Opinion | ¡Qué Vaina! What Flavor of Spanish Do You Speak?

Spanish speakers across the Caribbean exclaim “¡Qué vaina!” when describing ‌an annoyance, a situation or a predicament. But the saying is especially versatile in Venezuelan slang, where it can be used to refer to anything from objects to people — the possibilities are endless. Increasingly, you hear that idiosyncrasy in Ciudad Juárez, ‌Mexico; in Texas and Florida; and even in shelters and schools in New York City as Venezuelan asylum seekers settle in the United States.

Castellano, or Castilian, emerged from Latin in Castile, Spain, during the 12th century. Later, Spanish colonizers brought it to the Americas, where it became known as Español, reaching confines as remote as the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea. Along the way, it overpowered numerous Indigenous tongues. Today the Spanish language is the fourth-most-spoken language in the world, and it is the most common language spoken in the United States after English.

Venezuelans are but the latest wave of migrants to invigorate American Spanish. Beginning in the late 1800s, waves of Spanish-speaking migrants have come from places like Cuba, Puerto Rico, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Then there is the Mexican population that lived here long before the United States claimed their land.

Each wave infused American Spanish with local flavor. That’s partly because the language spoken in each country has unique characteristics, at the national and the regional level. In Argentina, for instance, people use “vos” instead of “tu” for the second person, and there is an abundance of shushing sounds. In Cuba there is an infusion of words that originated with African slaves and a weak pronunciation of consonants, particularly at the end of a syllable. American Spanish features all of these elements, which depend on the national background and geographic location of the speaker.

Assimilation to the mainstream brings with it a type of American Spanish that is less distinct, more anemic. Localisms tend to disappear in favor of a more neutral parlance. This happens, in part, as a result of media consumption: radio and especially television, with their impulse to create a Latino identity that comes about from mixing elements. In the hope of enlarging their audience, Univision and Telemundo regularly default to a mishmash — what we Mexicans call a revoltijo. By trying not to alienate audiences, these networks produce shows with an Español that is a sum of many parts. The result is tame, feeble, uninspiring.

But las apariencias engañan — don’t be deceived by appearances. As mainstream American Spanish becomes the standard, vulnerable varieties of it lose ground. In the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico, there is a dialect that has been spoken for over 400 years, allowing scholars like me to appreciate a lexicon that is closer to medieval Spanish than anything else used in the world. But its last breath is approaching. Also under threat is Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, brought to Los Angeles, Seattle and elsewhere by immigrants from the Ottoman Empire in the 1880s. Nostalgia alone doesn’t keep a language alive.

American Spanish is biodiverse, and‌ because of that‌, it should be appreciated as a national resource, not scorned as a hindrance. The Español we use not only includes the syncopated rhythms of cities like New York, Miami, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, as well as countless rural areas; it is also exported all over the world through tourism, Latin music, sports and streaming services. Language is free, and it travels unimpeded across borders. The polyphony of American Spanish is beautiful. We need to protect it. We also need to value it as an asset.

In spite of this richness, the United States suffers from what feels like an incurable flaw: a foreign language allergy. One out of five households in the country communicates in a second language, and after Spanish, the most frequently spoken are, in order, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Arabic. But Spanish is spoken by more people than those four combined. It is estimated that in 2060, there will be 111 million Spanish speakers in the United States. That is more than twice the population of Colombia.

It is likely that by then, a Venezuelan variety of American Spanish will be plenty recognizable. Its muscle will have come about, in part, thanks to the current migrants like Venezuelans risking everything — losing limbs, even dying on the journey — to enter the United States. American Spanish thrives in its pluralism. ¡Qué vaina! Let’s fight for nuance.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor of humanities and Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is the author, most recently, of “The People’s Tongue: Americans and the English Language.”

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