When Should You Use Usted Instead Of Tu?
Dear Mexican: I learned Spanish in school as a teen. Then, it seems, because I was young, everybody was an usted. I would like to practice speaking it, but am now an adult and don't know who gets to be a tú. I'm scared of getting it wrong and unwittingly offending. Tú might be too familiar — hence, disrespectful — and usted might be too cold or aloof. Please tell what is customarily done, so I can dare to try to speak this very beautiful language. Thank you!
—Yo Quiero Hablar
Dear I Want to Speak: Primeramente, thank usted for being a gabacho who's not afraid of Spanish — you can teach Arizona and Alabama something, you know? The formal second-person personal pronoun usted isn't cold or aloof at all, though, but rather a sign of respect toward the person you're addressing — it could be a kid, a viejito or the pinche king of England. Tú (and here, the novice Spanish speaker will note the use of the accent to distinguish it from tu, which without an accent is the informal singular second-person possessive "your"; the formal singular second-person possessive in Spanish is su) is for addressing anyone who doesn't deserve particular respect but also doesn't deserve derision. For those pendejos in the latter category, don't even bother addressing them as a "you" — just call them "Alabama."
I just read another letter in your column from a gabacho talking about Mexicans, who he claims are "desecrating our flag. A-a-and showing contempt for American citizens!!!" (Presumably white American citizens, who are more easily identified than pochos.) It's time for me to ask you — are these letters for real? Are you sure they're not some nefarious Mexican plot to make white people look like a bunch of whiny cracker boobs? I'm married to a Mexican woman. Our family may be dysfunctional and slow to pick up the check in restaurants, but unpatriotic? I have a son-in-law who just came back from Iraq. I have a brother-in-law who barely speaks English. He wants to become naturalized just so he can vote Republican. (I know, I know. Don't ask.) And if you ask the pochos, they will tell you that the most dubious patriot in the family is that big gabacho over there — the one whose family all came from Norway. Sadly, they would be pointing at me.
If these letters really are real, then I throw myself at the mercy of your readers. Not all gringos are unemployed, crank-snorting, self-pitying trailer trash. OK, a lot of us are, but don't give up on the rest of us. I am already in trouble with the pocho side of the family, who suggest that if I don't love my country, maybe I should move back to Norway, where I belong.
—A Gabacho Unleashed
Dear Gabacho: Of course all the letters sent in are real. Who do you think I am, a fabulist à la Sarah Palin? As I always say in my many lectures, I only do three things to the questions: edit them for space constraints, clean them up for grammatical purposes and give people a pseudonym (I would've called usted Dumbfounded in Denver, but your choice worked). But you don't have to worry about Mexicans making gabachos look bad — the state of Alabama (creator of some of the toughest recent state laws targeting immigrants) does that job just great. And don't worry about Mexicans hating on good gabachos such as yourself. We keep track of every gabacho in this country — we know who we can count on to marry our daughters and who's calling code enforcement whenever our primo Chava parks his Suburban on our lawn — in our own mestizo Domesday Book, making notes so when the time comes to take over, we'll decide who gets the shot of Corralejo and who gets deported to Alabama.
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