Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)
Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.” We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.
The New York Times recently published the startling figure that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African American children. Within these few 93 texts, African American children all-too-often read about themselves within the past tense, in reference to slavery and civil rights legacies. Children of color are left to identify with the adventures and imaginative stories of white characters amid white settings. Aptly characterized as an, “apartheid of children’s literature,” two moving first-person accounts from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers detail the significance of incorporating more characters of color for all readers. One major effect of this dearth of representation, according to Christopher Myers,
…is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.
Just as significant, is the number of children’s books about Latino children from the 2013’s trove of 3,200 books: 53. That’s 5-3. As a reminder, the United States Census tallied 53 million Latinos in the United States, representing the nation’s youngest demographic (children!).
However, perhaps worse than the actual lack is the rise of stereotypic in-your-face representations of race within children’s books – award-winning ones, actually – and their role in teaching children troubling ideas about race, language, and “difference.”
My name is Skippito Friskito. (clap-clap)
I fear not a single bandito. (clap-clap)
My manners are mellow,
I’m sweet like the Jell-O,
I get the job done, yes indeed-o.
Case in point: Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat that pretends to be a Chihuahua superhero. Skippyjon speaks English, but his super hero alter ego speaks in Mock Spanish in his recurring and imaginative quests. Speaking “Spanish” in hyperanglized fashion recasts Skippyjon from an English-speaking (white) cat to a Spanish-accented (brown) dog. His auditory performance of Mexicanness, what Reina Prado considers “sonic brownface,” reeks of white privilege as he code-switches from cat/white/English to dog/brown/”Spanish.” What’s worse, as a children’s book, directed at those between the impressionable ages of 4-8, Skippyjon encourages both adult readers and young readers to read out loud and perform sonic brownface. Listening to the book’s trite word choice (amigos, adios, frijoles), fake Spanish (indeed-o, mask-ito) and embellished accents (“ees” for is) trains the ear on how to speak “Mexican,” presumably, of course, for the listening amusement of non-Mexicans.
“I am El Skippito, the great sword fighter,” said Skippyjon Jones.
Apparently, these tried and true tactics sell quite well. This award-winning children’s book character, by Judy Schachner, has spawned into a lucrative empire that includes fourteen books, a coordinating plush toy figure, online webisodes of the books’ stories, CDs of Schachner reading out loud, the obligatory Ipad app, a starring role in the department store Kohl’s “We Care” charity campaign in 2012, and get this, a children’s musical. Of course, Skippyjon is not really recognized as a book series about Latinos (like fellow television darlings, Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, or Dragon Tales) yet it taps into every flinching stereotype we know of, and should avoid, about Mexicans. Equating Mexicans and Mexican tales to the canine of a Chihuahua is hardly new but it does not make it less problematic.
For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old. Skippyjon and his chimichangos – his sidekicks (good guys) –set out to save their rice and beans from Alfredo Buzzito and Bumblebeeto Bandito (bad guys). Zorro-esque masks, swords, fiestas followed by siestas, fellow Chihuahuas, piñatas, plenty of cacti, and lots of clap-clap cues frame the rice-and-bean rescue. His adventures, book after book, via a Skippito brown identity sends a disquieting message about power and privilege. Skippito, even when masked, still plays the role of Great White Hero to the masses of “Mexican” dogs.
Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.
Several of Schachner’s Skippyjon books have received notable accolades including, for instance, the 2004 E.B. White Read Aloud Award and a spot on the coveted “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” by the National Education Association in 2007. The former comes with an adorning gold seal on future editions of honored books. A sampling of the series’ laudatory press, from the E.B White Read Aloud press release, “Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, SkippyJon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.” And from the author’s webpage: “Each of my adventures are ay caramba, mucho fun but they’re educational too!” The insinuation that the Skippyjon Empire teaches Spanish not only ignores the richness of Spanish but it also feeds popular ideals that Spanish is an “easy” and “fun” language to learn.
Schachner’s recurrent use of “Spanish,” in particular, not only structures the silly narrative adventures of Skippyjon as he imagines himself to be Skippito but the racialized language play has also become the hallmark element of Skippyjon. Written and read out loud by parents and teachers, some of Skippyjon’s signature phrases include “Holy Guacamole!” and “Holy Frijoles!” – textbook examples of Jane Hill’s renowned writings on Mock Spanish (or fake, incoherent Spanish uttered and deemed “funny” by non-native Spanish speakers). Because we already hold native Spanish-speakers (U.S. Latinos) with such little regard in the first place, Mock Spanish done for laughs, as argued by Hill, comes quite easily. Carmen Martínez-Roldán takes the Skippyjon Jones series to task in necessary detail; see her analysis of Mock Spanish in the equally troubling, Skippyjon Jones in the Doghouse. Her emphasis on the cultural representations of Mexicans vis-a-vis language in children’s books supports my tirade against this cat/dog. Martínez-Roldán found that several teachers, particularly those from the Southwest, expressed a sense of inexplicable uneasiness to these books. Amazon ratings are (painfully) positive for Skippyjon, yet, according to Martínez-Roldán, those who expressed low ratings were “accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.” Her research calls for more diversity within children’s literature but, central to this essay, reminds us that U.S. Latinos hold both a personal and political relationship to Spanish.
Anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains how Spanish, when overheard in designated public spaces (think: Cinco de Mayo or Mexican restaurants) is safely “ethnified,” yet Spanish is regarded as out of place or “racialized” when heard as bilingual announcements at local grocery stores or school sites. When heard by monolingual English speakers outside of its designated spaces in the U.S., Spanish carries “racialized” connotations such as “impoliteness” and “danger.” The insistence many American employers place on speaking English and prohibiting non-English language conversations at workplaces, for instance, speaks to the public boundaries imposed on Spanish and Spanish-speakers. (Yes, Whole Foods. I am looking at you.)
Jane Hill’s provocative argument, built from Uricuolli’s writings, examines Whites’ use of Spanish (Mock Spanish). Unlike Latinos, who learn early on to self-monitor where and how they speak English and Spanish, non-native speakers of Spanish do not carry this same burden, according to Hill. In fact, they have the privilege of speaking grammatically incorrect Spanish, in hyper Anglicized Spanish, or mockingly (by adding a stupid “o” or prefacing a phrasing with “el”) without surveillance.
Then, using his very best Spanish accent, he said, “My ears are too beeg for my head.
My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat… I AM A CHIHUAHUA!”
In addition to overplayed colloquial expressions, Schachner demarcates a racial line with “visual accents” (“beeg” for big) (see Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Priscilla Peña Ovalle and Sara V. Hinojos). In line with Uricuolli’s ideas, even Skippito’s English is accented and marked while in “Mexican” character. Readers stammer through “ees” and “beeg” in an effort, as prepped, to use their “very best Spanish accent.” The practice teaches children that accents are performative and easy to take on and off rather than hear accents as indicative of someone’s larger family histories of migration and culture.
For children unfamiliar with Mexicans and Latinos, these books cast Spanish with archaic imageries of Mexican bandits and modern-day Frito Banditos. Spanish is not used as a language to communicate given its incoherence. Instead, Schachner uses Spanish to laugh at Skippito and by extension, Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S.; its runaway success is indicative of how “funny” Spanish and Mexicans continue to be to White and/or monolingual English speakers.
For Latinos, these books plant early attitudes about their own language differences. For children positioned as the family translator or struggling to maintain a bilingual, bicultural existence, these books teach children to shun their accent and those of their families. These books are clearly not for my two kids, whose young ears are already familiar with their grandmother’s Spanish-accented English and their own mother’s English-accented Spanish.
“Vamos, Skippito- or it is you the Bandito will eato!”
Reading children’s books out loud and listening to race through scripted accents sends troubling messages about “difference” at an early age. Educators have long argued that children’s books serve as both mirrors and maps to affirm and inspire readers’ identities, experiences, and future motivations. True. But I would also argue that the woeful absence of more diverse children’s tales mirrors a number of campaigns directed at working-class, communities of color; namely, our nation’s shaky commitment to universal preschool, lack of public support for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs, and outdated approaches to parental leaves (six measly weeks). In particular, Skippyjon Jones is a kid’s rendition of grownup racial and language politics, a pint-size version of NAFTA and English-only propositions presented for five-year old audiences. These policies, like the woeful crop of contemporary books, do little to provide a map for the livelihoods of children of color. Instead, Skippyjon’s use of language, a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzalez normalizes English, white characters (even in brown drag), and helps keep Cinco de Mayo antics alive.
NOTE: On 5-8-14, the author added a passage to this article to reflect the relationship of her work to Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán’s “The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones” published in The Journal of Children’s Literature (2013).
Featured Image by Flickr user The Long Beach Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Dolores Inés Casillas is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language. Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy will be published this fall by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series.
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Sonic Brownface: Representations of Mexicanness in an Era of Discontent–reina alejandra prado saldivar
**This piece is co-authored by Juan Sebastian Ferrada and Dolores Inés Casillas
Since debuting in 2009, American audiences have fallen in love with ABC’s Modern Family, a mockumentary comedy starring Ed O’Neill, Julie Bowen, and Colombian actress Sofía Vergara who plays the curvaceous, gorgeous, and ”accented” Gloria. Clearly a satirical comedy, the show presents three interrelated modern day versions of nuclear families. The patriarch Jay (O’Neill, formerly of Married With Children) marries Gloria, a much younger Latina who has an eleven-year-old son from her previous marriage (the wise-beyond-his-years Manny, played by Rico Rodriguez). The heterosexual suburban nuclear family is represented through Claire (Jay’s daughter, played by Bowen) and Phil (Ty Burrell) who have three children. The homosexual nuclear family is fashioned through the characters of Mitchell (Jay’s son, Jesse Tyler Ferguson), his partner Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and their adoptive daughter, Lily, from Vietnam. The show follows the tried-and-true conventions of family sitcoms, complete with exaggerated portrayals of their characters and a feel good message delivered in 22 minutes. Our current fascination is Gloria—arguably the most popular character on the show (see her lucrative Pepsi deal here)—and the use of her “accent” to mark her Latina body. Visually audiences may be ogling over her curves, but it is her vocal body – her “accent,” tone, and staged grammatical blunders – that work to racialize her character as much as sexualize it.
Vergara’s character Gloria hails from the same township of Barranquilla, Colombia as the actress herself. Despite her emerging star status in the U.S., Vergara is no stranger to Spanish-language television viewers. (Wilson Valentín-Escobar refers to such English-language media discoveries as “Columbus effects”). Vergara rose to fame through the immensely popular telenovela format and in recent years has gained popularity through various comedic roles type cast as the “sexy Latina.” Visually, the spitfire Latina is characterized by her red-painted lips, seductive clothing, curvaceous hips, long brunette hair, extravagant jewelry, and an inherent ability to dance. (See Priscilla Peña Ovalle’s fabulous SO! blog piece on Latinas, dance, and the “aural Otherness” of Rita Moreno). Vergara, in her personification of Gloria, embodies many of these attributes quite well. For instance, a natural blond, Vergara was forced to color her hair in order for American viewers to imagine her as an “appropriate” brown Latina.
In an equivalent vocal vein, Vergara showcases the required Spanish “accent.” Case in point, from the pilot episode:
Phil: Hi Gloria. How are you? Oh, what a beautiful dress.
Gloria: Ay, thank you Phil [Ph-eee-l].
Phil: Okay. [Proceeds to touch Gloria]
Claire: [Slaps Phil’s hand] No, honey. That’s how she says Phil. Not feel, Phil!
The communication mishap serves as the underlying funny because of Gloria’s accent and at the expense of Gloria’s body; her voice and her body are both subjected to gratuitous scrutiny. Phil, once again in episode 5 of season 1, does understand Gloria’s “accent” but seems to confuse the context. He greets Gloria upon arriving to his house to watch a football game:
Phil: Hey, for you! [Gives Gloria a bottle of wine] Nice to see you, Gloria. [Hugs Gloria]
Gloria: Two times today.
Phil: Okay. [Proceeds to hug her again]
Claire: Phil! She means we’ve seen them two times today.
In this case Phil is confused by Gloria’s inflection and repeatedly mistakes Gloria’s unintentional statements as personal invitations to her body. These acts sexualize and racialize Gloria as a desired “other” because of her apparent “accent.” Once again, repeated in this scene, Claire (Phil’s wife) is required to intervene or harness her husband’s sexual prowess by announcing what Gloria means, stripping Gloria of her voice to defend herself.
Perhaps most frustrating and audibly apparent feature of Gloria lies in her incessant grammatical errors scripted within her English-language lines. Yes, scripted. Vergara certainly has an audible “accent,” especially to Americans not accustomed to Latino-speak (although there are 35 million Latinos in the U.S.) or to those in denial that we all carry some sort of accent influenced by our social locations – class, race, and in this case, migration. But to Vergara’s own admission, she is bilingual and biliterate, which means the grammatical blunders that serve as punch lines or as a means of laughing at her, are largely owed to the script itself. Gloria’s grammar, like her “brown” hair, is an important false feature that helps make her a true Latina immigrant character.
Listeners have always struggled to make sense of one’s accent and speech style especially if the speaker’s body does not match stereotypical perceptions based on race and gender. A key study showed, for instance, that when participants were shown a recorded lecture by an Asian American woman voiced over with a white woman’s voice, they overwhelmingly insisted that the Asian American woman spoke with an Asian accent. A classic case of what sociolinguists refer to as “accent hallucination.” Listeners truly have a hard time believing what they hear or believe they hear.
In the case of comedian Margaret Cho, audiences laugh their heads off with her signature act – vocal reenactments of her immigrant Korean mother. Elaine Chun offers a brilliant analysis of Margaret Cho’s revoicings of her immigrant Korean mother (Chun refers to this as “Asian speech”). According to Chun, Cho’s comedic routines are not only incredibly funny but they offer a critique of racist mainstream ideologies precisely because Margaret Cho is read as an Asian American.
Which makes us wonder, how is Sofia Vergara read within a U.S. context and to non-Latino audiences? Ideally, folks would see her as a U.S. Latina role playing a recently arrived immigrant and offer viewers a critique of accented Latina spitfire. But alas, Vergara’s vocal performance of an immigrant Latina wrought with grammatical errors only helps her character Gloria become the quintessential racialized Other (or a true U.S. Latina).