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The Spanglish of Los Suns

Today's post is by Steve Wilson, whose debut book—The Boys from Little Mexico: A Season Chasing the American Dream, called "unvarnished and moving" by Sonia Nazario—will be published in June 2010.

On May 5, the Phoenix Suns wore jerseys with a Spanish word on them and everybody got excited because the team was making a political statement, as seen here, and here, and here, and even here.

But wait, didn't those jerseys exist because of an NBA marketing scheme called Noche Latina? Didn't the Suns wear them on March 21 and 26? Yes and yes.

Noche Latina, which this year lasted a couple of semanas, is an outreach program to Hispanic fans, and features Spanglish uniforms (more on that later) and other Latino-themed entertainment, as well as basketball analysts breaking out their high school Spanish phrasebooks. It was a token gesture to the 15% of NBA fans who have Hispanic heritage, and nobody took it seriously.

Which is why the Suns' decision to use the uniforms a second time, in protest of Arizona's new immigration enforcement law, is even more interesting than most columnists have given it credit for. The uniforms were a marketing gimmick—in fact, the NBA didn't even fully translate the team names. Los Suns? That's about as Hispanic as Taco Bell.

The Boys From Little Mexico book cover The fact that the team names were left in a weird Spanglish version—a version that would still be recognizable to the English-speaking majority of NBA fans—tells me that the league wanted to reach out to their Latino viewers with as little effort as possible. It was the equivalent of putting a stripe down the side of a car and calling it a performance package.

The Los Suns uniforms meant nothing. Back in March they had no power. They were cute. But those same uniforms worn in protest on May 5 meant something because there were no mariachi bands, no joking on TNT and ESPN about bad accents, and no Chihuahua-themed t-shirts shot into the stands. On May 5, the Los Suns shirts meant something because the team made the decision to wear the shirts by themselves, rather than doing it as part of a league mandate.

However, as powerful a statement as the Los Suns shirts were in the playoffs, the subtext of the shirts—the half English and half Spanish team names of the Suns and the other teams that participated in Noche Latina—unknowingly says volumes about our country today. Without even meaning to, the Noche Latina uniforms captured the essence of Hispanic-American assimilation, and went unnoticed because we are all so used to it. We're used to seeing Spanglish. We're used to half-assed efforts by teams to get more Latino viewers. We are so used to these things that we have internalized them.

Anti-immigrant protesters complain that Latinos are not assimilating into mainstream (i.e., white) American culture. And yet all around us, every day, we see evidence to the contrary. Hispanic players are in the NBA, MLB, and NFL. Hispanic performers are on TV shows, movies, and singing on our iPods. Hispanic governors run our states. Taco carts have replaced Chinese noodle shops as the most common ethnic restaurants in America.

What the NBA has taught us, not through the Los Suns protest, but through our unconscious acceptance of the Noche Latina shirts, is that the U.S. is not waiting for Hispanic assimilation to happen at some point in the future. It's already here.  We just get so excited about seeing a sports team stand for something that we forget that all of us already speak Spanglish.