Singer Lana del Rey has described herself as “Lolita got lost in the hood” and the “ghetto Nancy Sinatra.” Hence the sunglasses—a reference to the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel—coupled with a knuckle ring.
Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, Lana del Rey has said of her pseudonym: “I wanted a name I could shape the music towards […] I was going to Miami quite a lot at the time, speaking a lot of Spanish with my friends from Cuba—Lana Del Rey reminded us of the glamour of the seaside. It sounded gorgeous coming off the tip of the tongue.”
Many insightful bloggers have already called shenanigans on “Wool of the King,” the literal meaning of “Lana del Rey,” noting that thousands face deportation and worse for having a Latin@-sounding name. (I don’t merely mean undocumented people, but also those erroneously assumed to be living in the United States illegally, and those ethnically and racially profiled for their names alone.)
Last month, I replied to a blogpost about this issue by saying that the origin myth rings false for another reason that had gone as-yet unremarked: it was highly unlikely she could keep up a conversation with Cubans if her knowledge of Spanish were less than completely fluent. Ignoring the context of the discussion—that the subject at hand had to do with a non-Latina, presumably having acquired her Spanish in school—an anonymous commenter piped up:
“no way, that’s just bs people who are not native spanish speakers say, the whole idea that if you speak one kind of regional spanish or whatever then you can’t understand other kinds of spanish spoken by other nationalities. i am seriously tired of hearing that shit…the bad spanglish definitely betrays afrodiaspores as a non-native speaker…”
I pointed out in a brief response that Spanish is my first language, passed on by my parents—both born in Guantánamo—and my only language until the age of 3. I added Spanglish is a term formulated to denigrate bilingual Latin@s, whose “code-switching” involves using not only vocabulary but also grammatical forms from English and Spanish. (Perhaps what was ‘bad’ about mine was the presence of specifically Cuban words and phrases unfamiliar to Anonymous.) And I’m from Miami, so that Lana del Rey’s invocation of “seaside glamour” sounds particularly suspect.
The reason I am airing this here is that Lana del Rey’s linguistic claim involves ethnic as well as racial appropriation, entirely of a piece with her exploitation of both Latin@ (specifically Mexican and Xican@) and Black culture. This is due precisely to Africa’s legacy in the Caribbean. West and Central African groups did impact other areas of the Americas linguistically, yet their influence on the Caribbean remains strong and salient into the present moment. While I stand in solidarity with other Latin@s, I have to resist the erasure of our differences and the distinctiveness of our histories.
It is not widely recognized that the first Castilian grammar was published in 1492 as a tool of Empire, in order to standardize thought through speech. (Even within Spain itself, not everyone speaks Spanish.) Cubans do not speak simply “one type of regional Spanish.” In fact, the level of divergence that Cuban Spanish exhibits from others has often frustrated outsiders, whose classism and bigotry tends to be on full display in their characterizations:
I must recognize that I don’t find pleasant the Cuban accent . Even andalusian Spanish is far more elegan than the Cuban one. And it’s not only a matter of taste since Cuban Spanish is sometimes even hard to understand, unlike Argentinian Spanish which despite its uniqueness, is easy to understand . I think that the Castro regime has had its effect on the lowering the quality of the Cuban Spanish. They are isolated and are not in conctact with Spain to learn a fine way of speaking.
Travel guides—some intended for the “poverty tourism” market—provide the most compelling reports of its difficulty, although they are spiked with impatience and hostility:
Now for the hard part - Cuban Spanish is notoriously difficult to understand and is riddled with colorful slang. Furthermore, Cubans in general - and habaneros in particular - often talk incredibly quickly and are in the habit of dropping vital letters from the ends of their words (most commonly the letter ‘s,’ which can be confusing when you’re talking in plurals). A plea to habla más despacio (speak slower) usually puts them straight.
The Cubans have enriched their language with many of their own words and phrases. Some of these injections come from Afro-Cuban sources (cabildo for ‘brotherhood’ or batá for ‘drum’), others are a legacy of the original Taíno natives (the word cohiba for ‘cigar’ and guajiro for ‘country person’).
Other such tips are more neutral in tone but similar in content:
I speak conversational Spanish learned from my Mexican friends but this is very different from the way Cubans speak Spanish so it was somewhat difficult the first couple weeks. Cubans speak very fast and some consonants like the “s” sound are sometimes silent. Reflective of their proud culture, they will also look at you funny if you say “¿mande?” which they see as being diminutive. They use the words “¿como?” or “¿digame?”
Basically, they will be able to understand your Spanish but depending on who you are talking to, it will probably be difficult for you to understand theirs.
These writers have no investment in the Cuban exceptionalism of which I was accused; they are merely interested in helping travelers get around. Fortunately, a more analytical interpretation of Cuban Spanish is available for those who remain incredulous. According to court interpreter, translator, and scholar Anthony T. Rivas,
The most salient troublesome speech sounds of Cuban Spanish are as follows:
[1)] When located in syllable-final position (implosive position), /r/ and /l/ become assimilated to the following voiced consonant speech sound that starts the next syllable (explosive position)…
Speech sound /g/ in syllable-final position may also become assimilated to the next consonant speech sound, e.g. magnífico [man-ní-fi-ko] and speech sound /k/ may be rendered /g/ (velarization) at the end of a syllable when followed by consonant speech sound /t/…
2) Loss of speech sound /d/ when occurring at the beginning of a syllable, as in:
El dedo de David [ed-dé-o-ea-bí] “David’s finger”
The intervocalic /d/ and /b/ are fricative and at times barely heard. De la Cuesta believes that this disappearance (elision) of intervocalic /d/ is generalized in Cuban speech.
3) Aspiration or loss of syllable-final /s/. the /s/ is aspirated (an h-like sound in English), at times barely audibly, in syllable and word-final positions before a pause…
Aspiration of /s/ occurs throughout the Caribbean Spanish-speaking region: Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Atlantic coastal areas of Colombia and Venezuela, especially in major cities like Barranquilla and Cartagena, in Colombia, and Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, and the River Plate area. However, at times, as I have observed on recent trips to Cuba, /s/ may go unrendered in syllable and word-final positions (as occurs in colloquial Dominican speech) in the eastern region of the former Oriente province, especially amongst its [B]lack population…
4) The sound /r/ is rendered [l] in syllable-final and word-final positions, as occurs in Puerto Rican and Dominican colloquial speech, although not as often in Cuba as on the other two Caribbean islands. The sound /l/ may be rendered [r] in syllable and word-final positions as well.
For all but a few denialists, the social repercussions of the transatlantic slave trade and the transculturation of Cuban music, food, and religion are crystal clear, as is the affinity of Cuban Spanish with that of neighboring islands. It isn’t a fashion accessory to be worn in a publicity photo. And it’s not a problem, unless you don’t speak it.