The Late Late Lovers

Enrique Hunk Lopez lives in Mexico Cily, where he has a private international taw practice and is co-editor of DIALOGOS, a Mexican literary journal.

by Enrique Hank Lopez

At the risk of offending the thousands who stubbornly insist that Latin Americans can be taught to be responsible and punctual human beings, I am pained to inform them that they face an impossible task. So long as my fellow latinos read, write, and speak Spanish, no amount of Anglo-Saxon pressure or proselytizing will make them arrive on time or do the things they promise to do.4

It’s high time for us to face the cold, hard truth: Spanish is a totally nonresponsible and nonpunctual language, and anyone who is happily born to the language has every good excuse to shrug aside the burdens of responsible on-time behavior.

As any linguist shall quickly realize, the grammar and syntax of the madre lengua make it possible and almost mandatory for my paisanos to miss appointments and otherwise “foul up the works” without feeling the slightest nibble of guilt. And the prime reason for this no-guilt attitude is the Spanish grammatical form which I choose to call the “exculpatory reflexive.” Thus, whenever a Mexican or any other latino arrives two hours late, he merely says, “Se me hizo tarde,” and he is off the hook. In other words, he simply observes (not explains, mind you) that “it go late for me,” it being some ubiquitous power that has forced him to be tardy. There is no way for him to say “I was late” in acceptable Spanish — no possible way for him to assume personal blame. His linguistic dodge is the reflexive, the exculpatory reflexive, that assigns blame to some vague, never-identified “it” which any latino accepts without question. In fact, it’s bad form to demand any further explanation.

Anglo-Saxons, on the other hand, are unfortunately driven to an almost neurotic punctuality by a Puritan syntax fraught with semantic blame and self-flagellation. The poor “I” takes a hell of a beating (I was late, I busted my watch, I missed the bus, I had a flat — an interminable assault on the personal guilty “I”), whereas the Hispanic “it” floats merrily along in a cloud of nonguilt and unassailability.

But aside from excusing the most inexcusable tardiness, the “exculpatory reflexive” relieves the happy Latin from guilt and responsibility in all kinds of circumstances. If a child drops a bottle of milk, he simply says, “Se me cayó”—“It fell from me.” If he loses his sweater in the school yard: “Se me perdió” — “It got lost from me.” And if you don’t think latinos take advantage of this grammatical windfall, just ask any American businessman how easy it is to get things done “on time and according to specifications” when he does business in Latin America.

Unfortunately, most of these Americans get angry and petulant when faced with the Latin’s notorious nonresponsibility, and they actually believe “these Mexicans just don’t give a damn,” that they are deliberately late and inefficient. They are badly mistaken. Mexicans do give a damn, and they try very hard to do things right and in “the American way.” But they simply cannot overcome their insidious Spanish syntax, which quickly negates even the slightest sense of responsibility.

Needless to say, someone is sure to accuse me of racist stereotyping, and will buttress his outrage by insisting he knows many Mexicans who are as punctual as any gringo. He will even offer to name names if necessary. And in the latter respect, he would be dead right: there are indeed many Mexicans who are extremely punctual and undeniably responsible. But any fool can plainly see that such latinos are neurotically punctual, that their gringo sense of responsibility is in utter conflict with their grammatical environment. Surely they must be thinking in English (and twitching in Spanish) when they arrive for dinner on the dot or keep their office files in apple-pie order. In fact, there are increasing symptoms of this punctuality-cum-responsibility syndrome in Mexico, much to the deep distress of certain Mexican psychiatrists who are now predicting the end of our two-hour lunches, which used to begin promptly at two or three or four o’clock. Comes the day when Mexicans start eating lunch at the barbaric hour of twelve noon, and we shall sadly witness a mass of blinking, stuttering quasi-human beings who are thinking in English but speaking a pallid Spanish that has lost all of its guilt-ridding magic.

One mentions the prospective horror of this lunch-hour change because it is a theoretical possibility; but it is most unlikely to happen in this century, for the grammar and syntax of a language are its most durable elements. Vocabularies, on the other hand, are far more fickle and subject to alien seduction. In Mexico City, for example, the Italian ciao has virtually replaced adiós among college students, and even the least traveled bootblack will say OK instead of its Spanish equivalent. Sporting terms are sometimes totally American, in spite of a certain chauvinistic tendency to spell them in Spanish. Hence, one hears about Willie Mays bateando four honrons or else cachando a long flai in the feel del centra, all of which takes place at the parque de beisbol.

Proximity to the United States, predictably enough, beguiles the Mexican vocabulary into an almost whorish capitulation. Along the border both languages, English and Spanish, engage in an outlandish philological miscegenation called pocho, or Tex-Mex, which President Lyndon Johnson learned to speak in his childhood. (Nos vemos en el corner del drugstore donde Juana esta working con aquella redhead); but you will note that the Spanish syntax remains as stiff-backed and unyielding as an old maid from Sevilla.

When one pauses to consider the true nature of this verbal hankypanky along the Rio Grande, one suddenly realizes that it isn’t hankypanky after all, that it’s really an ill-disguised guerrilla war between two languages. And thus far those Texas Yankees like Lyndon Johnson have gotten the upper hand in that no-man’s-land known as pocho. However, the battle has only reached the vocabulary level, and no objective linguist would deny that the English vocabulary is tough, resourceful, and aggressive. But it would be foolish to assume that the Spanish syntax and grammar can be as easily overwhelmed as its vulnerable vocabulary

Bear in mind that Mexicans — indeed, all latinos — have a heavily vested interest in protecting linguistic norms that free them from all guilt and responsibility. The exculpatory reflexive is their last, most powerful defense against the insidious fallout of punctuality — and they will use that fine weapon with relentless courage and determination. Their principal danger is that they will arrive at the barricades too late. Se me hizo tarde.