May 10, 2006

Mock Spanish in the cellular age

In a 1995 paper, the linguistic anthropologist Jane Hill argued that the register of "Mock Spanish" serves as "a site for the indexical reproduction of racism in American English." Though it may be hard to accept Bart Simpson's "Ay, caramba!" or Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Hasta la vista, baby" as racist discourse, even covertly so, there's no denying [*] the racist intent of a cell-phone ringtone recently pulled from the Cingular Wireless website. According to an article in the Brownsville Herald (picked up by the AP wire), the ringtone was called "La Migra," a Spanish term for the U.S. Border Patrol. The Herald describes the ringtone as follows:

In it, a siren is heard, followed by a male voice that says in a southern accent: "Calmate, calmate, this is la migra. Por favor, put the oranges down and step away from the cell phone. I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I'm deporting you back home-o."

The recording makes extensive use of -o suffixing, a feature Hill observes is one of the hallmarks of Mock Spanish. The most common example of this jocular suffixing is "No problemo," heard along with "Hasta la vista, baby" in the movie Terminator 2. As Hill notes, "No problemo" doesn't derive from Spanish (where the equivalent expression is No hay problema) but rather is simply the English colloquialism "No problem" with -o added. Hill's paper includes many more examples of such suffixation, from routine putdowns like "el cheap-o" to this personal ad in the UC San Diego student newspaper which seems to combine Mock Spanish with Mock Sicilian:

"Don Thomas -- Watcho your backo! You just mighto wake uppo con knee capo obliterato. Arriba!"

Cingular Wireless, to its credit, denounced the "La Migra" ringtone as "blatantly offensive" and pulled it from the site as soon as a reporter from the Brownsville Herald pointed it out. The AP reports that the ringtone was developed by "Barrio Mobile" and was available on the Cingular site beginning in late February or early March (since which time it had only been downloaded eight times). The timing of the discovery is rather inopportune, given how polarized the debates over immigration and Spanish-language usage have become since the eruption of the "Nuestro Himno" controversy (see here, here, here, here, and here). One can only hope that the news of the pulled ringtone might provoke some healthy introspection about ugly stereotypes of Mexican immigrants and the frequent offensiveness of Mock Spanish.

[* Update #1: Paul Postal takes exception with my assertion that "there's no denying the racist intent" of the ringtone:

It is not racist to make fun of Mexican/Spanish accents and cannot be. Spanish is spoken by people of many racial groups and made fun of by many. If an African-American makes fun of Arnold Schwarzennegger's accent, is that racist? Give me a break.

I acknowledge that it was overly glib of me to say "there's no denying..." when there may be many who deny the point. However, I use "racist" here as Jane Hill does in her paper, to imply a "racializing" effect (regardless of whether one consciously imagines Spanish speakers in the U.S. as a separate "race"). Quoting Hill:

I would argue, along with many contemporary theorists of racism such as van Dijk (1993), Essed (1991), and Goldberg (1993), that to find that an action or utterance is "racist", one does not have to demonstrate that the racism is consciously intended. Racism is judged, instead, by its effects: of successful discrimination and exclusion of members of the racialized group from goods and resources enjoyed by members of the racializing group. It is easy to demonstrate that such discrimination and exclusion not only has existed in the past against Mexican Americans and other members of historically Spanish-speaking populations in the United States, but continues today.

As I said, it may be hard to accept that, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger's catchphrases in Terminator 2 have the racializing effect that Hill ascribes to them, but the "La Migra" ringtone makes no bones about its reliance on racist stereotypes of Mexican border-crossers and arguably Mexican-Americans and Latinos more generally. This is an overt type of offensively racializing discourse, I think many would agree, regardless of one's feelings about what Hill identifies as "covert indexes" of racism in other Mock Spanish utterances.]

[Update #2: Turns out the ringtone was a work of satire by a Mexican-American comedian. Details here.]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at May 10, 2006 01:35 AM