Always Say You’re Mexican, Part I

The proximity of the Central American Northern Triangle to Mexico makes it possible for our countries to be familiarized with Mexican idioms and cultural products, but this relationship is not reciprocal. To reveal a Central American origin is almost lethal for undocumented migrants crossing Mexico, who as a risk-reduction measure modify their speech and adopt Mexican idioms, but also lose their Central America-ness.

By Virginia Lemus

Versión en español, clic aquí

It’s like any other Saturday in San Salvador. The heat is so intense that one can see it floating. It is a layer of grayness and humidity that you breathe in and feel it in your nostrils like the air from a hand dryer. The face of [Mexican TV personality] Paty Chapoy is on an enormous billboard: her feud with Gloria Trevi is frontpage in the entertainment section of the national newspaper. Her macabre smile can be seen from up high and I feel like I will faint.

Yes, Paty Chapoy carries enough relevance in such a small country to be on the cover of the entertainment section. I am just as confused.

Well, the truth is that there is a reason for it. The television program Ventaneando has been on the air in El Salvador for almost twenty years, ever since TV Azteca bought 75% of all shares of one of the few Salvadoran television channels that was not affiliated with Televisa. With TV Azteca came Elektra and Banco Azteca, a failed attempt to broadcast Mexican soccer and an atrocious amount of moralizing and pretentious TV content that had no reason to be outside of Mexico. But nevertheless, here it is. Mexican capital left that channel, but Ventaneando lives, the struggle goes on.

You don’t know us, but we know you.

Before the arrival of TV Azteca, El Salvador shared the same tragic destiny as other countries in the Central American isthmus: we are too close to Mexico and the United States, thus local production is minimal and of bad quality. Everything on our television channels, our radio stations, belongs to a Mexican franchise. The dragging of the “S” sound that almost becomes an eternal “J” (“H” in English), a pronunciation habit that is very local to El Salvador and Honduras, collides with the affected modulation of what translation companies call “neutral Spanish,” but which in reality corresponds to an affectation that belongs to Mexico City. From a very particular [socioeconomic] class of Mexico City. Órales, carnal, chamba and morro are words that have no reason to be part of the registry of colloquial Salvadoran Spanish, but nevertheless, here they are. Through Televisa. Through TV Azteca. Through the radio station Qué Buena and Exa and through the horrible manner in which the announcer for the movie chain Cinépolis modulates her voice that I can only qualify as Mexican fresa (hipster) with a hot potato in her mouth.

Taking notice in these subtleties of regional pronunciations is not reciprocal. The Mexican reader wouldn’t know how to recognize a Salvadoran accent from a Honduran one, for example. Best case scenario would be for them to say that here [in El Salvador] we speak like people do in certain sectors in Veracruz. However, for that to happen, one would need to have stepped outside Mexico City, something many, many Mexicans would consider unnecessary. In Mexican audiovisual productions, I have learned that different accents are highlighted to mock them: the acute intonation of Mayan languages, the cacophonous swaying of lower class Mexican Spanish is ridiculed, used sarcastically, and as a magnet for a diversity of humiliations simply for being “not from here.” The Salvadorans that migrate and must navigate through Mexico know this. They feign, modulate, and practice.

Whoever migrates and that must navigate through Mexican territories has a better chance of survival if they can mimic in some way or another. Skin tones throughout Mesoamerica are more or less uniform, so unless a migrant has distinct indigenous or afro-descendant features, they have points in their favor. Migrants from the north of Guatemala also have certain advantages in that they are used to crossing into Mexico to buy or sell goods, and thus their accent has more in common with people from Chiapas or Campeche than with Guatemalans from the south. For the rest, Salvadorans and Hondurans, communication becomes the necessary means by which to mimic.

To sound Mexican is vital for survival.

The racist fibers of postcolonial societies are always most sensitive toward the presence of the Other, especially when that Other comes from another place, sounds different, and carries on themselves nothing more than dust, fear, and hope. “Ji abre la boca y enjima juena ají vajer bien difíjil que lajcojaj le jalgan bien, vojn (If you open your mouth and you sound like this, it will be difficult for things to come out well). The Other that comes from the south then begins to notice the length of their “S” sound, the manner in which that “S” gradually turns into a “J” on their lips, and discovers that that which identifies their place of origin makes them vulnerable.

To be, to come, to escape from another place puts a target on their back. Their home, their inheritance, the way in which they speak gives them away. And so they begin to pronounce their “S” with emphasis, and in doing so make strange faces because that “S” sounds so strange, not theirs, but belonging to another. They grew up living it, hearing it, and singing it. That “S” that was in corridos from Los Tigres del Norte that their uncle listened to, in the novelas that their mother watched; that intonation that was present in movies on Sunday TV, but it was still foreign. And now, they had to appropriate that “S” in order to not die.

To avoid major violence, mediated through state authorities that illegally detain and torture their own Mexican citizens that don’t speak Spanish, or the cartels and their massacres, one must hide their origins. And that begins through language.

It also happens through other details that are more subtle, more intimate. By knowing that in Mexico zapote is mamey and huisquil in chayote. To remember that over there the bread is Bimbo brand; that America is the team with the ugly yellow jersey. It is to pay attention to movies and novelas, to memorize the names of some indeterminate small town. Transitory details that one has to keep in mind in case the federal police comes aboard your bus and asks you where you’re from.

To migrate is to disappear. To disappear from one place and gradually become invisible, such that you drift away from the place you’re from. When you arrive at the first border, you have to cross as unnoticed as possible. And now, you, Central American migrant that neither wants to or ever wanted to stay in Mexico, has to become just as invisible as the country you come from. Because it is necessary to survive.

There are organizations that publish pictures on Facebook of clothing and backpacks scattered all over Mexico with no owners. It is a brutal exercise. Dusty pants, torn up wallets, mended socks. Pictures wrapped in plastics bags so they can survive water and sunlight. Jerseys from soccer teams such as Intibucá (Honduras), Guacotecti (El Salvador), and San Lucas Tolimán (Guatemala). Stamps with patron saints from invisible towns that in the desert appear to not even exist, landscapes from countries that only serve as source material for mockery by those who cannot conceive any other world outside of the state of Mexico. Lives and towns, recast into a single suitcase, because to take them out, to know parts of them, to speak with their cadence could mean death. Past the border, Intibucá, Guacotecti, San Lucas Tolimán all disappear. As does maíz, the green plantain, alguashte (grinded pumpkin seeds). As does home, the world. And still, you have to learn to speak like Paty Chapoy.

Read more on El centro que somos, el sur que no ven

Translation by Víctor Interiano

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