Wednesday, March 9, 2011

La Migra and Spanish Appropriation

By Rebecca Kemp

In 2006, the service provider Cingular Wireless was criticized for a ringtone available online through Barrio Mobile. The ringtone, called “La Migra”, was pulled after several complaints were lodged. “La Migra”, a Spanish slang term for a border patrol agent, incensed many Latino activists—Mark Siegel, Cingular Wireless’ company spokesperson, was shocked after he listened to the content of the ringtone. As Chris Mahon reported in the Brownsville Herald:

            “In it, a siren is heard, followed by a male voice that says in a southern accent: “Calmate, calmate, this is la migra. Por favor, put the oranges down and step away from the cell phone. I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I’m deporting you back home-o.”

I searched for the ringtone itself online and found this YouTube video—the audio track is indeed the ringtone, and the image of the video is what appears to be a Mexican man picking oranges.

The Spanish language’s presence in United States’ culture is one that has been protested as well as protected. As Jane Hill remarks in her essay, “Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English”, Spanish is represented as “so very much an “un-American” language” (170). Spanish speaker’s reputations as dirty and lazy has so greatly permeated the consciousness of American citizens that Spanish itself is now marked as a language and, as a result, is indexicalized within society—take for example, Mock Spanish.

Mock Spanish has taken its place in American English within the last century and carries a highly stigmatized reputation. As Hill states, “Mock Spanish works through dual indexicality to elevate the White speaker as a person with a delightful sense of humor and a cosmopolitan access to foreign languages” while simultaneously portraying the Spanish speaker and parodying them as “lazy, dirty, insincere, undependable, politically corrupt, and hyper-sexualized” (170).  In the ringtone, a Southern accent is heard over the sirens, using Mock Spanish in such a way that “convey[s] the message that Spanish is not a serious language” (170).

Implicit within the Mock Spanish utilized in the ringtone are various appropriations that have elicited a number of reactions from Spanish speakers who heard the offending clip. The Southern officer begins by saying “calmate, calmate, this is la migra” which translates to “calm down, calm down, this is the border patrol” in English—the officer’s use of Spanish at its commencement may seem to be an attempt to communicate with a Spanish-speaking American in their native language; however, the tone and juxtaposition of his words with his Southern accent as well as the dialogue following his initial greeting proves that the speaker is not attempting to placate the immigrant (who is implied to be illegal), but instead to make fun of Spanish as a language and mark its inferiority to the English language. It should also be noted that “la migra” is not the proper term for a border patrol agent, but instead Spanish slang. This usage of “la migra” instead of the correct Spanish term enhances the speaker’s use as parodying and putting down the Spanish language.

The ringtone continues in its offense by following the aforementioned remarks with a myriad of not only Spanish words but also Spanish appropriation in its mocking dialect. “Por favor, put the oranges down and step away from the cell phone. I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I’m deporting you back home-o.” Perhaps the most offensive part of the ringtone, several characteristics of the officer’s speech must be noted: his use of “por favor”, the implication that the Spanish-speaking immigrant is within a job sector stereotypically attributed to Mexican immigrants, as well as the addition of “-o” after several of his words to convey a more Spanish dialect. Since we have already discussed the officer’s use of Spanish in order to indexicalize himself as the superior English speaker, I will tackle the “-o” suffix employed several times throughout the ringtone.

In Hill’s essay, she mentions the linguistic appropriation that has been employed from a variety of sources (she specifically mentions American Indian languages, African American English, as well as US Spanish).  Hill recounts an example she encountered of a Kansas City high school student who was suspended for his Spanish speaking in the hallways of his high school. The troubling words were his use of “no problema”, attributed solely to the mock Spanish speakers of the United States—Hill states that Spanish “as spoken by native speakers who are not influenced by English [do] not possess such an idiom” (159), requiring an additional verb within the phrase in order for it to make sense within the Spanish language. This linguistic appropriation (which Hill defines as when “speakers of the target language adopt resources from the donor language, and then try to deny these to members of the donor language community” (158)) could be considered a more correct appropriation than that of the border patrol officer’s Mock Spanish “-o” ending. The incorrect usage of the “-o” ending, specifically when the border patrol officer says “I repeat-o, put the oranges down and step away from the telephone-o. I’m deporting you back home-o” provides an example of linguistic appropriation meant to ridicule the donor language community (as Hill refers to it) while establishing the supremacy of the English language.

When Chris Mahon published his article in the Brownsville Herald in 2006 reporting the offensive ringtone, an investigation was launched within the company to find the source of the ringtone as well as how to damage control the situation. The ringtone, written by Mexican-American comic Paul Saucido, was intended to be taken as satire and humorous, not as a racist epithet to Mexican Americans. When Mahon interviewed Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Wilkes condemned it as a “horribly offensive and disgusting thing.” Cingular Wireless pulled the ringtone after the company’s spokesperson, Mark Siegel, heard the clip that had been available online. Shortly thereafter, Siegel offered an apology, stating, “we’re in the process of pulling the ringtone and needless to say, we deeply regret and apologize for it ever being there in the first place. The ringtone is blatantly offensive.”


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  4. Totally agree with you, in US there are so much people who speak and learn spanish every day, it's the second languague there

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