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  • Writer's pictureLa Voz Latina

Confessions of a pocha Puerto Rican with a strange Spanish accent

Written by: Arelis Hernández

Washington Post reporter, University of Maryland alum, and former La Voz Latina editor recounts how her complicated relationship with Spanish has comically helped her career.

Arelis Hernández doing follow-up reporting on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2018. Photo taken by Erika P. Rodriguez and provided by Arelis Hernández.

We were reporting in a fishing village in southeastern Puerto Rico when a teenager posed a question that both stung and amused me. I had spent weeks covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in the Antillean archipelago of my ancestors and thought – quite erroneously – that the “mancha de plátano” I carried in the lilt of my Spanish-speaking was obvious.

The girl knew my reporting partner was a white woman from the States who had excused herself for speaking English. But when she saw and heard Spanish coming from my ambiguously brown face, she was puzzled and asked where I was from.

“¿De dónde tú eres?”

“De aquí, mama,” I replied, claiming Boricua belonging “por herencia de mis padres.” It’s an identity – as a diaspoRican – I unapologetically foist upon even the casual inquirer.

“Es que tu acento es bien raro,” she said. “Your accent is weird.”

She wasn’t wrong. My Spanish accent is strange. It undulates to the rhythm of che y órale. When I speak, I skip around vos and stumble on usted. I use at least three different names for passion fruit and banana. I’ll use carro over coche and guagua over camión. I have been at ease being a cipote or chama but never a parcera. I know how to ponerme las pilas and demonstrate ganas. And when my tongue is exhausted, I swallow consonants. If lazy, made-up grammar could kill, I’d be the bane of the Real Academia Española.

I dream in Spanish. I pray in Spanish. I think in English, and I write in English. When bilingual people ask me which I prefer, I tell them I live in the liminal space between lingua franca and mother tongue.

The curious teenager’s question had unleashed a tsunami of insecurity about my melodramatic relationship to this language and the way it marks my identity – and my career.

I learned English by watching Sesame Street with my Puerto Rican mother. Newly-arrived and yearning desperately for home, she used the screen time to acculturate with her toddler. But we resisted assimilation. My mother used Puerto Rican school books to teach me to read and write in Spanish, years before I did in English. The rule was we speak Spanish at home and English at school – that is until my brother was diagnosed with a speech impediment erroneously attributed to our bilingualism. That’s another story.

Still, I have vivid memories of my tía, who was a teacher in Puerto Rico, coming to visit to teach us the vowels in Spanish and the Lord’s Prayer in Taino, an indigenous language that may or may not be imprinted on my DNA.

But while my English advanced, my Spanish faltered – except for certain idioms. If I wanted to know what chisme the ladies at my Spanish-speaking, largely Salvadoran and Bolivian church were sharing, pues, I needed to catch up. If I wanted to connect with my Puerto Rican family, I needed to muzzle my shame.

So, I translated every sermon I heard in Spanish into English to improve vocabulary, committed to Univision’s Primer Impacto as my daily news source, and endeavored to read “One-Hundred Years of Solitude” as Gabo had always intended. My goal in journalism school became growing into a Spanish-language reporter at my local television station. It never happened.

What became of my tongue, though, was a linguistic amalgamation of pocha proportions. My Spanish consisted of Puerto Rican colloquialisms, Salvadoran sentence structure, university-level Castilian vernacular, Reina Valera vocabulary, and Walter Mercado’s theatrical enunciation. It was so raw and grating, it would never qualify me for the anchor desk, much less reporting. I knew words in Spanish for which I couldn’t find words for in English. My Spanish flowed until I hit a cerebral dam that would break into English and flood my speech with Spanglish.

Arelis Hernández doing follow-up reporting on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2018. Photo taken by Erika P. Rodriguez and provided by Arelis Hernández.

I took a college course about telenovelas where for the first time I was writing papers in my native tongue. Let’s just say the professor was generous in awarding me a B- for effort. I still remember her red-pen scrawl on an assignment where she remarked that my grammar was pésimo. I explored the nuances of Spanglishisms when my comadre and I revived a bilingual Latino newspaper on campus and started a monthly column called, ahem, Léxico Latino. We spent late nights arguing – and laughing until we cried — over the proper use of fukú in a sentence and whether washaterías were a real thing.

Little did I know that my phonetic cornucopia and a la carte cultural experience growing up in suburban Washington was exactly the mix of hybridized, American-style multilingualism I needed for my journalism career. Because I wasn’t wedded to any specific kind of Spanish, I had a way of muddling and adapting mine to navigate whatever the situation called for as a border and immigration reporter who often centers migrant voices. Let’s call it fluidity.

In central Florida, I threw out tú recklessly when chatting with Puerto Ricans and formalized with usted when speaking with Central American farmworkers in rural areas. In Spain, somehow, every word ending in “d” inexplicably sounded like “th.” In Mexico, I tried my best to use the best vocabulary. In Venezuela, everything I thought I knew was flipped on its head. Each interview and conversation turned into an exchange of pronunciation and regionalisms, which also came with the compulsory “I was born in the U.S." apologetics.

But, my Spanish became the tool for my mission of telling stories for and about Latine communities. It was that particular fluency that has helped me connect with people from across the hemisphere. They may be saying pobrecita imperceptibly while listening to me wrestle with all the different kinds of Spanishes in my head and trying to get a question out. But that pity sometimes works in my favor and in the end, se me entiende.

My Spanish evolved with my identity and maturity. As a child, I was humiliated that it otherized me. As a teenager, I wanted it to help me belong somewhere. As an adult, I embraced the third space – not this or that, just me and all of it.

My Spanish has improved. Still, my cousins in Spain show no compunction in correcting my conjugation faux pas. Asylum-seekers at the border still look at me funny sometimes. But stints living in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria have burnished my accent to sound more like that of my abuelos. Dopamine rushes through my body like a shot of chichaito (flavored anise liquor) now every time an interviewee links my accent to my Puerto Ricanness. But I also feel a tinge of sadness that my accent is settling, losing its trademark absurdity, and stabilizing with practice into a specific intonation.

All these experiences, doubts, and verbal volatility coalesced recently when I was asked to appear for an interview with a Puerto Rican television news show after publishing an article with colleagues at the island’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo. For the first time, my relatives could catch me on their local afternoon lineup speaking my Spanish. But that viejita called shame smiled at me mockingly. I told my colleague, Luis, a native Puerto Rican journalist, I would keep my mouth shut and let him do the talking.

I did happen to get one, largely inconsequential sentence in.

Months later, a friend’s older relative visiting from Puerto Rico cornered me at a quinceañera to tell me he’d seen the interview. I made one of those bemused sad clown faces I tend to make, bristling for the next sentence.

“You’re one of us,” he said, ignoring my usual mea culpa. “And I just wanted to tell you how proud I am to know there is one of us at The Washington Post writing and talking about us. Your Spanish is perfect.”

My Spanish is perfect.

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