Origin and perspective of Spanglish in the United States (I)

Many missions, streets and city names are the vestige of a Hispanic culture that left indelible traces of its presence in the United States, and that due to a lack of acknowledgment for a long time close to denial, managed to interact in dichotomy in order to survive.

Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, El Paso, San Luis and countless more, original words of the Spanish language, pronounced here with English accent, give name to a good part of the geopolitical demarcations of the country. They are at the same time, indelible marks of a language and a culture that have been present in the chronology of this nation and that by the very fact of coexisting, have ‘corrupted’ the purity of the English language.

The United States territory much of which once belonged to the Spanish Empire and thereafter to the Mexican Republic is today the daily scenario of a Spanish spoken by more than 34 million of its inhabitants1. Spanish, the second most common language in this country, represents a linguistic mosaic to which the original Hispanic presence as well as the subsequent migration flows, have contributed.

Carlos Fuentes , who has said “I don’t believe in the purity of languages, nor of customs, or nothing else. We live in an impure world, and that is to be celebrated,” suggests by saying so, that the consistent coincidence of the Spanish language with English, allows the possibility of Spanglish as a language in construction.


The first remnants of the existence and daily use of an amalgamation between the English and the Spanish languages in the United States arise during the first half of the 19th century, emerging from the intersection of two nations, two cultures and at that time, two adversaries.

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The political instability that characterized the independent life of Mexico after the war that freed the country from the Spanish Crown [1810-1821], was soon capitalized by the expansionist interests of the United States, at a time when the purchase and the conquest were still valid resources for the acquisition of territories by imperialist nations. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo3 decreed in 1848 the cession of half of the Mexican territory, what we currently know as the states of California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah, as well as part of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming; as a condition to end the Mexican-American War4.  One hundred thousand Mexicans, who were left to the north side of the new border, abruptly became foreigners in their own land.

Such socio-political and cultural laceration is followed by a series of events extended into the 20th century, which grant a passive but ultimately alive presence of Spanish in this country. This is a broken by force, dynamic Spanish, which had to mutate and adapt to its immediate universe that was a dimension written, read, and spoken in English. Here begins the fusion.
This flow of historical events that allowed the Spanish language to stay here, includes the continuous immigration of peasants that after the destruction resulting from the Mexican Revolution [1910] are forced to move to agricultural activities in the U.S. fields [1920 decade]. Years later, due to the demand for workers resulting of the American participation in World War II, this flow is formalized between the two governments through the Bracero Program 5 [1942-1964].

In this same period of the 20th century, the sons of farmers who came to seasonal harvests and who had chosen to stay on this side of the border, gave origin to the first generation of Mexican-Americans. That’s how the Chicano culture is born, giving more relevance to the linguistic ‘code change’ and to the mix of terms between English and Spanish.

The Pachucos and their contribution to a hybrid language

Versions on the exact period the ‘Pachuco’ concept appeared in the United States vary. This stereotype which depicts a young American of Mexican origin (Chicano), wears striking clothes: a suit with very loose, but tight at the waist and the calves’ pants, a long jacket with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders; it was what we know as the Zoot Suit 6.

As a complement of the attire, an Italian hat occasionally adorned with a feather, while the special touch was provided by long chains on the side of the trousers. The shoes were bicolor French style, usually in black and white. Looking for group cohesion and inertia with the rest of the world, the Pachucos also invent and promote their own speaking code, a slang today known as Spanglish.

Pachucos are the second generation of young Mexican-Americans that during the years of World War II [1939-1945] lived in the eastern neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

They were rebel, developed a hybrid language and with the creation of their own music, exalted themselves as a group to be distinguished. They were deeply embedded in their neighborhoods and had a code of honor which included respect for the group’s hierarchy, and although some of them blended in criminal activity, his fights were one to one.

Despised by everyone and often accused by the police of a wave of youth crimes that flogged the city of Los Angeles; by 1943, rejection towards the Pachucos had violent consequences. Groups of marine and military men, and white civilians, mounted in taxis, would start search routes to attack Pachucos. They would beat them, undress them, and cut their hair.

As a totally marginalized group, the Pachucos would to some extent, inspire the Chicano movement at the end of the 1960s, vindicating them as the first Mexican-American group that opted for their own style and that not only rebelled against the American system, but that also detached themselves from the Mexican tradition.

But discrediting the Pachucos didn’t exclusively happen this side of the border.  For Octavio Paz7, the Pachuco is someone who “has lost their entire legacy: language, religion, customs, beliefs”, is a sad, grotesque, tragic and at the same time ridiculous figure, in search of their own identity.

That’s the way Paz described them on his essay “The Pachuco and other extremes,” a text based on the direct observation of the writer during the time he lived in the city of Los Angeles.

However, some social researchers accuse the portrait Octavio Paz makes of the Pachuco is harsh, cruel and even unfair. They incriminate Paz for not valuing their contribution to the new identity of Mexicans who migrated to the United States; contrary to what is happening now with the recognition given to Pachucos related to the genesis of the Spanglish.

Although something similar -on a smaller scale- was already happening with the mixture of languages among Cuban immigrants in Florida, and in Puerto Rico between Boricuas; Pachucos are the ones who give birth to Spanglish as a form of expression and as linguistic art between two borders, the so-called Chicano slang, an argot that merged words and phrases with the use of Spanish terminology and by creatively adapting English words. The Pachuco slang is later on taken up by Cholos and is still frequently used in the lexicon of some urban Latinos.

While being a trend of Los Angeles, the Pachuco style including its hybrid language, stretched South to San Diego and through the border to the State of Texas, crossing down into Mexico and attaining special influence in Tijuana and in Ciudad Juárez.

Germán Valdés 8, Mexican comedian best known as Tin-Tan, played a number of films that gave life to a Pachuco character, based on real life people he saw during the years he lived in the border cities of Juarez and Tijuana; prior to his national success in the Mexican film industry.

In his filmography, Tin-Tan used to play language games by mixing isolated English words with Spanish, as we do today with Spanglish. This is how he described the Pachuco phenomenon a few years ago:

“The Pachuco subculture declined over the years 1960s and early 1970s due to the recession and to the increasingly violent nature of life on the border, as Mexican-American groups adopted a uniform consisting on flannel shirts, khakis or baggy denim trousers and a bandana in the forehead which represented the image of the worker in the United States; this is how the Cholo image is created     arising from the Pachuco’s image, as its evolution, but it is also how the Pachuco started to die. An interesting fact is that the Zoot Suit became a popular choice as formal clothing for Latin and rural youth in heavily ethnic neighborhoods. Typically, it is worn at a school party or in some cases, in college ceremonies, weddings, baptisms, especially in border towns.”

It was precisely the Pachuco language, most commonly used in the northern border than in Central Mexico, what gave Tin Tan the immediate sympathy of the public for his films. At the same time, it also attracted severe criticism.

On June 4, 1944, the news journal Novedades published an attack to the filmic work of the comedian, signed by José Vasconcelos 9, referring to it as the “linguistic pochism” of a “mediocre spectacle, when not vulgar.” “The good elementary schools in Nuevo Laredo and Coahuila – Vasconcelos wrote- and the effort of illustrated Patriots, have contained the ‘tintanesque’ abuse. But now, it happens to be the capital city the one that promotes, welcomes, and enjoys the pochism! “

With better attitude, Salvador Novo 10 responded in the same newspaper on June 20th: “Tin Tan’s detractors fail the shooting.  The good man is an effect, not a cause of a more serious corruption than the one simply limited to linguistics. He bothers because while Cantinflas is Mexico’s subconscience, Tin Tan represents its uncomfortable conscience.

Ever since controversial, the Spanglish has remained active within the sociologists, writers, intellectuals, linguists and political debate. This side of the border, where restrictions on the practice of the Spanish language were characteristic of the 1950s and where these trends have continued until recent years thru the “English Only” movement; the posterior emergence of the Spanglish as a sub-tongue, has made the debate to continue to be current.


1. “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States: 2007“.United States Census Bureau. Retrieved on 2008-10-09

2. Carlos Fuentes. Writer, essayist and novelist, receiver of multiple literary awards, and one of the most prominentMexican figures in the late 20th century. La Frontera de Cristal.

3. Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo .

4. Mexican-American War.

5. Bracero Program.

6. Zoot Suit .

7 Octavio Paz. , Poet, essayist and Mexican diplomat, Nobel Prize for literature (1990). The labyrinth of solitude.

8. Germán Valdés . Actor, singer, and Mexican comedian who distinguished himself by giving life to the character of Pachuco, in several films during the golden age of the film industry in Mexico, using slangs with lexical mixing of Spanish and English.

9 José Vasconcelos. Writer, philosopher, and Mexican politician. One of the most influential personalities in the development of modern Mexico.

10 Salvador Novo. Writer, poet, translator, television presenter, entrepreneur and chronicler of Mexico City. Remarkable intellectual that influenced popular perceptions of politics, the media, the arts and Mexican society.


  • Aurelia Fierros

    (Spanish version after this) Aurelia Fierros has lived in the Los Angeles area for nearly 10 years. During her journalism career years, she has been a reporter, script writer, producer and host for TV and Radio newscasts, as well as columnist and article writer for print media in Mexico City. After her arrival to the US in 2000, Aurelia has worked as a freelance reporter, as a corporate communications specialist and as a translator. She has extensive experience and a natural ability for dissecting political and current general issues. Aurelia obtained a Bachelor Degree in Communications Sciences from the University of Sonora, in Hermosillo, Mexico. Locally, she has completed several courses of the Certificate Program in Journalism with concentration in Print and Broadcast Media, at UCLA. *** Nació en Hermosillo, Sonora, México. Ha sido reportera, guionista, productora y conductora de noticieros de TV y radio; articulista y columnista de medios impresos en su país natal. Presenció desde “adentro” la corrupción de la política mexicana cuando al formar parte de la cobertura de la campaña presidencial de 1994, asesinan a Luis Donaldo Colosio, candidato por el entonces partido en el poder, el PRI. A partir de su llegada a los Estados Unidos, en el año 2000, Aurelia se ha desempeñado como periodista independiente, especialista en comunicación corporativa y traductora. Egresada de la facultad de ciencias sociales de la Universidad de Sonora como Licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación. Localmente, ha acreditado diversos cursos del Programa de Certificación en Periodismo con concentración en medios impresos y electrónicos de UCLA.

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  1. La foto de el bracero f’s mi abuelo. Me gustaria comuicarme con usted. Thank u!!

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