Features

Petit Pois, Guisantes, Chícharos y Arvejas También

Every year, thousands of people cross the border from Mexico into the United States. As a result, Mexican culture has become deeply infused with American life. But perhaps it’s because of such convergence that an immense amount of discrimination exists.

Story by Rebecca Leisher

En El Otro Lado takes us cerca de la frontera, or near the border, to San Diego for a closer look at the hardships Mexican immigrants face. ¡Ahora Sí! profiles Armando Morales, a pioneer in the fight for diversity in Eugene’s media. Petit Pois, Quisantes, Chicaros, Arvejas, También displays the challenges and benefits of being multiethnic and multilingual. Collectively, these three features provide a look at the mezcla cultural between Mexico and the United States and remind us of the importance of tolerance.

“Ni es bueno ni es malo, sino abominable”—it is neither good nor bad, but abominable, said Mexican writer Octavio Paz, expressing his opinion on inglañol, or Spanglish, as it’s known in the United States.

Purists have been condemning the hybrid language for years, whether they view it as linguistic corruption or a debilitation of effective communication. The English First Foundation fights against bilingual education in U.S. schools and advocates “the importance of preserving English as the common language of the United States.” The Royal Academy of Spanish Language, based in Madrid, develops linguistic policies with Spanish-speaking countries to sustain their historic language.

Lillian Darwin-López doesn’t agree with the purists.

Darwin-López’s life is a mélange of language, culture, and heritage. Her family lived in Eugene, Oregon until Darwin-López was a teenager when they moved to Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Her father was part Chickasaw; her mother is also mixed. Darwin-López’s ex-husband is Rastafarian and half Chorotega, an indigenous tribe of Nicaragua. Their son, Sereno, was trilingual by age eight. Darwin-López and Sereno have lived all over Latin America, Spain, and the United States. She speaks Spanish, English, Portuguese, and some Japanese. Her life has been anything but that of a purist.

Different versions of Spanglish are just regional dialects of Spanish, says Darwin-López, who now teaches Spanish at the University of Oregon. “My Spanglish is very mixed up in Costa Rican Spanish, which has its own peculiarities that you don’t even understand outside Costa Rica,” she says. She points out that she grew up calling peas petit pois, pulling out her copy of the first-year Spanish textbook. She riffles through its pages in search of the standard Spanish word, which she’d never heard before teaching the language. “Ah, guisantes,” she says, shaking her head. “So here’s an example: In Spain you say guisantes, in México you say chícharos, and in several other Caribbean countries they say arvejas—oh, and in Chile también—and then we say petit pois.”

Darwin-López also points out that there are words that don’t exist in Latin America, so Spanish speakers form words out of the English equivalents. She says chatear is a good example. While charlar means literally “to chat,” Internet chatting required a different word. “A lot of people say it’s killing the language, but Spanish is a hybrid language to begin with,” she says, pointing out heavy Latin as well as Arabic influences.

Raising her son to be multilingual has been a fun challenge for Darwin-López. When Sereno was younger, he’d say things like, “what funny”—switching between English words and Spanish structure characteristic of Spanglish. Darwin-López wants her son to learn proper Spanish eventually, but she’s careful not to overcorrect him. “I never discouraged his attempts to speak Spanish,” she says. “I thought it was great because it shows that he was thinking in both languages.”

Darwin-López thinks the blending of different languages and cultures is beautiful and creative, far from being polluted. “The idea of purity of language to me is linked to the idea of purity of race,” she says. “And that’s something I’m not interested in preserving at all.”

She’s much more interested in generating cultural awareness, especially in Sereno, who is now 11-years-old. Darwin-López’s family, education, and work brought them to Costa Rica, Bolivia, Spain, Ecuador, and Brazil until they settled in the United States three years ago. While she enjoys having a home base after so much traveling, Darwin-López is thankful her son’s worldview extends beyond Eugene. When they lived in Bolivia, he was shocked to find that he shared his skin color with so many other people. “Wow, Mom, everybody here is some shade of brown,” he would say.

Throughout their travels, Sereno also noticed kids his age—six or seven years old—working and living on the streets. Darwin-López says she’s always tried to be upfront with her son and explain the social inequalities in the world, but she also tries to protect him from certain negative images in the media, which are sometimes influenced by the tensions that can result from cultural convergence. She says she’s often disturbed by the way people of color are portrayed in mainstream media, so she tries to teach Sereno to be critical of what he watches or hears.

“There’s a tendency to see Latinos as gang-bangers and lazy,” she says. “I’m not interested in him taking on that self-image.”

On the other hand, Darwin-López appreciates and enjoys popular culture because it’s an opportunity for “really cool hybrids” between cultures to emerge. She points to low-rider culture as something completely original. “It’s kitschy, in-your-face, clearly not Mexican and clearly not Anglo, but it’s a mix,” she says. “They take popular culture and change it and make it their own.” Darwin-López appreciates those aspects of popular culture because she doesn’t want anyone to be forced into a “box of authenticity.”

Keeping a balance between enjoying popular culture and maintaining cultural self-esteem has been tricky for the Darwin-López family since they have moved back to the states. When Sereno was in elementary school his class put on a Thanksgiving play, and he was insistent on being a pilgrim rather than a Native American. He seemed to feel that being Native American was negative. Darwin-López says Sereno is a wide mixture of ethnicities: Latin American, African American, and almost half indigenous of various tribes in the Americas. “I was really upset,” Darwin-López says. “I really try to cultivate pride in him in his various backgrounds.”

“The kinds of pathways it opens up in your brain, the kinds of leaps of imagination, understanding—when you get that concept, there’s more than one way to think.”

A self-proclaimed idealist, Darwin-López hopes Sereno’s diverse background and world experience leads to “greater intercultural understanding.” In her experience, being raised from a mixed background fosters a more empathetic outlook toward people around the world. That perspective is already evident in Sereno’s responses to children living in other countries like Bolivia and in his ability to befriend people from all walks of life.

“There’s something about having parents from different worlds and having yourself grown up in different worlds—It’s a lot harder to turn your back on someone else’s pain.”

When she reads Colombian news, she can relate to the place and the people because she’s been there, but that empathy also extends, she says. “I understand that to people in Iraq, Iraq is the center of their world, so the pain they’re experiencing is not just something passing on the nightly news.”

Darwin-López says the same thing goes for being multilingual, which is why she’s not a stickler about keeping Spanish and English separate. It’s also why she encourages Sereno to use different languages, regardless of whether his use is proper.

“The kinds of pathways it opens up in your brain, the kinds of leaps of imagination, understanding—when you get that concept, there’s more than one way to think.”

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