Defining “Pocho”

[I unintentionally took a couple of weeks off from the old blog to worry about my mom’s broken arm — she’s fine, thanks — and go through the first quarter paper-grading experience. Alas, it wasn’t a true vacation, but I seem to be back and ideas are kicking around up there in my head again. I take it as a good sign for things to come. Thanks for your patience. ~LD]

(with love and a wink for the sophomores)

As I understand it, (feel free to correct me if I’m totally off base) “pocho” is an insulting term in Spanish for a kind of messy speech in which bad English and / or bad Spanish are randomly mixed with false cognates and other novice language errors. In general, if it’s applied to a person (Ella es muy pocha) it suggests ignorance, lack of adequate education and an overall misunderstanding of both cultures. The term is pretty common here in TRC and probably other cities relatively close to the US – México border. At CAT, the international American school where I teach, the term has become a kind of weird badge of honor. Being “pocho” at CAT means you’re not afraid to totally mangle your new language, of being misunderstood, or of poking a little fun at yourself and your cultural biases.

Anyone who has tried to have a conversation in a language they studied, but may or may not have ever used in anything more sophisticated than a staged meeting of a friend on the street in a class role play lesson, knows that conversing in the second language is trying at the best of times. You may be cruising along on your explanation on your point of view, say, about the relative wealth of your native country and stumble on an expression that you don’t know how to express in the second language and so you do the natural thing: word for word translation. I did this the other day with the workers tearing up the water mains on my street.

The workers are replacing the old ceramic water main pipes with shiny new PVC ones. To do that, they have disconnected homes block by block from the old water main and temporarily connected each home to what amounts to a clear plastic garden hose, and then they reconnect to the main after the new pipes are in. The entire process takes about a week. The place they needed to hook me up to the garden hose, my water meter, is inside my carport where they couldn’t see it, much less get to it. I noticed when I came home from school one afternoon that the houses on all sides of me were ready to be connected to the garden hose, but they hadn’t made a connector for my place. In something of a panic over the prospect of no water for a week, I asked a worker who happened to be standing there about the problem, explaining, “. . . es que el metro esta adentro.” I’m sure he thought, “Yeah, lady, I bet there’s at least one meter [think measurements] inside that carport, maybe a few more.” I laughed when I finally realized a little later what I’d actually said instead of what I meant: “el medidor [literally, the measurer] esta adentro.” Que pocha.

A common complaint from CAT students used to be the local teachers who were forced to teach in their second language, but didn’t have a great command of day-to-day English vocabulary. One year there was a teacher my students told me about who called the “parking lot” an estationament [falsely cognated from “estacionamiento”], among other butcheries. At the time it was nice to know that we native speakers of English weren’t the only ones going around thoughtlessly butchering a second language with words like “hamburgero” and “fritos” for hamburger and fries. Far from being misunderstood, the teacher in question was quite clear, as long as his listeners were at least as bilingual as he was. And then there are students who get stuck trying to explain their idea and just flat out, intentionally use false cognates, knowing full well the word is not a word in the language they’re trying to use at that moment. My favorite example was told to me by a friend who related the story of one student who said, “Don’t be amargated [“amargado”], Mister.” The student in question knew the teacher would understand, but couldn’t come up with the word “bitter.” I bet the student will never forget that word now, though.

Lately, among my bilingual colleagues of both nationalities, I’ve noticed a trend toward not only slipping back and forth between languages in a single sentence, or conversation, but the intentional and unintentional pocho-ization of words and phrases as we go through our workday as a kind of mixed-culture humor. These come hard and fast in the midst of quickie questions in the office and as a result, I can’t think of a specific instance, but when I asked one of the other office-lurkers if she could come up with an example, she replied, “Let me think ’cause they are usually expontaneas.” It’s not the best example, in fact, but it certainly shows one way we intentionally pocho-ize as a way to poke a little fun at the way the two languages blend and stick to each other without our thinking about it. The real beauties happen by accident, like the times I’ve started explaining something to a mono-lingual person not in their language, but my other one. I have also caught myself speaking Spanish to people who I know don’t have English as a first language, but may not have Spanish as a language at all – a mom from Korea or France. So embarrassing, sometimes, to be pocha.

In a way, these slips into my second language are a compliment. My brain is programmed to speak to people in their native language out of courtesy. Unfortunately for me, not all languages are English or Spanish. Spanish just happens to be my default “other” language. Nevertheless, I’m a little bit proud of being “pocha”, and maybe I’m the only one, but I think there are a great number of us at CAT who feel the same, even if we’ve never said it “en voz alta.” ~LD

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3 thoughts on “Defining “Pocho”

  1. I love hanging out with friends with whom I can speak Italianese! (Italiano and Inglese). It is so much more fun than speaking just one language. 🙂 When we went to Vienna we tried to talk to the natives in Italian…doesn’t really work. 😀

  2. I now know what to call myself to the Hispanic population applying for loans. It used to be, “Soy un gringo que hable poquito espanol muy tortuga.” Glad to know I can simplify it by using Pocho.

    But is it said POKO or POTCHO or POSHO?

    • more like “potcho”. Glad I could make your life easier. You can let me know if it works with a wider audience. =) Of course, just knowing the word will probably set you up to be spoken to as if you were a native speaker of Spanish. Ha.~LD

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