It is fitting that Cinco de Mayo, an Anglicized holiday with roots in a celebration of Mexican resistance to invading European powers, coincides every year with spikes in the use of mock Spanish. Google searches for terms such as "cinco de drinko," "drinko de mayo" and even words like "sombrero" go up every year around this time.
"Mock Spanish" is part of the complex political battle over language that has happened over the past four centuries in the United States. Spanish has had an uninterrupted presence in the country since the 16th century. So, too, do hundreds of Indigenous languages, as well as later settler and immigrant languages. And yet, these languages appear marginally in historical narratives. Why? Because English emerged as the unofficial national language, inextricably tied to American identity.
Through this history, language became a zero-sum proposition demanding that Americans either adopt the national language or be marked as an unassimilated outsider, retaining allegiance to another national identity. When English speakers use Spanish words and phrases in a mocking way, they reinforce the idea that Spanish speakers are not members of the political community.
As a colonial language, Spanish actually preceded English in parts of the South, Southwest and Pacific Coast of what is now the United States. The names of places themselves expose this reality: Florida, Nevada, Colorado, San Francisco, Los Angeles. So, too, do such terms describing the American landscape as "mesa," "arroyo" "sierra" or "canyon."
With Anglo-American westward expansion in the 19th century and especially after the United States acquired a huge chunk of territory from Mexico through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, contact between speakers of English and Spanish became more frequent. Colloquial expressions and words such as "lasso," "adobe," "vamoose" and the now-archaic "buckaroo" entered into American English during this period.
And yet, there were also violent consequences. Indeed, the expansion of the United States turned the Spanish-speaking population into second-class citizens subject to recurring episodes of anti-Hispanic sentiment. Vigilante groups often blamed Mexicans for crimes in the newly acquired territories, with episodes of lynching and mob violence targeting Spanish speakers. In new states like California, with a quick influx of Anglo-American settlers, concessions to Spanish as a language of governance, education and the press — implicit in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which granted citizenship to residents of Mexico's lost territories — were revoked in the 1879 state constitution.
At the turn of the 20th century, as millions of (largely non-English-speaking) European immigrants arrived, the pressure to make the United States an exclusively English-speaking country mounted. The Naturalization Act of 1906 made proficiency in English a requirement for citizenship for the first time. President Theodore Roosevelt's remarks about language ("We have room but for one language here, and that is the English language") provided the framework for language nativism that has since associated bilingualism with nonassimilation.
And yet, Spanish remained a widely spoken first language in the United States into the 20th century, when the U.S. takeover of Puerto Rico and later successive waves of migration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America kept the number of Spanish speakers in the United States growing.
But the violence and discrimination against Spanish speakers also continued. During the Great Depression, the United States deported up to 1.8 million people of Mexican descent, many of them U.S. citizens, scapegoated as linguistic and ethnic outsiders. Although the United States continually recruited Mexican workers between World War II and the 1960s, they and other Latino communities faced cyclical waves of Hispanophobia.
Spanish speaking became a more potent political issue after changes to immigration law in the 1960s limited legal migration opportunities for people from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Efforts to limit legal immigration drove unauthorized immigration. But political debates about "illegal" immigration became a proxy for racism against Latino people.
Nowhere was this more charged than in policy battles around bilingual education. The Bilingual Education Act of 1968 signaled that the federal government would commit to educating children with limited English ability. But bilingual education went from enjoying bipartisan support in the mid-'60s to being a hot-button issue in the culture wars of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s, a revived English-only movement sought to pass "official English" legislation in the states, making life more difficult for Spanish speakers. In 1998, Proposition 227 in California passed overwhelmingly, requiring exclusive English-language instruction in public schools.
Signaling hostility to Spanish speakers, these efforts reinforced the ahistoric idea that Americans must speak English and that Spanish speakers should be outside the political community.
It is in this context that mock Spanish emerged, as a way to affirm Spanish speakers' outsider status. Between the 1980s and 2010s, usage of terms like "cojones," "problemo," "numero" or "cinco de mayo" increased, according to the Corpus of Historical American English. Americans encountered mocking use of Spanish in advertisements, TV shows, movies and even newspaper headlines.
Mock Spanish parody words ("sombrero"), pronunciation patterns (obstreperously rolling your r's; Anglicizing words like "amigo" so it rhymes with "tow") or grammatical features from Spanish (replacing English for Spanish articles; adding the ending -o to English words, as with "problem") have proliferated.
The use of these terms may have been partially a result of increased contact between English and Spanish speakers. But mock Spanish is different from linguistic phenomena that occur organically when languages are in contact, not only in its linguistic features, but mostly in its intent. Evidence shows that such terms were often deployed mockingly and perceived as such by Latinos.
Moreover, the Spanish language is perceived as racialized in the United States. The words that enter the mock Spanish lexicon — "machismo," "señorita," "cerveza," "no problemo" — tend to reinforce harmful stereotypes. The "sombrero" in those Google searches around this time of year is never a cowboy hat, a noir film fedora, a Panama hat or a Kentucky Derby headpiece, all of them sombreros, but the stereotypical, wide-brimmed Mexican sombrero. We have become rightly intolerant of racial, ableist, misogynist and homophobic slurs in mainstream discourse. And yet, mock Spanish persists, even though it, too, relies on outright offensive discourse. Through mock Spanish, English speakers can present themselves as funny while reinforcing stereotypes about Spanish and, by extension, Spanish speakers.
Take the word "cojones," the kind of word that Spanish-speaking kids would get in trouble for saying in front of their parents, but that the New York Times sees fit to print. How did a curse word for testicles become acceptable for Madeleine Albright or Sarah Palin to use in public discourse?
"Cojones" is a fairly expressive and versatile but rather coarse word in Spanish, meaning testicles and, metaphorically, strength, bravery, resolve, guts. In Spanish, too, it is as problematically gendered a metaphor as they come. English uses the words "balls" and "ballsy" in similar fashion, but when we use "cojones" in English, we are asking the Spanish word to do the dirty work of being forcefully expressive without being transgressive in English. And it evokes stereotypes of crotch-grabbing hypermasculinity in Spanish and Latino cultures in the process.
The racist tropes in mock Spanish range from embarrassing and cringe-inducing to outright offensive. Sure, sometimes it is easier to laugh along or to laugh back than to call mock Spanish out. But given the politics and violence driving efforts to erase linguistic diversity, and the dangerous and discriminatory consequences they have had, it is clear that mock Spanish is more than innocent wordplay.
Roberto Rey Agudo is the language program director of the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and was a 2018 Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project. This piece was written for The Washington Post.