So there’s an entire entry over at TV Tropes entitled Gratuitous Spanish. I am muy aware of it, and have been since before I threw caution to the wind and decided to have Rosa’s first ever lines consist of a rather colorful expression in her native tongue. Sprinkling your “foreign” character’s speech with non-English words and phrases can be a tricky business, right up there with that issue of writing characters from different cultural and racial backgrounds than you might be familiar with. How much is too much? Is the only way to win not to play?
I’m fortunate enough that I don’t have to theorize about what Latin-Americans and bilingual English/Spanish speakers might be like, since I’m around multiple individual examples on a near daily basis. Many of my friends, and for that matter my half-Mexican wife, barely speak any Spanish at all much less use it in casual conversation. On the other hand, a former supervisor of mine not born in the U.S.A. spoke quite fluent English but loved to pepper her speech with bits from the Old Country, particularly when she wanted to mutter something impolite under her breath. On the other other hand, the bilingual gentleman whom I often consult for idiomatic purposes sometimes has to further outsource to his neighborhood buddies because in his own household he learned really quickly to swear exclusively in English lest he earn a smack from his Spanish-speaking mother.
Pretty complicated, no? While Dawn still operated under her maiden name of Sanchez, she would regularly get telemarketing calls in Spanish, and she’d barely be able to understand why they were bothering her. It was just assumed she’d speak Spanish, and to point out just how ludicrous that idea is, it’s like calling up every Weiss in an American phone directory and trying to sell them something in German. Yesterday’s immigrants are today’s natives. Two or three generations in and the kids are going to sound indistinguishable from everyone else in whatever area they happened to grow up; any knowledge they have of the language Great-Grandma spoke may well be a memory, and something they’d be struggling just as much to learn in school as any other kid who doesn’t have that ancestry.
But let’s get back to the issue of gratuitous use. It seems to me that the major objections to writers putting non-native talk into a non-native character’s mouth are rooted in that concept of symbolizing and short-cutting your way to a form of characterization in an ultimately lazy way. Oh! This guy is French! I will convey that to my audience by having him shout ‘Mon Dieu!’ a lot and having him say ‘le’ in place of ‘the’. This line of thinking can pose serious problems even for a joke character, much less one you’re supposed to take seriously. For instance, one of the related problems documented by TV Tropes is Poirot Speak, where the foreign character will use their foreign versions of simple elements of speech but has no problem with far more complex words or phrases in their non-native tongue. At that point the mode of speaking becomes a bit unrealistic and artificial to the audience and they start questioning why, and if it’s not a plot point then the unsatisfying answer is usually laziness on the part of a storyteller wanting to convey “foreign” without really thinking about it.
Where Rosa is concerned I’ve thought about it. I don’t know if that makes the end product any better, but I do like occasionally having her bust out with some Spanish, especially when she’s alone or frustrated. For that matter I’ll stick occasional Spanish into the mouths of my white folks, because that’s kind of just how things happen near a border or similar cross-pollination of cultures. I myself use phrases like “de nada” in my everyday speech, because for my money it sure rolls off the tongue easier than “don’t mention it”. My very white, very Republican granddad who lived in Texas wasn’t what you’d call a fluent Spanish speaker but certainly knew enough to get by on his trips south of the Rio Grande, and he’d spice his speeches with Spanglish delivered with such gruff matter-of-factness that I never really questioned if he was getting his grammar or pronunciation right. Back in the realm of fiction, Chuck probably wouldn’t pick up on “Me lleva la chingada” except through context, but ‘claro’? Bueno! And Suzie certainly knows enough to roll her eyes at the idea of someone proclaiming themselves to be named “Rosa Amarilla”.
For her part, Rosa is sometimes slipping into Spanish/Spanglish when she wants to mutter privately, sometimes when she wants to impress, and even once I’m pretty sure she called Frank “amigo” just to get under his skin after he brought up cojones. As long as it’s coming from a place where it seems to make sense for the character and no one’s usage seems stupid (unless it’s meant to be), I feel I’m on solid ground.
Besides, if you really think about it, I can’t exactly ignore the elefante in the room. So many words we consider classically “cowboy” come straight out of Spanish, albeit with somewhat butchered pronunciation. Rodeo. Compadre. Lariat, from la reata. Or my favorite, ‘buckaroo’ being an oh-so-Texan mangling of the Spanish word for cowboy, vaquero.
English and Spanish shook hands across the border long before I came along, and not just in one direction, as evident from Spanish phrases like ‘el pet shop’. I’m still no proponent of Rosa shouting “Dios Mio!” every other page to remind audiences of her Mexicanosity… not just because that’s obnoxious, but if you’re surrounded by English-speaking people and trying to ingratiate yourself amongst them, it wouldn’t make much sense to keep loudly reminding them you’re an outsider. You’re only going to do that around them when you slip up, or perhaps have some reason to make an exception.
When those exceptions occur, does it come off as gratuitous? Hopefully not. Gratuitous in the context of storytelling really just means “unnecessary”, so like any story element I’m ultimately gambling on my experience and instinct that its inclusion is worthwhile. Well, that and making sure to consult sources beyond just Google translate if it’s getting beyond the basics. Those are all the tips I have to give. De nada.