Borrowing is a linguistic phenomenon that we encounter when two languages come into contact. Basically, it is the adoption of a word from one language into another.
Spanish, which has over the years come into contact with more than a few languages, has a vast number of borrowings or préstamos. Many of these borrowings are not even recognized (or recognizable) by native speakers as ‘foreign linguistic material’, such as bodega (grocery or winery) and escuela (school) from Greek, almohada (pillow) andajedrez (chess) from Arabic, and aguacate (avocado) and chocolate (I don’t think this needs a translation) from Nahuatl.
English, too, has encountered its fair share of other languages and, as a result, is chock full of borrowings from around the globe. Over the years, Spanish has loaned quite a few words that now go unnoticed in the English lexicon, from patio to canteen, to tobacco, to canoe.
Some Spanish words used in English, however, are still quite marked as ‘foreign’ in the minds of many English speakers, although they understand and maybe even use them. These include a great number of food and drink-related vocabulary items from tacos to tequila, titles like don, señor/señora and jefe, and other culturally-loaded words like machismo. The foreignness of these words is often used strategically in media and advertising, and this is where the age-old process of borrowing runs headlong into language ideologies, or sets of beliefs about language held by groups of people to justify and further their own sociopolitical and economic interests.
Many of these words are from a special variety of language that anthropologist Jane Hill calls ‘Mock Spanish,’ which is the inauthentic often incorrect use of Spanish by non-speakers of the language to, for example, name and advertise pseudo-Mexican fast food items. Hill explains that while allegedly harmless and all in good fun, Mock Spanish is actually a problematic practice as its very humor relies on negative stereotypes of Latinos, particularly Mexicans. In other words, Mock Spanish is the linguistic equivalent of the Frito Bandito or that Mexican caricature wearing the large sombrero and a colorful sarape enjoying a siesta under the shade of a saguaro cactus who shows up on paving tiles, bookends and everything in between.
Cinco de Mayo has spawned many examples of mock Spanish, from the verbal-visual gag t-shirt with five jars of mayonnaise to a certain iconic Mexican beer being advertised a few years back as The Drinko for Cinco™. This last example employs the ever-popular ‘just add o’ rule for creating Mock Spanish nouns from English words. These days, the holiday is frequently referred to as the Cinco de Drinko.
In fact, it seems ‘Cinco de’ has become a productive phrase, generating no end of slogans around this time of year. So far this year, I’ve seen the Cinco de Gato, a local humane society cat adoption event with a sombrero-wearing cat shaking maracas logo, and the Cinco de Miler, a 5-mile road race the logo of which features a running stick figure with sombrero and maracas.
The borrowing of Spanish words into English and the growing understanding of Spanish words by the English monolingual public are surely indicators of a widespread and flourishing Latino influence in the U.S. It’s important, however, to ask how Spanish is being used and why, what it reflects about the sociocultural context and what stereotypes it encodes and reproduces. As a linguist, I cannot help but see Cinco de Mayo as an annual celebration of Mock Spanish, with new items added to the repertoire every year.