Today Puerto Rico commemorates the date when Christopher Columbus arrived to the Island in 1493. Referring to this historical event as a “discovery” has become controversial recently. A “discovery” or not, we can say without any doubt that this was the date that Borikén –native name of the island of Puerto Rico- met the Spanish language for the first time.
We lose… we won… They took the gold and left us gold…
They took everything and left us all… They left us the words.
Quoting these words from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, language expert Luz Nereida Pérez illustrates her passion for the promotion of the correct usage of the Spanish language in Puerto Rico. Her academic preparation, a 32 year career as a private consultant coupled with a constant exposure on TV, radio and press, and seven published books have made Luz Nereida one of the most recognized Spanish language authorities on the island.
Chatting with Luz Nereida about the Spanish in Puerto Rico is impressive. Once she started, the topics flowed freely one after another. She talked to Speaking Latino about particularities of Puerto Rican Spanish, her perception of Spanish education in Puerto Rico and greatness of having Spanish as our first language.
“The blood of my soul is my language” is one of the most famous lines by Spanish writer Miguel de Unamuno and, according to Luz Nereida, it summarizes the greatness that the Spanish language has for those who learn it as a native language.
She explains that the language is what humanizes us and what draws the line that separates being a mammal or a human being. “The vernacular is what gives sensitivity, spirit, emotion and vision of a human life. And the language that we have -Spanish- is so rich in emotion, spiritual quality and we have not realized that,” the linguist shared.
Luz Nereida adds that each language has its own personality just like people. The “language personality” is one of the elements that enriches the world and that is why learning it requires a different approach. To really learn a language it needs to be captured, arrested or apprehended. For her, the action of aprehender (aprehend) the language is stronger than just aprender (to learn). To illustrate this point she brings the example of a parrot that is able to speak a language by repeating the sounds , but it doesn’t apprehend (or capture) it. She concludes that “apprehend is to grasp, to integrate it in your psiquis” and that is her ultimate goal when she gives her workshops.
In her analysis of different languages she found that Spanish has one of the most difficult grammars and when student are learning it they get confused because sometimes “the explanation does not explain.” She states that all native Spanish-speakers are lucky because we learned the language “along the way” archiving grammar rule exceptions in our head. As an example, she mentions the rule in Spanish that indicates that one-syllable words do not have an accent mark, but it also includes a long list of exceptions that do have it. Other examples that can puzzle non-native speakers are the differences in conjugations of similar verbs such as the preterite indicative of andar and nadar or present indicative of fregar and bregar.
“What determines the Hispanic language is speaker’s emotion, not the head. And there’s the whole explanation of the Spanish language: that it comes from the heart of the speaker couple with emotional richness and grammatical difficulty,” she affirms.
The Spanish language education in Puerto Rico
In 2011, the academic achievement tests performed in Puerto Rico (PPAA) showed that 55% of students have a limited or minimal ability in Spanish  with a slight improvement in 2012 with 53% . Luz Nereida affirms that this is the result of an excess of grammar teaching and a lack lengua viva or living language. “I believe that students need to speak and write [instead of] a lot of subject and predicate, diphthong and hiatus,” she claims. According to her, students should be involved in more class activities such as narrating an experience, reading aloud, talking and writing about a topic.
But there is another language debate in the public education system of Puerto Rico. This school year, 31 public schools started an English as a first language education  and, each year, more schools will be added to the list with the goal to develop fully bilingual students. It is clear that she agrees with the idea of promoting bilingualism in Puerto Rico, but not with the political hue that “manipulates everything.” To backup this argument, she quotes what the Puerto Rican-Dominican author José Luis González expressed in his book Nueva visita al cuarto piso: “every civilized country has a second language in its educational system and ours has to be English because of our geographical position, not for political reasons.”
Luz Nereida goes even further by adding French to list of languages Puerto Rican should be learning. Why? Just for the simple reason that Spanish, English and French are the languages spoken in the Caribbean.
As an independent consultant for the government and private corporations for over 30 years, Luz Nereida has been able to work closely with professionals and has witnessed some of the difficulties that Puerto Ricans have with Spanish. “Sometimes they do not know if something [expresses] a complete thought… there’s a lot of words but not a complete thought. Professionals with Master and Doctoral degrees [incorrectly] saying estábanos, íbanos and veníanos; that say hubieron and haiga!” she exclaimed. Other inquiries she gets often are about the usage of the verb haber, technology and medicine terminology and also the meaning and origin of Puerto Rican words.
Puerto Rico and its language: About Puerto Rican Spanish
Many people ask if Puerto Ricans speak Spanish correctly. This question is repeated by other Latin American countries such as Chile and Colombia. Luz Nereida’s reaction to this question is straight-forward; that every Spanish-speaker has a right to speak the language in his or her local version without feeling inferior. “That is nothing to be ashamed of. We are what we are because of our geography, migration patterns and historical experiences. These are not the same for the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or Panama,” she says.
It is incredible that how in such a small country like Puerto Rico you are able to identify language differences. She explains that the geography of the island segregated migratory groups that came from Spain to work in the colonization of the territory. For example, in the north where now are municipalities such as Arecibo, Aguadilla, Camuy and Utuado, Canarians came to develop the sugar cane industry and with them arrived a different pronunciation and vocabulary. In Ponce and towards the western part of the island the Corsicans came to develop the coffee industry bringing different last names and physical traits. The same thing happened with the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra, with immigrants from French and English islands of the Caribbean.
These particular aspects of the Puerto Rican Spanish and others are featured in her most recent book Puerto Rico y el lenguaje, a compilation of 40 of her columns published in the newspaper Claridad as part of her column Hablemos español.
For example, one of the most popular articles of the book is El quincallero that talks about the ancient peddler that used to sell door-to-door any kind of small articles or fruits. The article explains the origin of the word quincalla and what other words are used in Spanish-speaking countries to make reference to this character. Luz Nereida’s favorite essay is Palabras de mi abuela or Grandma’s words that mentions examples of words used when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony.
There’s much more to learn from this book: why Puerto Ricans use the word china instead of naranja for an orange; how many words in Spanish for kite and drinking straw; African words used in Puerto Rican Spanish; and Puerto Rican food related words such platanutres, limber, pitorro, funche and sancocho. In simple and short articles, Luz Nereida masterfully teaches the origin and meaning of 200 words commonly used in Puerto Rican Spanish.
I would like to thank Luz Nereida for spending her time with Speaking Latino and for presenting us her work that I devoured before writing this article. Hopefully, I will be able to share with you in the future some of the most interesting things I learned about Spanish.
Check out these other Puerto Rican Spanish Slang Word articles.