El Profe: When Words Fail

Say what you mean; mean what you say.

Abiding by this credo is not so easy when moving between languages.

Things can get lost in translation.

This remains one of the starkest challenges foreign-born Latino ballplayers encounter, especially since many arrive in the United States as practically teenagers.

Nervousness about being misunderstood or mistranslated shapes how Latino ballplayers deal with the English-language press, interact with the front office and engage with fans.

At times, it produces stories that ballplayers later recount with good humor, presented as part of their learning curve, or with some embarrassment. And in other instances, it prompts difficult conversations about the meaning of words and intent.

Navigating the language barrier is something that every Latino ballplayer faces. It follows them on and off the field, and can eventually affect their ability to transition from the playing field into other positions in baseball.

The Power of words

Nov. 1 marked what would have been Víctor Pellot Pove’s 90th birthday. Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, he played Major League Baseball under the name Vic Power and became known as much for his flashy glove and seven Gold Gloves at first base as for his uncanny storytelling abilities, many of which fit under a comic theme of mistranslation and miscommunication.

Power often shared anecdotes of being misunderstood when speaking English. One story revolved around a postgame radio interview in New York as a visiting player. Asked about his hitting approach, his Spanish-accented response drew upset calls to the station. While talking about Yankee hurlers, Power’s phrase “some of the pitches” sounded to listeners as “sons of bitches.”

No more postgame interviews for me, he told me, laughing, in 1996 during an interview in Bayamón, Puerto Rico that he gave — in both Spanish and English.

The black Puerto Rican learned early on how language and words matter. He spent the 1949 season playing in the independent Provincial League in Canada, for Drummondville in Quebec, where French predominates.

Historian and La Vida Baseball senior writer Peter C. Bjarkman recounted in Baseball with a Latin Beat: A History of the Latin American Game, why Power changed his last name.

“I used to write Víctor Pellot Power,” Power said. “But at Drummondville, I was called Víctor Pellot. But the French Canadians would say ‘La Pellot,’ with an ‘L’ sound rather than a ‘Y’ sound.’ That sounded similar to a French sexual term and everyone would laugh. So, they started calling me Vic Power instead.”

Changing Labels

My own interview with Vic Power occurred during a month-long research trip to Puerto Rico in 1996. It was one of the most memorable trips of my life.

My cousin Aníbal Hernández hosted my stay in Barrio Barrazas, a section of Carolina, Puerto Rico. My cousin and his dad — like most of my family in Puerto Rico — are big baseball fans. They quite enjoyed taking the daily phone calls at their taller de escrines, or screen repair shop, that summer from Vic Power, José Pagán and other retired major leaguers to confirm interview arrangements.

One of those interviews was with Julio Navarro, who played parts of six major league seasons, breaking in late in the 1962 season with the Los Angeles Angels. That interview stands out for a couple of reasons, including Navarro recounting the challenge of being a black Latino in the mid-1960s playing for the Tigers.

He recounted the harrowing experience of apartment-hunting in the Detroit area after an in-season trade. On multiple occasions he and his wife found a potential rental, only to be turned back because they were black. In one of these instances, they were initially turned aside until the landlord heard Navarro and his wife Ana conversing in Spanish.

“Oh, you speak Spanish,” the landlord said, reversing course and offering to allow the Navarros to rent the unit.

“No, thank you,” the Navarros responded.

“The landlord didn’t want to rent to us when they thought we were black Americans,” Julio explained, “so we refused to give them our money because we were somehow transformed because we spoke Spanish.”

Perception matters. And if spoken language alters perception, intent matters. That influences how we respond in different situations. This was the wisdom Navarro was passing along to me.

Which leads to the other memory that made the Navarro interview stand out.

At several moments in our interview, Navarro referred to me, saying “blanco como tú (white like you).” His description threw me off.

I’d had an interview with poet Piri Thomas prior to my Puerto Rico trip.

Thomas is perhaps best known for his memoir, Down These Mean Streets, in which he recounts coming of age in Spanish Harlem as a black Latino — his father was Afro-Cuban and his mother Puerto Rican. Aware that his dad had played semi-professional black baseball a level below the Negro Leagues, I secured an interview with the poet whose work I had read in college and taught in my own classroom.

Among his fondest childhood memories, Thomas told me, was serving as batboy and watching his father play semi-pro baseball for the Boricua All Stars. Throughout our half-hour interview talking baseball, race, and life as a black Latino, he sprinkled in references to me as “mi negrito.”

In the span of a month, Navarro and Thomas used very different racial labels to describe me — one referring to me as white; the other as black.

I hadn’t changed much in the time between the two interviews; I had perhaps developed a better tan after spending time in Puerto Rico, if anything.

But I still understood what Julio Navarro and Piri Thomas were trying to communicate.

With language, context and intent matter as to how we interpret meaning.

Learning the Lingo

For Navarro, like many Puerto Ricans and Latinos throughout the Caribbean, the use of blanco reflects a system of racial labels that evolved from the Spanish colonial era, where education and wealth lightens racial perception of an individual. It can make you “whiter.”

Context changes the meaning of the word and adds nuance to translation. This is relevant to Piri Thomas’ use of negrito.

While the term “boy” in English in the United States is racially charged, the use of diminutives in Spanish such as negrito, hijito and all the other itos are not necessarily the same. Depending on the speaker, it can be a term of endearment, of comradery, of shared identification. This explains why negrito can’t just literally be translated into “little black boy.”

Since Yuli Gurriel’s racist gesture directed at the Dodgers’ Yu Darvish during the World Series, in which he also called Darvish chinito, a number of poignant and sometimes heated conversations have transpired over the meaning of chino and chinito. These conversations illuminated how Spanish lacks an umbrella term for “Asian.” In this case, while the literal translation of chinito can be “little Chinese boy,” the vernacular use of the word, however, is as the umbrella phrase for Asian. For example, one might be asked a particular person’s ethnicity, and a common reply in Spanish is chino (Asian). Then when asked specifically where the person is from, the response could be Japan, Korea, or China. In this way, the term chino operates similar to “Latino.”

This is a point made by Kathleen López, a Rutgers University history professor, in speaking with La Vida Baseball. The author of Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History, a book that traces how Chinese migration, intermarriage and assimilation are central to Cuban history and national identity, López stated that, in terms of usage in Cuba, chino, as well as the diminutive chinito, are “a catchall term for all Asians. It is a term that is not said with malice or to denigrate those of Chinese or Asian backgrounds.”

Los Angeles Times sportswriter Dylan Hernández, son of a Salvadoran father and Japanese mother, conveyed the personal part of this reality. In a column published following the Gurriel controversy, Hernández describes his experience growing up in a multicultural household and openly admits that he is called chino by his Latino relatives.

“It’s the context,” Hernández wrote. “This might be a hard concept to grasp for anyone who is monocultural or monolingual, but believe me when I tell you, racial terms aren’t said with the same level of maliciousness in Spanish as they are in English.”

Context matters, historically and personally.

As so many Latinos have learned, our words can sometimes fail us, not evolving to provide the word(s) to fully convey meaning, to capture complexity, or indicate nuance.

It’s not always easy to say what you mean.

Featured Image: Bettmann