Little Gloria Montez, age four, was beginning to use more English in her regular speech, in part because of her participation in MANOS since she was an infant, and also because of her pre-school program which worked as a sort of bilingual primer to kindergarten. Several MANOS students mentioned during interviews that their English learning began during pre-school years. This particular Tuesday a group of children were playing in the art room at MANOS—Gloria, eight-year-old Samantha, seven-year-old Flor, and four-year-old Pablo.
I heard Gloria say something to Pablo with a very pronounced southern Mexican accent. I asked Gloria what she had said, but she didn’t respond to me. Then to the group, I asked,
“What was Gloria saying?”
“She said that her dad is going to hit Pablo,” said Samantha.
“But how did she say it in Spanish?”
“Papi te va’a chin-gár.”
“Papa que?” I asked.
“Papi te va’a chin-gár.”
“Papi te va’a chin-gár,” said Flor.
“Papi te va’a chin-gár,” said Samantha.
“Papi te va’a chin-gár,” said Pablo.
“No: tu—papi te va’a chin-gár,” said Gloria to Pablo.
There was laughter from all the children, and myself included even though I wasn’t exactly sure what they were saying.
“She said chingar?”
Silence. No more help? Then I asked, “But you said chingar?”
“That means that—to hit you,” said Flor.
“So she said ‘my dad’s going to hit you.’ Why?”
“Because he took her crayons,” said Flor.
“Papi te va’a chin-gár,” said Gloria taking back her box of crayons from Pablo.
According to Gloria’s older sister Nansi, she picked up the form of Mexican slang from watching Spanish language television, and also from the way her uncle spoke to his friends who occasionally visited their apartment. Nansi said these young men used the word chingar a lot and also the word güey (guy, dude). Gloria, as well as most of the children I played with that evening at MANOS demonstrated how working-class Mexican-origin youth were assimilating to low-distinction Mexican speech form, along with low-distinction urban English from their playmates at school. Standard Spanish and English both contrasted with the home languages of the MANOS youth.
The linguistic predicament of MANOS families was a social predicament involving their class location from which they internalized cultural capital of low distinction. The speech codes of urban New York City English were incompatible with the speech and writing codes of the New York City schools. Their casual use of chingar exemplified the colloquial Spanish MANOS youth absorbed within their urban Mexican community of Foraker Street. At the same time, the colloquial English the performed, as when MANOS students pronounced ask as “axe,” was also heavily influenced by the African American Vernacular (AAV) codes of the neighborhood.
The meaning of the verb chingar from Mexican Spanish is quite literally to have intercourse, or metaphorically “to fuck” or “to screw” (Farr 124). It’s a commonly used Mexican swear word. Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz describes its ubiquitous meaning in The Labyrinth of Solitude as “a magical word: a change of tone, a change of inflections, is enough to change its meaning. It has as many shadings as it has intonations, as many meanings as it has emotions” (76). The same could be same for the colloquial “fuck” in English. It can be a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a noun, or a particle. It could be used to express anger, pleasure, dismay, and on. Like chingar, “fuck” is a versatile word used for multiple purposes and contexts. The versatility and utility of the two words give them a powerful place in everyday speech, which is forbidden in schools given school formality and school circulation of standard usage.
Hearing the words come from little Gloria’s mouth both bemused and shocked me because it was one Spanish word I was familiar with, but what immediately struck me was the Mexican accent in which she said it. The tone in her voice sounded less child-like and more like the adult language spoken within that particularized speech community, spoken with authority or membership (Limón). My own membership, however, in trying at odds to pronounce the phrase after hearing it was not even a matter of questioning. Language groups construct certain norms that identify certain words or phrases as incorrect or slang (Anzaldúa; Paredes). Vernacular literacy and community, or nonstandard dialects, use slang in everyday communicative events (Martínez 22), and in the case of a speech code of low distinction, the important task this presented to the MANOS youth was grasping code-switching along with grasping English.
Little Gloria, by the way, did get her crayons back.