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Que Onda Homeboy! Why Do We Talk Like This?
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Oscar Gardea and Brenda Marusich
Whether you speak Spanish or not, this phrase will not make sense unless you speak border Spanish slang. Then it means, "Hey man, you have a nice car!
Every generation has its slang. Remember what was "groovy" in the 60s became "cool" in the 70s. This changed to "bad" in the 80s and "smooth" and back to "cool" in the 90s.
Most slang pops up from out of nowhere and gets bounced around for awhile. Then like a deflated ball, it ends up forgotten in the trashcan.
However, this pachuco slang or "Spanglish' is just not here to for a brief visit is here to stay.
The words and sentences are structured neither like the language of Shakespeare nor of Cervantes. If you put Spanish and English words in a can, shake them up and spill them out, the result is "Spanglish."
Janice Castro, who writes about border slang, says, "Spanish is a code for Latinos: the speakers know Spanish, but their hybrid language reflects the American culture in which they live." So how did this linguistic pattern develop in the U.S.?
In the 1930s a group of marijuana smokers and drug dealers from El Paso's Florence and Eighth Streets called themselves the 7-x Gang. They picked up a large part of their vocabulary from the Mexican underworld because of "business ties."
The batos (guys), also called pachucos, began to speak this way amongst themselves. Soon it reached other gangas (gangs).
"You can take the bato away from 'Spanglish' but you can't take 'Spanglish' from the bato
Later some of these batos (also spelled vatos) would jump on the Southern Pacific Railroad and go to other southwestern towns. While in these towns, they taught this lingo to their peers. Slowly, steadily and surely its use expanded to other areas.
However in 1942, it began to spread like wildfire and could not be controlled.
A number of these batos in El Chuco (the pachuco name for El Paso) got in trouble with the placa (police). The placa told them to get out and stay out of El Chuco. If they ever returned they would spend time in la pinta (the penitentiary). These boys were called floras (floaters).
Given that alternative, they apañaron el rufo (hopped a freight), many wit no particular destination in mind. Many of them wound up in Los Angeles. These batos associated with the Filipinos and African- Americans in their barrios (neighborhoods) and adopted their way of dressing.
The Filipinos wore radically styled men's clothing called zoot suits. Long coats, pancake hats, (recognizable by their flattened tops), pegged pants and thick-soled shoes became their trademarks. However, the pachucos added heavy gold watch chains and long hair slicked back to a duck's tail.
Many of the Mexican-American living in the Los Angeles barrios adopted the manner, dress and speech of the pachucos.
These self-styled pachucos also formed clicas (gangs). Pressure was applied to all boys of Mexican descent living on their "turf" to join and conform to the pachuco style. Some joined willingly; others, reluctantly.
As the number of clicas increased, they became more dangerous. Tension grew when one gang challenged another. Fights often broke out between rival gangs.
As a result of so many pachuco gangs forming, Los Angeles became the capital of the pachuco world.
Lack of feria (money), pressure from la placa and the desire to become big shots in their hometowns promoted many batos to board el rufo and go their chantes (homes). This way they could also their jefes (parents) who were worried about them.
This spread the pachuco influence among less street-wise batos. Once again it was the railroad that became carriers of the pachuco style and speech.
Today gang members are not the only ones who speak this way. Most Hispanics understand at least some of this language. However, gang members are the ones who speak it habitually and have a larger, more up-to-date vocabulary.
Many people who grew up in the barrios speaking this way moved out and now have high paying jobs, college degrees and are business owners.
For instance, Carlos Gardea who grew up in south El Paso says, "When I was younger, I used pachuco language a great deal. I was always a good student, but because of the way I spoke, some people said I wouldn't ever succeed in life. I am presently attending the University of Washington. Out of twenty-four students chosen for the physical therapy program, I was the only ethnic minority."
People who speak "Spanglish" can speak correctly, using formal English when they discuss current events, investments and so on. But when they run into a bato from the barrio they may revert to the jargon they grew up with. This proves that you can take the bato away from "Spanglish," but you can't take the "Spanglish" from the bato.
It doesn't matter on what side of the tracks these men were born.
People who speak "Spanglish" still care about some of the same things other Americans want: having a chante (home), a jale (job) and a ramfla to share with the ruca (wife) and chavos (children) who love them.
Oh, yes. "Qué onda" (what wave) is just a slang greeting, equivalent to "What's happening?" in English.