spanish words follow the same order as the words in the English subtitle.

When Jesse Pinkman is at his new girlfriend Andrea’s house, her mother mother immediately disapproves of Andrea’s choice of a new boyfriend. The mother immediately begins speaking in Spanish, good Spanish, what she thinks of her daughter and Pinkman, none of it very good. Interestingly enough, there are no English subtitles for this dialogue. My theory is that there was no dialogue written for this scene and the actress Virginia Montero merely ad libbed her dialogue in a Spanish language that was very natural to her. I could picture my mother or grandmother speaking like this. Of course, no one from the show was able to translate this into English subtitles.

What does Breaking Bad actually mean? Well, one meaning of “breaking” is changing directions, such as breaking to the right or to the left. Or, one can be breaking good or breaking bad, separating from path to another. In this show, everyone is breaking bad. Everyone was more or less good at the start, but then they started breaking bad, especially Walter White.

For the title of this post, I merely literally translated Breaking Bad into Rompiendo Malo. Breaking = Rompiendo and Bad = Malo. I looked up “breaking” and “bad” on wordreference.com and I found “rompiendo” and “malo” for the translations. However, Rompiendo Malo doesn’t mean anything in Spanish. I admit that this is a very poor way to translate one language into another, but I feel that the writers of Breaking Bad did this for many of the speeches in Spanish.

I suppose I wouldn’t have noticed the Spanish dialogue if I wasn’t a Spanish instructor. But I am and I did. I’m breaking good.

Rihanna es …


Rihanna es de Barbados. ¿Qué es la nacionalidad de Rihanna? ¿Sabes?

We were studying countries and nationalities in Spanish class the other day. I don’t like to brag, but I like to tell my students that I know most of the countries’ names in Spanish and their nationalities. I challenge the students to challenge me with countries not listed in the Spanish textbook. Well, one student asked me what Rihanna’s nationality was. Did I know her nationality? Of course, not! I asked the student for Rihanna’s country and he said Barbados. I still couldn’t say what her nationality was.

What to do? What to do? Well, I went to my old friend Wikipedia and looked up Rihanna. An entry with Rihanna’s biography in English immediately popped up. I know Wikipedia is still not a reliable reference source, but Wikipedia is great for translating into other languages. If you look in the left column after you find your Wikipedia article, you will see many other languages into which the article is translated. Since español is one of the top languages of the world, most of the articles are translated into Spanish.

Once I found the Rihanna article in English, I switched to the Spanish translation. I soon found Rihanna’s nationality in Spanish! ¡Rihanna es barbadense! Since my classroom has a computer with an Internet connection, I was able to tell the class Rihanna’s nationality in less than two minutes! I wish I could tell you that the class was impressed with my Spanish research skills, but sadly, they were merely surprised that I even knew who Rihanna was!

Bilingual idiot


I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I actually went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was fairly easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.

Juan Goytisolo


Juan Calduch, Juan Goytisolo, and Dr. D. in 1999.

There are famous people and then there are famous people you never heard of.

As a graduate student in Hispanic Studies, I had to read a novel, La saga de los Marx, by Juan Goytisolo for a seminar on Modern Spanish (as in, from Spain) Literature. I had never even heard of Juan Goytisolo. Then the professor who assigned the novel assured the graduate seminar that he was world-famous. I just took her word for it. But I was suspicious of just how famous he was.

Well, regardless of his claim to fame, I began reading La saga de los Marx. I was captivated by Goytisolo’s writing. I couldn’t identify a protagonist or a setting. He inserted foreign languages sans translations. There was no storyline to speak of. Or standard punctuation, for that matter. He seemed to have studied grammar and stylistic rules only so he could break as many rules as possible. However, the writing piqued my curiosity and I read the novel in a mere two sittings.

When the class met to discuss the novel, only one other student said she had read the entire novel. But she wasn’t sure if she really liked the novel. I, on the other hand loved it! I immediately decided that I would write my seminar paper on this novel. I was intrigued by the postmodernist style.

As I was writing my paper, I decided to reread the novel to find supporting citations for my paper. Curiously enough, I enjoyed the novel even more upon reading it a second time. I loved it so much that I decided to write a letter to Juan Goytisolo, c/o of the publisher. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back! Usually when I like a writer that much, he or she has already been dead for a long time. Sometimes dying even before I was born. How rude!

Well, this paper inspired me to further my studies and become a doctoral candidate. I showed Juan Goytisolo’s letter to the seminar professor and she asked me to invite him to speak at UIC. He accepted the invitation and spoke at our university, with me as the guest of honor because he came on account of my letter and I was writing my doctoral dissertation on his novels. I was truly honored. I was also surprised at how many people came from miles around to hear Juan Goytisolo speak and plug his latest novel. He was a fascinating man, as I discovered while giving him a tour of the Chicagoland area.

Well, Juan Goytisolo truly is world-famous. Every year he gets nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of these days, he may actually win it. But to think I had never heard of him before that graduate seminar!

La composición


Diego Rivera's typewriter, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico

If you take enough Spanish classes, you will have to write a composition in Spanish. By that time, you will know enough Spanish vocabulary and grammar to write a good composition. Here are a few rules you should keep in mind while writing la composición.

Think in Spanish! The worst thing you can do is write out the composition in English and then translate it into Spanish. You are doing double the work! Brainstorm for your composition using the Spanish vocabulary that you already know. Begin writing your composition in Spanish, without looking up words in your dictionary. Insert words in English to look up later. The main goal is to write out most of the ideas for your composition in Spanish. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar until after your finish the first draft, el borrador in Spanish.

Give your composition a good descriptive title. Only the first letter of the title is capitalized: La fiesta que le dimos a mi abuelita para su cumpleaños. If you use a proper noun in the title, it must be capitalized: Las vacaciones de primavera en Puerto Rico.

Pronouns are used less often in Spanish than in English. Once the subject is established, the pronoun is no longer necessary: María era buena estudiante. Siempre llegaba a clase a tiempo. Participaba en todas las discusiones de clase. Siempre sacaba buenas notas. In all of the preceding sentences, we know that María is the subject even though we do not use the pronoun ella. Do not use another noun or pronoun for the subject until the subject changes Un día su mamá no la levantó a tiempo. La maestra se preocupaba por María.

When listing a series of items, do not use a comma before the last item: Compré pan, queso y huevos.

There are two abbreviations in Spanish and you must use them: a + el = al, de + el = del

In general, commas are used less often than in English.

Do not translate everything into Spanish. If you live in River Oaks, do NOT translate it into Río Robles. Julio Iglesias is NOT July Churches!

Adjectives of proper nouns are not capitalized. Frida Kahlo es mexicana. Shakira es colombiana, Penélope Cruz es española.

Days and months are NOT captialized: los días – domingo, lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado; los meses – enero, febrero, marzo, abril, mayo, junio, julio, agosto, septiembre, octubre, noviembre, diciembre.

“With me” and “with you” are written as one word: conmigo, contigo.