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English-Only? Has Salsa-Club Gentrification Gone Too Far?

04/02/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2012

Tell you the truth, soon as I hear salsa music, even if it's just instrumental, I automatically start thinking in Spanish. Can't help it. It's one of those subconscious environmental triggers that keeps us bilinguals constantly brincando back and forth between idiomas. So if the music takes me into Spanish mode and then you force some English on me, there's an immediate clash which puts the kibosh my mambo mojo. And that's no mumbo jumbo.

Which is what made the Chicago night I'm about to blow some steam off about so hard to shake.

What kind of a Twilight Zone pesadilla was this? The whole night, not one song in Spanish? The whole night? At a salsa club? I mean, OK, repurposing James Brown into a clave-based soul break on the dance floor is a nice change of pace. Could have been the standout highlight of my windy city stopover. But it was like the 23rd salsa song, in English, in a row. By the time the singer shouted, "Take it to the bridge!" I was ready to shout back, "That bridge better be Tito Puente!"

Was this night an isolated incident? Or a lamentable sign of the (end) times? Has salsa-club gentrification jumped the proverbial tiburón, to the point where salsa in Spanish will now become a thing of the past? Is it time to kill myself? At the very least there should have been a sign outside, a courtesy warning in giant neon letters, announcing, however preposterously, "No Se Habla Español. English-Only-Salsa-Night." It might have spared me some psychological damage to know that's what I was in for.

Let's just say I didn't exactly get the Spanish-immersion salsa fix I was craving.

Still shaking her head as we left, someone in our disgruntled group of die-hards, let's call her Rosario de los Comentarios Controversiales, was recounting the surreal incident to a disbelieving friend over the phone. "I swear! I just thought, well, they're going to switch to Spanish at some point. And they never did," she said. "And the guy who was singing was black. And I thought, oh, he was black Cuban. No but he was black black, gringo black. Yep, he didn't know one song in Spanish. It was weird."

Gringo black? Wow. Talk about redistricting. Never heard it put quite that way before. But I understood exactly what Rosario meant, and gave her instant rhetorical props for nailing something so elusive so succinctly, shedding unexpected light on the evening, and perhaps meriting a new chapter in that book, "How To Be Afroestadounidense," by @baratunde #asifheneedsthepublicity #jealous.

Anyway, her colorful distinction wasn't based on color at all, but made along cultural lines, which actually trumped color and minority status to lump an African American in with the gringos, as one of them versus one of us, in a context where what mattered most was language, specifically Spanish.

At a salsa club, apparently, a Cuban is just a Cuban, regardless of color, but an African American that doesn't speak (or sing in) Spanish, is gringo black. Especially if he's the lead singer of the salsa band. See, this is one reason why politicians have such a hard time figuring out how to suck up to Latino voters. No somos tan black and white about white and black. If anything, language is our color.

Have you ever heard exceedingly light complexioned Latinos referring to others as "white people," as if their own skin color were not completely indistinguishable from the very "white people," they are referring to? As if they weren't just as blanquitos themselves? It's because in that context Latinos are not referring to complexion but to culture, gringo culture vs. Latino culture, Judge Judy vs. Caso Cerrado, time out vs. chancla time, "Who's your daddy?" vs. "¡Ay papi!" and that kind of thing.

And of all cultural touchstones, language puede ser el más touchy de todos.

I understand in France they are bringing back the guillotine for people who have the cojones -- pardonne moi, I mean les testicules -- to use the anglicized abomination "email," instead of the proper "couriell électronique." Mon Dieu! Seems tres reactionary. But I don't know. Maybe we have to get a little more defensive about Spanish in this country. For starters, salsa should definitely be declared a sanctuary situation where Spanish is safe from English. We could then amend that to include protection for all Latin-dances, bachata, merengue, tango, ranchera, cumbia, cha cha cha, etc. Exceptions would be allowed, but you would have to apply for a waiver to the general law.

Mind you, I've heard salsa in English before, and tolerated, I mean, enjoyed it. But when Tony Vega sings his salsa tribute to Los Beatles, in English, it still comes across as Spanish somehow. Maybe it's because every time he says, "Hey Jude," it actually sounds like someone with a thick Puerto Rican accent saying, "Hey you." And eventually, Vega does make a strategic switcheo into Spanish, when it's time to electrify the crowd, obviously realizing no matter how much salsa you pump underneath it, you can't encender la rumba in English.

When Marc Anthony does his salsa version of 'Hotel California,' in English, it's a kickass cover of the song. The guy has the vocal-chord equivalent of JLO's culo. Impresionante. But at a certain point in the song, the salsa compels the Spanish, and Marc gives it up, as if all that English had just been a tease: Oye bien lo que digo, caminaba yo, en la oscuridad, de ese viejo hotel, en... (now he even rolls the 'r') Califorrrrrrrnia. The second he switches to Spanish, you feel home, relieved, satisfied, soothed, turbo-fueled with a surge of exhilaration. We have lift off! In salsa, English does work -- as foreplay. But don't leave us hanging, por favor.

In moderation (not more than one song in a row), I don't mind salsa in English, per se. It can be fun, certainly intriguing (as long as it's not more than one song in a row). But I can't abandon myself to it (even if it is just one song in a row), because it's lacking that thermonuclear reaction that turns my soul inside out, that opens me up, that flays my heart open, that makes me forget about the cover charge.

I'm not convinced that you can replace the Spanish in salsa with English and still call it salsa. Salsa was created by and for a Spanish-language operating system. That's why Spanish works seamlessly with the music, while English performs like a buggy third-party application. Granted, salsa's rhythmic origins are African (black black). You could say that about all rhythm, I guess. In fact, when Ricardo Lemvo of Makina Loca, a Congalese salsero (definitely not gringo black), doubles down on his continent's roots of Latin music to take salsa back into the future, I sure as hell do abandon myself, because you know why? Half the time he's singing in Spanish.

And for me, as a Latino, certainly that adds a critical dimension of resonance to the music. That's the language in which we process high emotion, over the top passion. It's the language our parents yelled at each other in. Spanish is the language in which we lust, seduce, avenge, tell off someone who's just cut us off on the freeway. And I firmly believe that particular frequency of emotion can only be properly summoned and channeled into my salsa dancing via español.

Why deny it? When it comes to salsa, I am a Spanish supremacist.

Surely, some of you have noticed that there's an effortless lyricism and pulse to the phrasing in a Spanish-language salsa song that gets transmitted right into your feet. English no tiene ni transmite ese mismo flow. It doesn't animate your hips with that same tropical soltura. By the way, that's another competitive advantage that Spanish has over English. See, there's a particular expressiveness innate to the vocabulary of Spanish, that makes it a much better match for salsa, a decidedly cadera-centric dance.

Take the word "hips." You translate it into Spanish as caderas, which means "hips" alright, but so much more than "hips." Just look at the two. Even the word caderas seems to have more caderas than the word "hips." Not to mention that caderas has three syllables, instead of just one, giving it built-in motion, rhythm, tumbao. When pronounced correctly, the word even has a syncopation to it, so that when you hear it, you picture those caderas dancing, or making love (aka horizontal salsa).

Wait, Rosario wants to chime in again on this. "OK, if I were going to some non-Latino party and this band that sings salsa in English came on, I'd be like, 'this is the best salsa ever!' Because it would be like an unexpected treat." I agree. Who doesn't like treats? But if you go to a salsa club, pues entonces that's a different story. I have expectations I want fulfilled. And instead, I was treated to a cruel bait and switch. I don't go to a salsa club to hear English, I go there to get away from it.

You may be wondering how the rest of the crowd on the dance floor that personally traumatic night in Chicago felt about all this. Well, frankly, they seemed to be enjoying themselves obliviously. Other than myself and my crew of party-pooping fundamentalists, nobody else seemed to have the slightest problemo with it. But, given how popular salsa has become among non-Latinos, I bet most of them didn't even realize it was salsa in English, and just thought, "Wow, I can finally understand Spanish! How cool is that?"

Fine. ¡Allá ellos! But somebody needs to take a stand here.

I have been staunchly opposed to making English the official language of this country. But I'm willing to cave in on that if we can simultaneously guarantee Spanish-only salsa. Salsa in English is sauce. If that's what I wanted to dance to, I would have gone to a sauce club, to see my favorite sauce band and get saucy with it. I say it's time to put in some safeguards to protect salsa against the unregulated encroachment of English. I don't want to look back years from now, after it's too late, when salsa has turned into an English-only line dance, and say that when we had the chance to prevent this, we did zip, zilch, nada.

Why? Porque because.