Call the Spanish Word Police


Two recent mistakes in La Opinion's Twitter feed were too juicy to pass up.

In the first the leading Spanish language newspaper in the United States (as it describes itself) posted a tweet promoting a story about Boyle Heights mariachis pissed off that "fake" mariachis unfamiliar with mariachi standards and who charge half the going rates are swooping in on unsuspecting customers. I'd say the veteran mariachis are out of tune, for sure. Desentonar, in Spanish. The typo, desentontan, is not in the dictionary.

"They fucked up!" said Cal State Northridge journalism professor Jose Luis Benavides. "If it existed, the word would mean to remove one's dumbness, the dream of any of our parents."

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Tonto means dumb. Entontar means to make dumb or to disorient. Desentontar means to remove dumbness. Ay.

"I think it's the lack of editing and as newspapers reduce staffs, the quality of what they're producing in English and Spanish is getting worse," Benavides said.

"Spanish language newspapers in the United States have always seen themselves as upholders of the Spanish language, the guardians of the language. The internet is changing that," he said. In generations past, he said, Spanish language newspapers like the 19th century's El Clamor Publico in L.A. published poetry and literature because it couldn't get published anywhere else.

Benavides said the educational system is making things worse. Many of his college students, he said, don't read for pleasure, don't read long stories, and are sloppy with their vocabulary. He explains that speaking Spanish with proper grammar in the U.S. is like being under siege from English and American culture. English has made love to Spanish and gave birth to Spanglish offspring like marketa, checar, and hangear. As in, vamos a hangear en CityWalk con el Flaco.

Who deputized me as the Spanish word cop? Moi, claro. I do this without cum laude credentials; Spanish is my first language, I survived the ear-twisting nuns in first grade in Tijuana, spent lots of time with aunts and uncles who are teachers in Mexico, grew up reading lots of books, magazines, and newspapers in Spanish. Here's a good pre-internet tidbit: while at U.C. San Diego I'd go into Tijuana on Sundays to buy Mexico City newspapers La Jornada and Unomasuno. A few years out of college I wrote an arts and culture column called Fronteras Diabolicas for La Tarde newspaper in Tijuana.


Which brings us to La Opinion tweet number two. It describes a La Opinion article about professionals, like engineers, kidnapped and forced to work for drug cartels. A la fuerza is the appropriate translation of by force. Instead the tweet is la fuerza, the force. Profesionistas son reclutados por la fuerza, professionals recruited by the force, leads me to picture Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker handing a light saber to one of these ingenieros and all going after Darth Sidious.

I sent a copy of the tweet to Benavides halfway through the interview. He couldn't stop laughing. Could. Not. Stop. Laughing.

"Sí, es un typo," yes, it's a typo, said Isaac Vazquez, the guy at La Opinion's parent company, Impremedia, who's in charge of social media. He said he wasn't sure if he made the typos or if it was an assistant who's no longer working there. He used the word desatino, mistake, blunder, to describe it. You see, Vasquez, who's based in Brooklyn, is in charge of the Twitter feeds for a handful of large publications in three time zones. He puts out at least one hundred tweets a day. We can't let the rush of getting the news out affect the quality of what we do, he said. On paper he has the chops to do it right. Before his current gig he headed social media at El Universal, a big Mexico City daily newspaper. Before that he worked at CNN Mexico. He has a communications degree from the UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In a 15-minute conversation in Spanish (well 25 percent in Spanglish on my part) he firmly defended the richness of the myriad Spanish spoken in dozens of countries, reaching English-dominant Latinos in the U.S., and books. Ah ha, I had to ask the Enrique Peña Nieto question. You've no doubt seen one of the leading presidential candidates in Mexico go Rick Perry on everyone at the prestigious Guadalajara book fair a week and a half ago. Which three books marked your life, the interviewer asked, as Peña Nieto presented his own book on his political platform.

The leading candidate of the once-dominant PRI party couldn't correctly name one. Reading parts of the Bible as a youth influenced me, he began. "La Silla del aguila" by [Enrique] Krauze he cautiously said. Trouble is that's a Carlos Fuentes book. ¡Chanfles! Minute after painful minute passed as he dug himself a deeper hole, that trilogy by Jeffrey Archer, what are the books, "Kane and Abel," "The Prodigal Daughter," what's the other one, he asked anyone willing to help him. It's been red meat for the pundits while some have created a signature Mexican double-entendre style guerrilla campaign on Youtube poking fun at Peña Nieto's entontamiento.

For the record, here are Vazquez's three influential books: "Distant Neighbors: Portrait of the Mexicans" by former NY Times correspondent Alan Riding, "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man," by Marshall McLuhan, and "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury, all read in Spanish translations, of course.

Hey, that all nearly made me forget about desentontar and la fuerza. We'll let La Opinion off with a warning this time, move along. I don't want to be accused of lexicon-profiling. Vazquez said he hopes the newspaper's new social media efforts and the engagement of Spanish speakers from all walks of life will enrich the Spanish language product that he helps put out every day.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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