After I moved to San Antonio from El Paso, people said I should write something comparing the two cities – both with majority Mexican-American populations, but each with its own palpably different character. For months I searched for the perfect metaphor to capture the contrast. Recently I found it, at a spelling bee.
You may never have been to a spelling bee, unless you were a contestant in grade school or middle school, or unless your child is a contestant. Remember the practice word lists? Standing at the mike, shaking, trying to get every letter right? The bell dinging when you messed up? The judges’ stern eyes following your doleful walk off the stage? And remember the “pronouncer”? Much of your success, or failure, depended on whether this distinguished elder spoke your word loudly and well. Otherwise, you had two choices: ask for a definition, or take a blind stab at spelling a mumble.
My twelve-year-old son has been a bee freak ever since he won his school contest in El Paso in the fourth grade, and advanced to citywide (where he bombed out in the second round). He still drags me to contests where kids compete to see who’ll go to Washington, D.C. for national finals. So this spring, early on a Saturday morning, we went to Trinity University for San Antonio’s big bout. It was sponsored by the Express-News, and followed the hallowed format of spelling bees everywhere: big stage, nervous kids, sober judges, officious pronouncer.
But there was one difference: in El Paso last year, a bad pronouncer almost caused a riot. In San Antonio this year, a woman with equally questionable diction raised nary a ripple of protest.
The El Paso guy was introduced as “a prominent local actor.” Like every Texas border burg, El Paso is so economically depressed, and therefore so lacking in professional theater, that “local actor” is synonymous with incipient homelessness. The phrase also implies you’re from out of town, since no sane homey would try to make a living as a thespian.
Sure enough, the pronouncer turned out to be a bearded, vaguely scruffy-at-the-edges fellow who’d obviously been raised in Brooklyn. His voice was resonant, stentorian – and totally incapable of pronouncing “r” at the end of a syllable. “Lodge,” he said to one of the first contestants. “Lodge?” echoed the Chicano kid. “Lodge,” repeated the pronouncer. “L-O-D-G-E,” spelled the kid. Ding! went the bell. “Sorry,” said the judge. “The correct spelling is L-A-R-G-E.
Soon moms and dads were rushing the stage to file pronunciation protests. At first the judges honored them and put the kids back in the bout, while warning the humiliated pronouncer to say his “r” and “s.” He promised to, but it was no use – he just couldn’t control his accent. By the end of the bee, irate parents, most of them Hispanic, were buzzing with indignation about the Anglo interloper. “Hey,” one said. “What right does this guy have to bring his accent here and mix up our kids?”
At this year’s San Antonio bee, Latino kids were also in evidence. But the Anglo pronouncer was no down-at-the-heels immigrant. Instead, her helmet-like blonde hair and good suit marked her as heir to a 78209 zipcode pedigree. The two pink-faced male judges also looked like denizens of the Stewart Building on Broadway.
It wasn’t long before the woman used the following pronunciation to say the word that means “arranged in a cross”: CRUCIFARM. “Crucifarm?” said a puzzled child, and proceeded to give the Old MacDonald spelling for what should have been C-R-U-C-I-F-O-R-M.
The pronouncer’s diction exemplified what U.T.—S.A. provost Guy Bailey, who is also a linguist, has identified as typical speech of aging Texas Anglos. My father, a Houston native, is a model: he says “carn” for corn, and his “war” rhymes with “bar.” Texas Anglo kids don’t talk like this anymore. Chicanos hardly ever did.
The blonde pronouncer lady obviously was doing the Texas Anglo thing to her “o” in “cruciform.” Yet none of the parents – not even the Hispanics – registered a word of protest. Another kid came up and got “darsal” for “dorsal.” “Mommy! Do something!” begged my son.
So I walked to the stage and, in respectful whispers, protested that “crucifarm” and “darsal” were non-standard pronunciations.
The judge just looked at me. Then he lectured the audience that indeed, the pronouncer was correct. During an intermission, he kindly sought me out to explain. “You see,” he said, pointing to a phonetic guide in the spelling bee word book, “the ‘o’ has a dot over it. That means the word is pronounced ‘CRUCIFARM.’”
I tried to reason. “What’s the vowel symbol for “farm” like where you raise wheat?
“That’s an ‘a’ with a dot.”
“Well then, how can an ‘a’ with a dot be the same as an ‘a’ with a dot?”
“Because they’re homonyms!” Again he was all patience and self-confidence and hubris. I gave up.
“Boy,” my son said later. “I’ve seen people pronounce things wrong before.
In El Paso they’d admit it. But here, they’re stubborn!”
“It’s not about stubborn,” I tried to explain as we left Trinity. “It’s about power. That’s the difference between where we used to live in Texas, and where we live now.”
He didn’t quite understand. I started to elaborate: stuff about Anglos and Hispanics and conflict and politics, and when I got to hegemony, I realized I’d lost him way back.
Then I said something like, “But things are better now – before, they were really horrible.”
He didn’t catch it, but I did. I’d said “harrible.”
I shut up and let him talk the rest of the way home.
Debbie Nathan is a longtime Observer contributor and a reporter for the San Antonio Current, where a version of this article first appeared.