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The Melding Americas : 'Spanglish' Mirrors Hybrid Culture on U.S.-Mexican Border : The incursion of English into Spanish has been driven by television and migration.

September 27, 1994|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Near the line where cultures collide, furtive men hang out at phone booths along San Ysidro Boulevard, a teeming strip of brightly colored Mexican restaurants, shops and currency exchanges that seems a northern mirror of Tijuana.

The men are daredevil drivers-for-hire who take illegal immigrants on the fateful trek to Los Angeles: a raite , it is called--a ride. And the drivers are known as raiteros.

Adapted English words such as these are common among Spanish-speakers in Southern California barrios and Mexican border cities, cropping up even in official reports of the Baja state judicial police. The border buzzes with terms that Miguel de Cervantes never used in "Don Quixote"-- lonche (lunch), dompe (dump), yonke (junk). Some Tijuanans also indulge in idiomatic concoctions such as dame un quebrazo (give me a break).

"Spanglish" has a long history in northern Mexico, the American Southwest and Latino urban centers such as Miami. The epic convergence of people and cultures at the California-Mexico border provides fertile ground for its continued growth. The linguistic frontier is being reshaped by Oaxacan migrant vendors and Chicano poets, by wealthy Mexico City matrons with vacation homes in La Jolla and Tijuana graffiti artists in baggy jeans. Los baggies .

Fran Ilich is on the vanguard.

Only 18, he is a slender and feisty journalist, filmmaker, aspiring novelist and leader of a restless generation of Tijuana youths who epitomize trans-border culture. They speak a playful, convoluted patois of Spanish peppered with hip English expressions: los taggers, los punks, los hardcoreros, los raves and underground, coffeehouse, fliers, wanna-bes, posers, get-a-life.

Ilich founded a multimedia group of poets, photographers, disc jockeys and other guerrilla artists known as "Counter-culture." He also runs with Fool Krew, one of dozens of rebellious teen-age groups from Tijuana that have drenched the contiguous border cities in bilingual graffiti.

"What do I have to do with Mexico City or Sinaloa, if I spent my life shopping here at Ralphs and Safeway?" Ilich asked, slurping a Coke at a Jack-in-the-Box in San Ysidro. "Before being Mexican, I am from Tijuana. Taggers, raves, techno-- those are words you can't translate. I have to like this transculturation, this hybrid language: That's what I am."

The incursion of English into Spanish has been driven by television and migration, according to sociologist Jose Manuel Valenzuela Arce of the Cultural Center of Tijuana.

"The mobility and the migration at this end of the century are making the cultural interaction more intense," he said. "That doesn't mean we are entering the era of globalized culture as some have said, but rather that people can more easily construct and re-create cultural codes that circulate with enormous rapidity across borders. . . . What we are seeing now is the expansion of the limits of the border."

For example, the once-insular, hybrid slang of subcultures such as Los Angeles' zoot-suited pachucos of the 1940s and today's cholo gang members has spread to regions and social classes far beyond their origins, Valenzuela said. Meanwhile, the advent of computer technology has introduced a host of English technical terms into everyday Spanish.

And some efforts of U.S. officialdom to communicate with Spanish speakers have added to a glossary of occasionally comical linguistic deformities. In 1992, the Phoenix International Airport posted bilingual signs attempting to warn that "Violators will be fined." The signs declared " Violadores seran finados "--which means "Rapists will be deceased."

On the Mexican side of the international line, the onslaught of English has raised worries about cultural colonization. The government has launched some elaborate campaigns in defense of the language. Many border denizens do not want to be defended, however.

"The border has its own very healthy culture based precisely on the clash, the disparity of the two cultures, which in a way end up complementing each other," said Miguel Escobar, a novelist from the border state of Sonora who works as press attache at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. "It is a cultural phenomenon that has a certain appeal."

Valenzuela, the Tijuana sociologist, draws a comparison to the profound Arab influence in medieval Spain; about a quarter of Spanish words today are of Arab origin, from Ole , the familiar bullfight cheer, to the incongruously elegant word for sewer: alcantarilla . He argues that the influx of Spanglish similarly enriches the language.

"Otherwise, the language becomes a museum piece," he said. "All languages have evolved like this. The idea is to have more words and richer and more intense social relations."

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