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Steve Wilson: The Spanglish of Los Suns

May 20, 2010

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By **Steve Wilson**

On May 5, the Phoenix Suns wore jerseys with a Spanish word on them and everybody got excited because the team was making a political statement, as seen here , and here , and here, and even here.

But wait, didn’t those jerseys exist because of an NBA marketing scheme called Noche Latina? Didn’t the Suns wear them on March 21 and 26? Yes and yes.

Noche Latina, which this year lasted a couple of semanas, is an outreach program to Hispanic fans, and features Spanglish uniforms (more on that later) and other Latino-themed entertainment, as well as basketball analysts breaking out their high school Spanish phrasebooks. It was a token gesture to the 15 percent of NBA fans who have Hispanic heritage, and nobody took it seriously.

Which is why the Suns’ decision to use the uniforms a second time, in protest of Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law, is even more interesting than most columnists have given it credit for. The uniforms were a marketing gimmick–in fact, the NBA didn’t even fully translate the team names. Los Suns? That’s about as Hispanic as Taco Bell.

The fact that the team names were left in a weird Spanglish version–a version that would still be recognizable to the English-speaking majority of NBA fans–tells me that the league wanted to reach out to their Latino viewers with as little effort as possible. It was the equivalent of putting a stripe down the side of a car and calling it a performance package.

The Los Suns uniforms meant nothing. Back in March they had no power. They were cute. But those same uniforms worn in protest on May 5 meant something because there were no mariachi bands, no joking on TNT and ESPN about bad accents, and no Chihuahua-themed t-shirts shot into the stands. On May 5, the Los Suns shirts meant something because the team made the decision to wear the shirts by themselves, rather than doing it as part of a league mandate.

However, as powerful a statement as the Los Suns shirts were in the playoffs, the subtext of the shirts–the half English and half Spanish team names of the Suns and the other teams that participated in Noche Latina–unknowingly says volumes about our country today. Without even meaning to, the Noche Latina uniforms captured the essence of Hispanic-American assimilation, and went unnoticed because we are all so used to it. We’re used to seeing Spanglish. We’re used to half-assed efforts by teams to get more Latino viewers. We are so used to these things that we have internalized them.

Anti-immigrant protesters complain that Latinos are not assimilating into mainstream (i.e., white) American culture. And yet all around us, every day, we see evidence to the contrary. Hispanic players are in the NBA, MLB, and NFL. Hispanic performers are on TV shows, movies, and singing on our iPods. Hispanic governors run our states. Taco carts have replaced Chinese noodle shops as the most common ethnic restaurants in America.

What the NBA has taught us, not through the Los Suns protest, but through our unconscious acceptance of the Noche Latina shirts, is that the U.S. is not waiting for Hispanic assimilation to happen at some point in the future. It’s already here. We just get so excited about seeing a sports team stand for something that we forget that all of us already speak Spanglish.

Copyright 2010 Steve Wilson

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This post originally appeared on Beacon Broadside.

Steve Wilson’s debut book, The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream, will be published in June 2010.

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3 comments for Steve Wilson: The Spanglish of Los Suns

  1. Comment by william on May 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    You’re wrong about team name translation. US team names are sometimes translated into Spanish, but more often they’re not. See the comments at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2299

    And you’re wrong about the motives behind the partial translation. Why is the professional soccer team in Seattle named “Sounders FC”? In American English it’s not a “football club.” Is this a “half-assed effort” to get more British fans?

    Your point that Hispanic assimilation into the mainstream American culture is actually more of a blending between the two, and that the blending is already well underway, is very interesting and strikes me as accurate. It’s just too bad your supporting evidence is totally wrong.

  2. Comment by Steve on May 21, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    William:

    Thanks for the note. I will have to disagree with you, however. It is true that US team names are typically not translated into Spanish (although as your link shows, sometimes they are). My point is that the reason for this lies in the influence both languages and cultures have with each other. The use of English for non-English speakers is so common and internalized that non-English speakers easily understand team names like Los Suns. Also, many Spanish words have become so common to Americans that Los Suns is easily recognizable to them, even if they think they don’t speak any Spanish.

    (Also, I think with sports teams we need to realize that there is an issue of practicality. If a team like the Lakers is well known in many countries and languages, it could be confusing to fully change the name. People may be unsure if the speaker is referring to a different team altogether.)

    As to your second point, I think that this is an entirely different issue. The Sounders and other soccer teams use FC at the end as a way of connecting to the larger history of soccer. It is used as a reminder of the game’s worldwide roots, allowing the team to claim some equality with other teams worldwide. It is not a two language mashup created by a marketing team for a singular event.

  3. Comment by william on May 21, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    I agree that naming the team Sounders FC was a conscious marketing decision not aimed at a singular event, but rather, like you say, to trade on the European tradition of “football.” And though it most certainly is a mashup of American and British English, and though I suppose it does reflect something of a cultural assimilation between soccer fans on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s not seen as a weird British/American (Bramerican?) version of a name, and it’s not evidence of British assimilation into American culture as a whole. It’s simply what the marketing department decided to call the team.

    Naming the team Los Suns in Spanish is the same thing: it also was a conscious marketing decision; it also was not aimed at a singular event — that’s the team’s name (note that all prose references at http://www.nba.com/enebea use the non-translated team names); it’s also a mashup, this time of English and Spanish, but to Spanish speakers I don’t believe it’s seen as a “weird Spanglish version” — it’s simply what the marketing department decided to call the team, and it’s what the team is known as in Spanish.

    It’s incorrect to say that “the NBA didn’t even fully translate the team names.” So it follows that it’s incorrect to say that this is another one of the “half-assed efforts by teams to get more Latino viewers.”

    The fact that “Los Suns” is perfectly intelligible by Americans of both native languages obviously points to a certain degree of blending of English and Spanish in the US, and the fact that everyone knows what a taco is shows there’s at least something of a shared culture and history; and you’re probably right that most people don’t realize the extent that this blending has already taken place. In other words, I think your thesis is accurate. However, your incorrect assumptions about NBA team name translations, your cynical attitude toward the marketing of those teams, your scare-tone of creeping “hispanization” of the country, and your use of the term “Spanglish,” which seems to me carries a somewhat negative connotation, don’t help that thesis. I think “Los Suns” simply appeals to this blended English/Spanish, European/Latin American culture, a culture that’s already here to a certain extent, and one that’s probably the future of the American culture. That’s a fairly Pollyanna observation, and admittedly not as interesting as your take, but I think in this case it’s more accurate.

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