Listen closely. Retired UC San Diego prof. researches the power of language

Ana Zentella, a professor emerita at UC San Diego, poses for a portrait in her home in Del Mar
Ana Zentella, a professor emerita at UC San Diego, poses for a portrait in her home in Del Ma. Zentella was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ana Zentella, professor emerita at UC San Diego and anthro-political linguist known for her research on varieties of Spanish spoken in the United States, was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Ana Celia Zentella is well-known and regarded in linguistics for an extensive body of work researching language, its varieties (especially within Spanish among Latino communities in the United States), and the ways that social and political power are bestowed or rescinded based on the way a person speaks. Her books have won awards from anthropology and linguistics organizations, she’s been honored with a “Doctor Ana Celia Zentella Day” in her hometown of New York City, and she was previously named a public intellectual of the year by the Latino studies section of the Latin American Studies Association. A recent achievement she’s adding to that list is her induction to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“I learned of the honor when I was at the bedside of my beloved sister, Nolda, in hospice in NYC, two months before she died, and we both cried with joy that the hard work and languages and cultures of our immigrant parents were being recognized,” she says. “I also owe much of what I have accomplished to her. I am grateful that the academy honors my work on the linguistic contributions and tribulations of immigrants. That work was inspired by my family and neighbors in the South Bronx.”

Zentella, 83, is professor emerita in the ethnic studies department at UC San Diego and lives in Del Mar (her husband, Robert Cabot, passed away five years ago). She talks about her work as an “anthro-political linguist,” what she’d like to do as a new academy member, and how what we speak (and the way that we speak) affects our material realities.

Q: Tell us about your work as, what you’ve termed, an “anthro-political linguist.” What does this mean, exactly?

Linguistic anthropology is a subfield in anthropology; I wanted to underscore the role that power plays in determining the status and survival of varied ways of speaking in every community, and the impact on speakers. Every time you talk to someone, your vocabulary and pronunciation and grammar send messages about your identity, and if you are a member of a disparaged group, those messages are viewed as negative. If the way you speak is considered inferior, then you are considered inferior, and that will determine many unjust practices and policies that affect your life chances.

Q: I’ve read that you grew up in the South Bronx in New York City and about your experiences with language as a child. Can you talk about what led you to pursue this field of study and to develop a career studying language?

My Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother met and married in NYC and raised my sister and me in the South Bronx. Because their “compadres” (co-godparents) were from Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, as well as from Mexico and Puerto Rico, I learned early on that “pasteles,” “papaya,” “bichos,” “tacos,” etc., meant different things in different countries, and it was important to know what was what. Also, strong negative and positive attitudes were expressed about different varieties of Spanish, just as negative and positive opinions about the English of my Jewish, Italian, Irish and African American neighbors and playmates abounded. But we learned expressions from each other, and “oy gevalt,” “scusi,” “homegirls,” and some obscenities, are still part of my daily speech.

As a Spanish major in college, I was surprised by the dearth of Mexican or Puerto Rican professors, and that the Spanish of Spain was considered superior. As a student intern at a prestigious high school, the American teacher asked me to pronounce my name in the Castilian style, “Ana Thelia, Thentelya,” but when I told mami, she warned, “Esa no vive aqui” (that one doesn’t live here). And my English teacher took me aside to work on pronouncing “LEY-nth” and “STREY-nth” instead of “lenth” and “strenth.”

Finally, my years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica exposed me to varieties of Central American Spanish and introduced me to linguistic issues regarding the teaching of second languages, so I pursued a doctorate in linguistic anthropology and educational linguistics.

What I love about Del Mar ...

Walking to the beach or the town of Del Mar — its library and yoga classes! — and the Del Mar Community Connections’ senior activities.

Q: You’re a respected researcher in the study of the varieties of Spanish and English in Latin communities in the U.S.; the language socialization of Latin families; and for your critiques of English-only laws that lead to profiling, and of anti-bilingual educational policy. Can you talk about the kind of linguistic profiling that results from these English-only laws and the effects of this kind of profiling?

A: The history of the U.S.A. has many examples of violence against speakers of languages other than English, including the repression/extermination of Native American and African languages, laws against speaking anything but English in public, and the lynching of a German speaker. Today, English is the only official language in 31 states and only three of them allow more than one language. Damaging profiling is endemic: Realtors hang up on potential renters/buyers because of their accents — or charge them more— and some educators scold or hit a child for speaking another language. Judges deny parenting rights to those who don’t speak English; employers hire workers to speak to customers in Spanish, but fire them for speaking it with co-workers; children must translate their parents’ symptoms to doctors; 911 operators refuse calls based on language/accents; and people are violently attacked for speaking another language across the United States.

Q: In 2016, you co-authored a piece in the Huffington Post in support of Prop. 58, which was approved by voters and reversed the requirement that English learners be taught in English-only classrooms. Through the lens of your work, why is this kind of English-only approach in education a misguided one?

A: Only [about 20 percent] of Americans report speaking a language other than English at home, whereas in Europe, about 53 percent of the population (and increasing numbers worldwide) can converse in a second language. Because individuals, as well as nations, benefit from bilingualism, children who enter school speaking a language other than English should be taught bilingually, as well as those who enter as monolinguals. Children who lose their native language suffer psychological, familial and cultural ruptures that affect their acquisition of English and their educational futures.

Q: What role would you say code switching (the ways in which, usually underrepresented, groups adjust the ways that they speak depending on their audience) has in this understanding of language and social power?

A: Because the controlling monolingual ideology sanctions mixing languages (as interracial marriages were once banned), speakers who speak both because they are both — reflecting their connection to diverse cultures by switching codes with each other — are viewed as unworthy corrupters of both languages. In fact, our ability to manage two grammars fluidly is one reason why we are more protected against dementia.

Q: The website for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences says that members “join with other experts to explore challenges facing society, identify solutions, and promote nonpartisan recommendations that advance the public good.” What are your plans for participating in this way as a new member?

A: I will be urging the promotion of bilingual education for all and the celebration of every Feb. 21, UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) International Mother Language Day, across the country, and calling out all instances of linguistic intolerance.

Q: What has this work taught you about yourself?

A: I thought it was a long way from the South Bronx to a Ph.D., a professorship, and induction into the AAAS, but I understand that I learned the required hard work, linguistic skills and commitment to social justice from my family and community.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: “Apli’cate el cuento” (take your own advice) was my mother’s way of insisting that I turn the mirror on myself whenever I criticized something/someone.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I love swimming, and salsa dancing even more. Anyone interested in a class?

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Shopping at the Del Mar farmers’ market on Saturdays and walking back along the beach; then, a late pool swim. Sunday morning mass at St. Leo’s in Solana Beach and lunch afterward with my compadres. Then, a museum, concert, or a play in the eves.