A Nuyorican in LA: The Accents, Slang Words, and Attitudes That Define (and Divide) Us

PHOTO: What do our accents say about us?Maegan Ortiz/ABC Univision
What do our accents say about us?

"Oh my God! She sounds just like Rosie Perez!" My friend, long time East LA'er Erick exclaimed the first time he heard my sister speak. My partner, Ken, when he would come to New York during our year-long cross-country courtship, agreed that my sister had a very distinct accent, but not a Latino one. "She sounds more like Fran Drescher."

My mom, according to Ken, a lifelong Angeleno who has no detectable accent to my ear, has more of a Latino accent. "I know she went to high school in Long Island but I can tell English is not her first language," he said.

My sister and I know this fact well and occasionally tease my mom.

"Mommy, say the ship sells cheap shoes for sheep," one of us will ask.

"F*ck you," my mom responds.

Most people say I don't have much of an accent at all. It's hard to peg me down based on how I speak English or Spanish. In New York, cab drivers would guess I was Colombian, Argentine, anything but Nuyorican when I would speak in Spanish. "You speak Spanish too well for a Puerto Rican," I was often told. I credited my time in Chile.

I speak English very well too, apparently. Growing up, many of my Latina friends said I didn't sound like a Puerto Rican. The one exception was when I participated in a Shakespearean monologue competition at my all-girl Catholic high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I performed something from Richard the III and remember being nervous, not the accent I allegedly had. That night, on the downtown 6 train platform heading home, my mom told me, almost ashamed, that I "sounded like a real spic."

In Los Angeles, most people can't tell whether I'm from here or from anywhere really, unless I get pissed off, which releases a stream of Puerto Rican curses.

Coño, Carajo.

"Oh my God! You sound just a character from Mi Vida Loca!" I could have told another East LA friend, Nancy, when I first heard her speak, but that wouldn't be quite accurate.

The East LA accent, studied extensively with its sing-song quality, is pretty obvious, though. And Spanglish is different than in New York City, but it's nothing like in Stand and Deliver.

My teen daughter and I have yet to hear someone call someone else "ese," "homes," or "carnal." My teen has noted girls are called perras instead of slut/puta and the ablest slur "lame" is used extremely liberally here, while we almost never heard it used in New York City. Homeless people are called hobos. You wouldn't call someone ghetto here, you would call them a hood rat and ratchet is just catching on among East Los Angeles teens.

Here in City Terrace, as in many Mexican immigrant communities, like my old neighborhood of Corona in Queens, NYC, Spanish – specifically, Mexican Spanish - is the dominant language. It's used among most of the local business owners, from Leo who owns the corner market, to the street vendors who sell cut fruit with chile and lime, elotes, nieves and raspados (that's piraguas to us Ricans).

It is also the language of the majority of the parents in the local public elementary school. In the mornings I hear many of the moms urging their kids along with an "orale." It's the reason why parent meetings are conducted in Spanish first and if needed then translated into English. The English-only speakers are the minority. But what they lack in numbers they make up for in attitude with the assumption often being that those that speak only Spanish, the primarily Mexican immigrants, are ignorant and need the help of English language speakers.

For example, some parents at my 5 year old's local school were upset that they couldn't hold office on the English Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC) even though they didn't have kids that were English Language Learners and they themselves could speak English. ELAC is a committee comprised of parents, staff, and community members specifically designated to advise school officials on English Learner program services and in East LA ELAC is like a Spanish language branch of the PTA and it is huge in size and huge in assumed power.

I haven't started sounding like I'm from East LA and neither have my kids, although sometimes I hear my 5 year old fall into sing song and call something "lame" - a word that is not allowed in my house. I am quick to correct her, tell her we don't use language that is hurtful but I also don't want her to lose her New York edge and attitude - even if you can't hear it in our accents.

Follow Maegan "Mamita Mala" Ortiz as she chronicles her adventures as a Nuyorican in LA, including her quest for the best schools for her daughters, how she gets around without a car, and the story of how the self-proclaimed original "Twitterputa" fell in love and ended up here in the first place.