by Elena Salamanca
The original article in Spanish can be found here: “Cerote”
If I had done my doctorate at the age of 22, I would have become cultured to perfection. But I’m 30 years old now and I have undergone a process of historical exploration that has transformed me, possibly, into a nationalist. I cannot leave El Salvador behind, a country so small that I could carry it hanging from my neck, a locket with with the photograph of a heartless partner.
Migrating has made me understand how the use of the language is a political act.
And not because in almanacs, it says “Official Language: Spanish,” but because of how many variables exist in Spanish and how they represent the lives of people, because of the cultural construct we have built around words, because of our slang, because of Salvadoran caliche.
Migration has made me start cursing.
I had never in my life said the word “cerote” until a few months ago. I had always wanted to be a proper lady–particularly for my mother–but ever since my teenage years I’ve been saying “bad words.” But cerote had never been part of my vocabulary. I didn’t like it, I considered it a vulgar word, and a never ending list prejudices against it. I had not understood the uniqueness of the word and its Central American identity.
A few years ago at a poetry conference in Xelajú, Guatemala, my Mexican friends were fascinated with the word “cerote,” not only because of the tender way in which we as Central Americans use it along with pendejo, cabrón, and hijueputa, and but also for the resonance of the words.
I didn’t understand their fascination, but I did understand that mania for clinging on to “our words.” Years earlier I had lived in Spain and had a romantic relationship with Salvadoran who lived there. Every time this Salvadoran would say “vale,” I would correct him by saying “vaya.” And every time he would say “tío,” I would counter it with a “chero.” He considered these acts on my part to be not only provincial, but also antagonistic toward his resolve to become a cosmopolitan man while he was living in Spain. On the other hand, to me these were acts of love and closeness [to my culture.] One night in Salamanca, at the small university apartment of my friends Peter and Alexis, I sang cumbia and felt love for it. Because I felt that that language was part of our identity, and more than everything else, part of our history–think about that sense of heroism of singing cumbia throughout El Salvador in the 1980s, in the midst of the war.
It is for that reason that when José Luis Sanz y Carlos Martínez wrote in “El origen del odio” (The Origin of Hate), I understood how things were rooted. And more than anything, what cultural resistance was: “The mareros (Salvadoran gang members) were ridiculed in jails and in the streets [of Los Angeles] for using words like cipote, cerote, vergo, and mara, words that Chicanos considered vulgar. But that revindication of origin, of collective character, is what consolidated [the Salvadoran gangs]. Being alone, brought them together more. Getting beaten, they became stronger. Even though the Mara Salvatrucha [MS] was not liked, every day it went less unnoticed. It soon gained notoriety for being brutal. While other groups would fight with chains and knives, the MS started using cumas (curved machetes); old members of the Playboys [gang] said that some mareros even walked around armed with axes.”
While the gangs are without a doubt criminal organizations, one of the elements in their creation was one of roots, of resistance, resistance through language. Because in the end, the mother tongue is mother. (And please do not believe or be naive in thinking that these paragraphs are an apology for the maras. I intend to give another example to this phenomenon: When Mexican immigrants would mock the words used by Salvadoran immigrants, Salvadorans then utilized these words to demarcate their own identity).
What language does is, in the end, miraculous: it is an organ in movement and its resounding conclusion is the word and the voice. That is why now that I live in Mexico, when someone uses our words: grencho, colocho, zarco, púshica, my heart leaps and I at last feel welcomed. When I hear in others our words, I feel like I belong, and whoever repeats my words I feel as I belong in their life, they recognize me, and I feel sheltered by their heart. Sure it may seem foolish, but it is an act of love as well, I imagine.
I am from San Salvador, and if I speak fast, I can say de “(H)an(H)alvador,” “(H)alvadoreña” etc. I believe that identity, memories, memory itself, are constructed with words. I could just as well say [the Mexican word] “chava,” but I resist and I say “chera” even if I have to explain what it means. The same thing happens when I resist in saying “chido” and instead I say “chivo.” I say “vergón when I want to say that something is good, and when I get angry, I say “¡Qué cerote!” I describe my hair as colocho and my skin tone as chele. I believe in words reside both love and hate, and I will never abandon them.
That is why I cling to and love those vulgar words that were denied to me at home, or those words that exist outside standard Spanish that the state attempts to “correct” through its rules of nomenclature as does institutional education through reading and writing. I love you Cerote, and I will continue to pronounce you to not forget where I come from.