Bilingual idiot


I bought this dictionary in 1979 at the PX in 29 Palms, California.

As a boy, I set the ambitious goal of learning ten foreign languages. I’m not sure how I came up with the number ten, but once I picked ten I stuck to it. And I’m still sticking to it even if it’s an unrealistic goal. As of today, I am still many languages away from achieving fluency in ten. But I like ten because it’s a nice round number.

I have had several setbacks along the way. For example, people would tell me, “Learn to speak English first!” (Have you ever noticed that people who insist that foreigners learn English only speak English? I’d like to see them learn another language!) Of course, they were right because my first language was Spanish. I spoke English very poorly at first and later with a foreign accent.

In my quest for foreign language fluency, I have studied many languages over the years. At Divine Heart Seminary, I took French as an elective my sophomore year in addition to Spanish with Señor Mordini. When I went to Tilden Technical High School, I continued my French studies with disastrous results, about which I wrote a blog post. At Gage Park High School, I gave up on foreign languages altogether.

In the Marines, I tried learning Japanese from a roommate who was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. I learned only as much Japanese as he knew, which wasn’t very much. But I can still say, “Domo arigato” and “Sayonara“! During this time, I spent a lot of time reading. I many read books on English grammar. I would check out books on grammar and writing from the library and read them cover to cover. My Marine roommates thought I was crazy, but that helped because then they avoided started trouble with me. I also bought a Spanish/English dictionary and I would browse through it to improve my Spanish vocabulary. I got this great idea from reading the biography of O. Henry who read a dictionary that he received as a gift for the first book he had ever read. Amazingly, I also improved my English vocabulary.

When I finally went to college, I studied Spanish in earnest for the very first time. The grammar I had learned from the English grammar books helped me immensely with the Spanish grammar that we studied in class. I also took Portuguese and did well in class, but I never did learn to speak Portuguese fluently because of a lack of time and contact with Portuguese speakers. I took Latin because I thought it would be fun and might prove helpful for the foreign language requirement if I actually went on for my Ph.D. Well, I didn’t learn to speak Latin either. Not that anyone speaks Latin anymore, but I did learn the difference between the relative pronouns who and whom.

So, I thought I would take a practical language that someone actually speaks worldwide.  I studied Russian for four semesters. There were very few cognates! It was only then that I realized that I had only studied Romance languages, other than English, and learning new vocabulary was fairly easy because of all the cognates derived from Latin. Sadly, I did well in Russian class, but I can’t speak Russian either.

The next language I studied–actually, I’m still studying it–is Polish. There aren’t very many Latin cognates, but since I studied Russian, some of the grammar rules are similar. Polish pronunciation is much easier than Russian. The most amazing part about learning Polish is that the accent always, with very few rare exceptions, falls on the second to the last syllable (la sílaba penúltima, en español). After studying Russian, I feel more confident studying Polish. Perhaps I will learn another language after all!

But I’m not so sure I will. Even though I have attempted learning other languages and failed, I console myself that I’m fully fluent in Spanish and English. Perhaps I am destined to forever remain a bilingual idiot.

Pete’s Market


Pete’s Fresh Market, Chicagolandia, Illinois

Because of its large Mexican community, you can shop for Mexican food at many grocery stores in Chicagolandia. There are the real supermercados like El Güero or La Internacional in Chicago, but Pete’s Market has been expanding recently. There are several stores on the south side of Chicago, one in Evergreen Park, and one in Calumet City. They’re very successful because they sell authentic Mexican products at low prices, although I’ve heard that they are Greek-owned.

I love their tamales. I used to go the Pete’s Market on 47th and Kedzie early in the morning just to buy tamales because they tasted great and I didn’t have to make them myself. If you love authentic Mexican food, you will certainly find it here.

They also sell Mexican candy and piñatas. Most of the employees speak Spanish. Even in Evergreen Park where you wouldn’t expect to find many Spanish speakers. Actually, I was surprised to see a Mexican grocery store open in Evergreen Park. But then again, Chicago wouldn’t allow a Walmart to open within the city limits, so they opened a store across the street in Evergreen Park, a suburb that always finds new and creative ways to generate tax revenue.

Don’t be surprised if a Pete’s Market opens up near you.

Holy Cross Church


Holy Cross Church, Back of the Yards, Chicago, Illinois

I went to Holy Cross Church today after an absence of about thirty-plus years. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew things would be different, but I didn’t quite expect to see so many familiar sights.

Well, to begin with, the church was founded by Lithuanians in Back of the Yards In the early 1900s and they finally built their church in 1913. When I attended Holy Cross in the 1960s, most of the parishioners were Lithuanian. Mexicans were just starting to move into the neighborhood in larger numbers. Mexicans had been moving to Chicago since about the time of the Mexican Revolution around 1910, but they started moving into Back of the Yards in large numbers in the 1930s.  By the time I attended Holy Cross, there were many Mexican parishioners. However, Mexicans also had their own church, Immaculate Heart of Mary, about a half-mile away from Holy Cross.

On Sundays, we usually went to mass at Holy Cross Church, but sometimes our family went to the mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priests said the mass in Spanish. I enjoyed hearing mass in Spanish, so I never complained. Apparently, too many Mexican parishioners from Holy Cross started attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary on Sundays. Well, the priests and nuns from Holy Cross didn’t like this at all. Suddenly, we were required to attend Sunday mass at Holy Cross Church. We had to sit with our class and the nuns took attendance. If we didn’t come to Sunday mass at Holy Cross, we had to bring a note from our parents explaining where we were. This was directed at the Mexican students only. But everyone understood the rule. There was no racism involved. If you belonged to a parish and enjoyed the benefits of their Catholic education, you must attend their mass.

Imagine my surprise when I went to Holy Cross Church today and I observed that at least 99% of the people in mass were Mexican, all except the priest who I’m guessing was African and spoke fluent Spanish. The mass was said in Spanish and the children’s choir sang in Spanish to marimba music. I really didn’t expect to see any of my former teachers or classmates, and I didn’t. Well, it turns out that Holy Cross Church and Immaculate Heart of Mary Church have merged since most of the neighborhood is now Mexican.

The new Holy Cross.

I was wondering what the priests and nuns of my school days would say if they saw the church today. Well, at least the church is still alive and well. The Polish parish of Sacred Heart no longer exists. I walked there before mass and was surprised that most of the buildings were demolished and a Chicago public school stood in its place. Holy Cross School no longer exists, but the parish rents out the school building to the Chicago Public Schools. C’est la vie.

Juan Goytisolo


Juan Calduch, Juan Goytisolo, and Dr. D. in 1999.

There are famous people and then there are famous people you never heard of.

As a graduate student in Hispanic Studies, I had to read a novel, La saga de los Marx, by Juan Goytisolo for a seminar on Modern Spanish (as in, from Spain) Literature. I had never even heard of Juan Goytisolo. Then the professor who assigned the novel assured the graduate seminar that he was world-famous. I just took her word for it. But I was suspicious of just how famous he was.

Well, regardless of his claim to fame, I began reading La saga de los Marx. I was captivated by Goytisolo’s writing. I couldn’t identify a protagonist or a setting. He inserted foreign languages sans translations. There was no storyline to speak of. Or standard punctuation, for that matter. He seemed to have studied grammar and stylistic rules only so he could break as many rules as possible. However, the writing piqued my curiosity and I read the novel in a mere two sittings.

When the class met to discuss the novel, only one other student said she had read the entire novel. But she wasn’t sure if she really liked the novel. I, on the other hand loved it! I immediately decided that I would write my seminar paper on this novel. I was intrigued by the postmodernist style.

As I was writing my paper, I decided to reread the novel to find supporting citations for my paper. Curiously enough, I enjoyed the novel even more upon reading it a second time. I loved it so much that I decided to write a letter to Juan Goytisolo, c/o of the publisher. Imagine my surprise when he wrote back! Usually when I like a writer that much, he or she has already been dead for a long time. Sometimes dying even before I was born. How rude!

Well, this paper inspired me to further my studies and become a doctoral candidate. I showed Juan Goytisolo’s letter to the seminar professor and she asked me to invite him to speak at UIC. He accepted the invitation and spoke at our university, with me as the guest of honor because he came on account of my letter and I was writing my doctoral dissertation on his novels. I was truly honored. I was also surprised at how many people came from miles around to hear Juan Goytisolo speak and plug his latest novel. He was a fascinating man, as I discovered while giving him a tour of the Chicagoland area.

Well, Juan Goytisolo truly is world-famous. Every year he gets nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of these days, he may actually win it. But to think I had never heard of him before that graduate seminar!

La composición


Diego Rivera's typewriter, Guanajuato, Guanajuato, Mexico

If you take enough Spanish classes, you will have to write a composition in Spanish. By that time, you will know enough Spanish vocabulary and grammar to write a good composition. Here are a few rules you should keep in mind while writing la composición.

Think in Spanish! The worst thing you can do is write out the composition in English and then translate it into Spanish. You are doing double the work! Brainstorm for your composition using the Spanish vocabulary that you already know. Begin writing your composition in Spanish, without looking up words in your dictionary. Insert words in English to look up later. The main goal is to write out most of the ideas for your composition in Spanish. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar until after your finish the first draft, el borrador in Spanish.

Give your composition a good descriptive title. Only the first letter of the title is capitalized: La fiesta que le dimos a mi abuelita para su cumpleaños. If you use a proper noun in the title, it must be capitalized: Las vacaciones de primavera en Puerto Rico.

Pronouns are used less often in Spanish than in English. Once the subject is established, the pronoun is no longer necessary: María era buena estudiante. Siempre llegaba a clase a tiempo. Participaba en todas las discusiones de clase. Siempre sacaba buenas notas. In all of the preceding sentences, we know that María is the subject even though we do not use the pronoun ella. Do not use another noun or pronoun for the subject until the subject changes Un día su mamá no la levantó a tiempo. La maestra se preocupaba por María.

When listing a series of items, do not use a comma before the last item: Compré pan, queso y huevos.

There are two abbreviations in Spanish and you must use them: a + el = al, de + el = del

In general, commas are used less often than in English.

Do not translate everything into Spanish. If you live in River Oaks, do NOT translate it into Río Robles. Julio Iglesias is NOT July Churches!

Adjectives of proper nouns are not capitalized. Frida Kahlo es mexicana. Shakira es colombiana, Penélope Cruz es española.

Days and months are NOT captialized: los días – domingo, lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado; los meses – enero, febrero, marzo, abril, mayo, junio, julio, agosto, septiembre, octubre, noviembre, diciembre.

“With me” and “with you” are written as one word: conmigo, contigo.


Combination locks


Security against terrorists

As a law-abiding citizen and patriotic American, I would like to participate in our fight against terrorism. I agree that we must stop the terrorists at the border. 

I have crossed the border a few times, so I have an idea that may help. Sometimes the customs agents ask you questions to see if you’re really an American citizen. I don’t think they care how you answer the questions, but rather, they’re really just checking to see if you speak English. I heard a story of an American family who was trying reenter the United States, but all their luggage, credit cards, and passports were stolen from their hotel room. They reported the theft and then flew back home without passports. Customs refused to let them through without passports or some form of identification. The customs agent asked them a lot of questions. Finally, the mother lost it and shouted, “We’re Americans! We only speak English!” Well, that was enough for the agent to wave everyone through! 

We have a cabinet in our UIC Spanish department where the exams are stored so all the instructors have access to them. The cabinet had a combination lock so we wouldn’t need to make thirty plus keys. Well, even with the combination, not everyone could open the cabinet. On occasion, I had to help other instructors open the combination lock. Then, I noticed a pattern. Only instructors who were foreign-born had trouble opening the lock. 

I guess only Americans are familiar with combination locks. Combination locks are an American rite of passage. I was indoctrinated to the use of padlocks in high school. Combination locks were perfect for adolescents who lose or forget their key. Plus, the school authorities could open any combination lock in the school by looking up the combination or with a little key that fit into the back of the lock. Everyone knew how to open a combination lock or they would learn quickly enough out of necessity. Turn the dial twice to the right until you reached the first number. Then turn the dial to the left passing the second number once. Then to the right to the last number. It was that easy! After a while, I would forget the actual combination numbers. I would spin the dial absent-mindedly and the lock would mysteriously open. The locks created the illusion that your property was safe. All those combination locks did was keep the honest people honest. 

So back to my fight against terrorism. One of the tests to test for citizenship and reentry to the U.S., in addition to all the previous ones that have been proven to be effective, would be to hand a combination lock to the person requesting to enter the U.S. Tell them the combination: 27 – 32 – 15. If they can’t open the lock, well, well, well! They will require more scrutiny! This will not pick out every terrorist, but it’s a step in the right direction. Don’t be surprised if terrorist camps begin offering training workshops on how to operate combination locks in order to circumvent the new security measures. But I’m just trying to do my part. 

You


I want YOU!

You! Yeah, YOU!

When translating “you” into Spanish, be careful! “You is the second person singular subject pronoun. Quick! What is the plural of you? I hope you didn’t say “y’all” or “you guys”! In English, the plural of “you” is “you”! I occasionally have this argument with students who don’t seem to believe me because I’m a Spanish speaker. But it’s true. The second person plural subject pronoun in English is “you.”

Often my students will insist that the plural of “you” is “y’all” or “you guys.” Or, get ready for this, the even more emphatic “all y’all” or “youse guys.”* So how do I convince my students that the plural of you is you? I quote President John F. Kennedy: “And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.” “See!” I tell my students. “He addressed himself to ‘my fellow Americans’ and then he spoke to them calling them ‘you’!” They usually stopped disagreeing by this point, but I’m convinced that I haven’t fully convinced them. I think they resent being corrected by a native Spanish speaker.

But back to the Spanish lesson about translating “you” into Spanish. Since you is both singular and plural–And for you students of Spanish, oh, yes! It’s also formal and familiar!–you can translate “you” into Spanish as: tú, vos, usted, vosotros, vosotras, ustedes. Remember that tú, vos, vosotros, and vosotras are always familiar. Do not use them to talk to someone you just met or don’t know very well. Use usted and ustedes for more formal situations ¡Ojo! In Latin América, ustedes is used as the familiar second person plural subject pronoun instead of vosotros and vosotras.

So there you have it. I’m addressing myself to all of my readers. And by that I mean all three of you!

* I won’t even mention that the plural of “you” is “yin” in the state of Virginia!