restricted access Three Notes on Usage
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fl fl fl ThreeNotesonUsage To begin with, Mexicans have no ready-to-hand term for most of the thirty million souls who inhabit the country just north of them, calling them los gringos, or los güeros even. Certainly, the 10 to 15 percent of the United States that calls itself African American would reject those labels, but that community represents still another problem for Spanish speakers. Moreno is the term that refers to skin with a certain degree of melanin, but it’s a relative term—one person being simply más moreno than another. Moreno lacks the knife-edge either/or distinction that English tries to make between black and white, a distinction that filled the history of the United States—the one that considers Washington, D.C., its capital, I mean—with tales of black folks passing for white. Meanwhile, in the United Mexican States, deciding whether someone is moreno or güero might resemble deciding whether a given day is hot or cold, cloudy or fair. Second, the corresponding nomenclature in English is equally weak. English has no equivalent to mexicano—a term that in fact refers not to citizenship or place of birth, but rather to how the person in question thinks and eats and raises children, works and worships and blasphemes , treats authority figures and family members. A mexicano may be Chicano or Mexican or even—God help us—apparently hillbilly. After all, what is it I see when I look at myself? When I listen to my own speech, observe my own behavior, etc., I see a guy who passes through a mental turnstile several times a minute. But leave my self-observation apparatus running—for forty-eight hours, say, or seventy-two—and I observe a guy who seems to prefer the company of mexicanos/as, at least judging by how many hours a week he spends with them. It’s nothing I observe firsthand. But when I look at myself as another person would, the preference is clear. Three Notes on Usage 11 The reason isn’t especially complicated, either. I simply find the company of mexicanos much less monochromatic, full of a wider variety of feelings, or at least of feelings more nuanced, of attitudes calibrated to finer degrees of tolerance. It probably has less to do with the message than with the medium, a broad and subtle difference between U.S. English and Mexican Spanish. Everything that, in the latter, sounds to the gringo ear so wholly redundant, so very baroque, so ingrown and finicky even—the endless shades that greeting and farewell take on; the con-permiso-and-buen-provecho element in everyday speech—all of it works like traffic signals between two people talking, indicating to each the type and degree of feeling in play. It isn’t easy to learn, of course. The painstaking, fastidious nature of mexicano speech made Octavio Paz characterize the national way of life as a labyrinth of solitude. The everyday talk of mexicanos features the tale, the old saying, the snappy comeback, and the ludicrous comparison. Precisely because it expresses so much of itself in tones that spin with counter-intent—audible only up close, in the original—mi raza remains what it is because of chats over back fences, or starched tablecloths, because of a heart-to-heart through a screen door, or a piece of mind delivered long distance. Listen for antique phrases, bits of speech that bear no information, only a vague goodwill to the hearer, a readiness to extend to him or her the rights and privileges of the civilized. Think of it as preening each other with words. Which, by the way, brings up my third point of usage: how I myself grew up hearing the word hillbilly used. It was an acknowledgment Ozark people gave each other that, sure, most of the world thought we were hicks, and probably we were, but . . . Hunh? But! The oppositional conjunction: but! That was the flag we sailed under. We were chip-on-the-shoulder, long-term counter-punchers, specialists in the last word, the last laugh. Plus, we knew we were smarter than they thought we were. Finally, one generation—I think it was my mother’s—took the word hillbilly and turned it inside out to where, depending on how they said it, you heard either embarrassment or pride, but most often a mix of the two. The history of the term hillbilly, in short, paralleled that...