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The Sound of Spanglish

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In border towns, Spanglish is everywhere. Blending Spanish with English helps the two countries communicate. It’s a natural and necessary byproduct of the border. In this episode, a story about a musician and composer who’s fallen in love with the sound of Spanglish.

Show transcript

Spanglish 1 Clip 1 [00:04 - 00:20]
Kinsee: do you know what Spanglish is?
Woman: yes. It's when to when a person speaks both languages and they could choose like talk and like they could talk and speak both languages at the same time.
Spanglish man on the Street Clip 2 1:05 - 1:14]
Old man: Spanglish? Somebody trying to speak Spanish but can't do it right.
Spanglish man on the Street clip 4 [05:13 - 5:14]
It's Fine by me. I don't have a problem with it.
Spanglish 2 Clip 5 [00:15 - :021]
Girl: I don't really like to speak Spanglish cause I'm trying to just speak it fluently in English and Spanish.
Spanglish 2 Clip 6 [00:59 - 1:07]
you like walk down the street, everybody's speaking Spanglish and like, oh do they speak English or Spanish? Which one is it? You don't really know.
Spanglish man on the Street clip 7 [08:26 - 8:44]
Que piensen de could de Spanglish. Spanglish. Well, I talk is in Bololo. It's normal. Well four I see now Hispanic people at like, like we're like her parents are from Mexico but like came here and study. Well I think it's normal.
Securityguard clip 8 [00:34 - 0:36]
yeah, it's pretty common. We live rate, uh, when we were right here by the border.
Spanglish man on the Street clip 3 [03:51 - 3:54]
Young man: I think it's cool. I think it's cool that people keep their own culture and just kind of mix everything.

In border towns, Spanglish is everywhere. Blending Spanish with English helps the two countries communicate. It’s a natural and necessary byproduct of the border.

Of course, some people turn up their nose at Spanglish. They think it’s sloppy -- a second-class pseudo-language.

But then there are the Spanglish-obsessed. Francisco Eme is one of those. The musician and composer loves the way Spanglish sounds. He even loves the way it looks when written out.

But it wasn’t love at first site for Francisco. In the past few years, he went from hater to appreciater. And now, he’s built an entire art exhibition around the concept of Spanglish.

Francisco 3 Clip 9 [00:05 - 1:03]
What this piece is doing is reading all the words in spanglish on twitter, real time, in a way we’re visualizing how popular spanglish is. You’ll see that every minute there might be maybe 20 tweets in spanglish.

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet.

Today, a story about a language built by the border.

Only here can you find a musician and composer who’s fallen in love with Spanglish.

More after the break.

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Francisco is a sound guy. When he visits new places, he’s doing more listening than looking.

Like, when he first moved to San Diego from Mexico City four years ago, one of his first stops was Balboa Park. He was immediately smitten with the soundscape of the park. He loved all the different music being played by street performers, and all the different languages being spoken by the tourists.

Francisco 2 Clip 10 [02:32 - 2:51]
Francisco: And I was amazed because it's not only Spanish and English, there's so many languages in Balboa Park, I think as well with the most touristic places of San Diego, everything happens in Balboa Park, people from all over the world, all cultures collide and blend in this park

The next time he went to the park, he took his recording equipment.

Clip 11 Francisco’s Balboa Park Recording

That manipulated recording sat on Francisco’s computer alongside dozens of other audio recordings like it. As Francisco settled in to his new life in the border region, he eventually found its purpose.

Francisco 1 Clip 12 [7:20 - 8:04]
I've been doing that for years, years recording everywhere or I go something that sounds interesting to me. Um, and it took me like a couple of years to actually produce something with those audios, you know, after I decided what to do. I think a lot of the people who work in the border at some point of their careers have to talk about the border. So I didn't know whether it was going to do. I knew that if I was going to move here or if I was going to come here more often, I wanted to do something about the border because, you know, the border from people who are not from here is just amazing. It's super interesting. It's a, it's a shock.

Francisco knew he wanted to make art about the border. And, eventually, he narrowed his focus to Spanglish, a language created by the border.

He ended up building an entire solo show based on the concept.

But it actually took awhile for Francisco to come around to the idea of Spanglish.

The unofficial language was first put on his radar when his daughter started speaking it. His daughter was born in Mexico City, but moved to New York when she was young and then back to Mexico City before the family came to San Diego.

Francisco 2 Clip 26 [06:04 - 6:35]
Francisco: when she came back to Mexico she was speaking spanglish and actually I had a little bit of trouble finding her school because people would say, Hey she needs a little bit more Spanish to be in the public schools that we find her as a school with less students so could get more attention. And that was my first approach to a spangligh. so i learned spanglish through her at first..

He says hearing his daughter speak the jumble of the two languages made him feel uncomfortable. And in the beginning, he didn’t really like it. He wanted her to either be perfect at both, or just speak one or the other.

Back in time sound effect

Let’s take a quick step back for a m inute to acknowledge the fact that just about everyone has a little bit of a language snob inside of them. Whether it’s a word you can’t stand to hear people mispronounce, or absolutely hating it when people don’t use words the right way.

There’s typically some sort of linguistic thing that you can’t or won’t budge on.

Anyway, that’s how Francisco felt about Spanglish at first.

But then he moved to San Diego, and he completely reversed course. Here, he found himself immersed in the language. And he started to get really into it.

Francisco 2 Clip 27 [07:58 - 8:26]
San Diego is full of spanglish. Uh, you take the trolley, you know, the, they give the message in English and in Spanish and uh, uh, oldest treat names, the name of the city itself, name of the beaches are in the Spanish, but people pronounce them in English, you know, so that's also a spanglish, that's also spangler, like pronouncing a word with a, with the opposite accent,

Nowadays, Francisco sometimes finds himself playing the role of Spanglish defender.

Super hero sound effect

He says he gets in linguistic debates about the fluidity of language and the value of an informal language like Spanglish.

Francisco 3 Clip 28 [05:26 - 6:34]
….So what I say is that wow spanglish is super interesting, is complex and it's very efficient. So it takes awhile to get use to it because yeah, sometimes is using English while you were speaking Spanish in other parts of Mexico. It's more related to, um, maybe a status, you know, like, okay, I'm going to speak in English because I have different status or I don't know, just an idea, but people don't like it. And that was like that. I mean, I remember friends in a conversation that suddenly say something in English and I was like, why? No, but when you come here to the border and everybody is talking like death and decline in every bar in the store, you know, in the street. It's like, okay, I get it, you know. And, and uh, and when you live here, after awhile, you realize that saying some words in English, it's faster, easier than saying the same word in Spanish.
Francisco 3 Clip 29 [8:05 - 8:57]
Francisco: We can be purists and just expect to use language and follow the rules that were established 200 years ago, you know, language. And what I'm trying to say also with this works is a language is alive and this as alive as a culture is alive. And if the culture is transforming, we have to expect the language to transform as well…...

Alright, it’s that time again. We need to take a quick break, but when we come back, KPBS podcast producer Kinsee Morlan meets up with Francisco to tour his Spanglish Show.

Midroll break

Artist and musician Francisco Eme built an entire exhibition based on the concept of Spanglish. Here’s KPBS producer Kinsee Morlan at that show.

Francisco 1 Clip 13 [2:10 - 2:250]
Walking down into exhibition … Hi, how are you? Good, I was just shooting some photos and videos….’

Francisco Eme built interactive installations, sound pieces, prints, videos and photography -- all based on Spanglish. He showed the body of work in the recent exhibition at the San Diego Art institute. That’s a contemporary art museum tucked in a basement in Balboa Park.

Sound is what composer and musician is most comfortable in -- it’s his medium of choice. But this exhibition pushed him to put his ideas into visual form.

First, Francisco showed me a series of graphic prints e made that wereh hanging on a wall in the center of the museum.

The prints visualize Spanglish in interesting ways.

And a quick note to listeners here: There were several sound pieces in the exhibition, so you’re going to hear those playing in the background.

Francisco 2 Clip 14 [03:26 - 5:40]
Francisco: these three posters, um, that somehow synthesize how spanglish works. So these posters, you can learn a little bit of a spanglish or you can teach a little bit of Spanish. Um, so there's spanglish, had several ways of working and these are just a few. If we start with this green poster, it is cold hybrids and spanglish works like that in, in, in the border. You have one word in English, like, like ride, you can, you have one word in Spanish I haven't done. And then you have one word which is an hybrid which is in the middle. It's not a Spanish is not English is writing, you know, if you say, hey man, one writer and people are going to understand, they're going to say, yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. Yeah, I can drop you off there or whatever. If you say patty is not the same as party of fiesta in the Bahamas, a party and everybody's going to understand what you're saying and not only in Tijuana, But all around San Diego or la, you know.

Then Francisco pointed at another one of the posters -- a colorful mixture of English sentences and Spanish sentences crashing into each other.

Francisco 2 Clip 15 [12:07 - 13:24]
Francisco: This is what people call code switching. Code switching is the moment in your brain when you switch from one language to the other. Um, so if you read all the words in English in black, sorry, you're gonna read in spanglish. I went to, to the tienda to buy platanos. But yeah, look at that one. That is pretty common. You know, people use a few words in English and in Spanish depending on how comfortable it is for them to pronounce platanos instead of bananas or sold out instead of, you know, you can also read the words in white store. fui a la store I compared some bananas, but they were all sold out and you can read the original language in the first half of the poster. I went to the store to buy some bananas, but they were all sold out or in Spanish. But again, okay. And this is very interesting because, uh, this is a full, a domination of both languages to speak like this, to tell it like this, you have to think in both languages. To talk like this, you have to think in both languages.

Next, Francisco walked over to a giant projected image of a photo of last year’s women’s march in downtown San Diego. The photo was incomplete - some of it was missing.

But every few seconds, a tweet containing a Spanglish word popped up at the top of the screen. And each time that happened, a pixel of the photo was filled in.

Francisco says it only takes about 24 hours for the giant photo and all of its dozens of pixels to be filled in.

That’s a lot of Spanglish.

Francisco 3 Clip 16 [00:05 - 1:03]
Francisco: Let's take a look at this. Yeah, so based on what we have learned about Spanglish, you can interact with this space. What this piece is doing is I'm reading all the words in spanglish on twitter, real time, and when the program finds one of these words, it shows it right there, hacker, that's one of the verbs that we saw there. And the transform. This was an empty square and it's just slowly adding these people protesting. Now you can see the original photograph here. This is the original photograph. And this is the photograph after maybe a day of spanglish on twitter.
Francisco 3 Clip 17 [01:59 - 2:17]
Francisco: and we can interact with this. So let's go to twitter and do it. So I'm just gonna write the posts on twitter that uses one of the words in spanglish and we're going to see my post right there and he's going to add one of these pixels.
Francisco 3 Clip 18 [03:51 - 4:12]
Francisco: it was very brief you saw it?That's pretty cool. Yeah. So in a way we are actually visualizing how popular spanglish is, you know, so I mean if you, if you live in front of the piece, you see that every minute there might be like maybe 20 tweets in Spanglish,

Next, Francisco showed me a tower of books stacked on top of one another. Six speakers were hidden inside the tower. And playing from the speakers were voices in both English and Spanish reading excerpts from the books in the pile.

Francisco 3 Clip 19 [11:11 - 11:59]
Nat sound from tower of books: Realization of flowers. I could otherwise not see the arguments made by the Castilian Medical Nancy and these lands, the proposals, goodness, my whole thing through grass and leaves could indeed be called the road down a hillside of oaks and maples. Their trunks griddled with the mid June morning with sweet. She is or neighborhood I can say on this date or in your phone though.
Francisco 3 Clip 20 [09:06 - 10:43]
So this piece, I was uh, I placed an open call for books. People could donate books, you know, they are building this new library in San Ysidro and I collaborate. I work in a, in a, in, in San Ysidro to of my hometown in San Diego. And so I asked for books. People donated these books and I'm going to try to name to donate them to the library after the submission. Uh, and this piece is called the anti babel tower. Basically it's a tower made of books with speakers. What you listened in on the speakers is the people reading a few pages of the books that conformed to the tower. Most of the books are in Spanish and English. So, um, it's kind of a going against the myth of the Babel Tower in which supposedly all languages come from. There was a single language and then people started to speak different things and nobody could understand each other. So we ended up with French English, Latin, Spanish, right? Well, in this tower, everybody understands what's going on so everybody understands English, everybody understands Spanish and they are blending together to create a single towers of language, a unity of language.
Francisco 3 Clip 21 [12:20 - 12:48]
Francisco: So, um, yeah, it's a tower of, of unity of voices at the, at the top of the tower we have this book that I read a few a few years ago is called voces in frontaire as, or voices without borders with different authors that write about the border, that write about Spanish, spanglish, they write about the culture in the border region.

Next, we headed toward a pair of headphones and a digital recorder hanging on the wall.

Francisco 3 Clip 22 [16:13 - 16:48]
Francisco: This is a five hours of recordings of a border crossings. - Edit out - So people just come to the headphones on and listen to this five hours of recordings. They are pretty, pretty brief. Maybe one minute, 30 seconds. H, m and just listen to what it is like to cross the border, you know, in that particular moment when you are entering USA from Mexico.
Francisco 3 Clip 23 [17:25- 18:05]
Francisco: Just bringing the attention to, to also, uh, the questions that you're asked. Your'e being asked when you cross a border and how these officials talk to you, you know, they speak Spanish and they speak English too, and they switch from Spanish to English in second. So it's just another part of the culture and I think from the people who don't cross the border, this could be a way of experiencing, you know, that precise moment when you are being questioned

What you’re hearing now is one of Francisco’s recordings people heard when they put on the headphones hanging on the gallery wall.

Clip from Francisco’s border crossing recording.

Francisco 3 Clip 24 [18:15 - 18:38]
Francisoc: let's remember that there's a lot of people who live here in San Diego never go to Mexico. So maybe, I don't know. I thought that this is a piece that somehow explains the complete complexities of crossing from one system to the other, you know, from one government to the other, from one culture to the other.

Clip from Francisco’s border crossing recording.

The last piece in the collection was a sculpture made up of a pile of giant illuminated letters -- like letters of a sign you might see mounted over a storefront.

Francisco says he found the letters in a dumpster in San Ysidro.

Francisco 3 Clip 25 [14:05 - 15:14]
So the idea is that the world that once was formed completely disappears and this is a way of bringing attention to the dangers of a languages that disappear or cultures that are being pushed away by the officiality of the academy. The system, you know, so spanglish is, is part of, uh, of, of, of that the language and the, not only language but the culture and the border has been pushed, you know, by the American culture, but also by the Mexican culture, you know, so it's been pushed from the center of the country is pushed to the north of the country in Mexico from the center of the country is pushed to the side of the country in the USA, right from the arts, from the academy, you know, it's like, no, you didn't speak Spanish. I speak Spanish. You speak English. This is a way of representing that.

Spanglish Audio Piece Clip

What you’re hearing now is another one of the audio pieces Francisco made for his show. And listening to it, you can tell how mu
ch he likes the sound of Spanglish.
He says the blend of the two languages is a beautiful and inevitable expression of border culture.

A quick update on Francisco: I checked in with him recently since we produced this episode months ago, and he has some exciting news. After months volunteering for a nonprofit in San Ysidro that runs an art gallery just a walk away from the border fence, Francisco is now officially the director of it. The gallery is called The Front. So, keep your eye on that gallery, because I have a feeling he’ll ensure it’s packed with really interesting exhibitions and events.

Next episode teaser

Next time on the podcast.

A developer who’s working to build a Crossborder District.

Miguel Marshall on Crossborder lifestyle clip 6 (02:10 - 2:42)
Miguel: bringing the cultures together and, and, and, and, and just creating this new type of third world or space, um, it, it just makes it, uh, something that, that you have to live to understand.

We check out the developer’s latest project, a building that includes a bar that wants to serve cocktails and beer to both sides of the border. And we talk about the challenges that come with trying to build projects for a binational crowd.

Show credits

Show credits

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It’s written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the technical producer. Lisa Morrisette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. KPBS podcasts are made possible by you guys. We know there are thousands of you listening, so if each one of you just donated a few bucks, it’d have a big impact. Go to kpbs dot org right now and click on the blue give now button to show your support. Thanks.

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Only Here

Only Here is a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet. Host Alan Lilienthal and producer Kinsee Morlan tell stories that could only come from a border town.