Mexican bozal Spanish in Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz's Villancicos: a linguistic and sociolinguistic account.

Author:Porras, Jorge E.
Position:Critical essay


Afro-Mexican Spanish is an interesting linguistic research topic still waiting for further study. Although the literature includes important contributions from well-known linguists and socio-linguists, interdisciplinary approaches from a linguistic standpoint are in dire need. This paper intends to contribute to this approach. It focuses on the analysis of the Spanish language as spoken by the enslaved African population brought to Mexico by Spanish Conquistadores, mostly around the 17th and 18th centuries.

The paper shows that Sor Juana's Villancicos (carols) contain Afro-Hispanic language in the form of Bozal Spanish (1), that is, imperfect Spanish supposedly spoken by the enslaved African population, which Sor Juana imitated in her villancico poems. The analysis touches upon the linguistic, socio-linguistic, and ethno-linguistic features of this language, and comments on the linguistic validity of her literary imitations. It concludes that Villancicos exhibit linguistic features mostly common to other Hispanic areas, with some more specifically Mexican sociolinguistic characteristics.

Historical Note

The history of enslaved African in Mexico, along with its socio-cultural and linguistic consequences, has often been ignored and officially overlooked for centuries. (See for this section, esp. Hernandez Cuevas 2004, 2010; Lipski 2005, Vinson III, Ben & Vaughn, Bobby. 2004). The so-called "mixed race" actually refers to the mixture of indigenous and European ancestry, in spite of the fact that, during the Colonial period, the African population was equal to or greater than the white European population (Lipski 2005:97), and it even continued to exceed the Spanish population in New Spain until around 1810. (Vinsom & Vaughn 2004:25).

Thanks to the struggles and contributions of researchers and socio-ethnic organizations, the awakening of Afro-Mexicans is beginning to emerge. In spite of the scarce data available, it is yet known that over 200.000 enslaved Black people were brought to Mexico from the early 16th century on to work, under horrendous conditions, in the sugar plantations, underground mines, or traded in for other manual purposes such as domestic and agricultural labor, among other things.(See e.g., Curtin 1969).

Like happened in other parts of Latin America, rebellions and escapes were organized, some successfully, like in the case of Gaspar Yanga who, by the end of the 16th century, fled from his captors to the mountains with a group of enslaved Africans, followed by a group of indigenous Indians to form communities hiding in jungle areas. His long-term struggle finally granted better living conditions for him and his followers. He gave his name to a town built as a maroon colony or Palenque. This town, Yanga, still exists in Veracruz. Like in other Latin American areas (Palenque de San Basilio, in Colombia, for example), many other maroon communities were founded in Guerrero from early 16th century on.

Afro-Mexicans have greatly contributed not just in folklore and gastronomy, but also in politics and governance nationwide. A few examples include heroes of the Mexican Independence such as Jose Maria Morelos, Vicente Guerrero, Mexico's second president, who abolished slavery in 1822, and Lazaro Cardenas, one of the best-known presidents of Mexico ever. Besides, Jarocho music and famous celebrations such as Fandango and carnivals have African influence. Afro-Mexicans today live in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca (along the Costa Chica in the Pacific), Veracruz and Coahuila.

Defining Bozal Spanish

The term "bozal" has several meanings in Spanish. On one hand, it means "savage" and "untamed", especially when referred to animals. Literarily, it denotes a halting device put around the neck of the horse and connected to the horse's mouth in order to refrain or stop him. Metaphorically, on the other hand, eventually it came to be used for the first time during Medieval Spain, and later by Golden Age writers, to refer to the enslaved black African who spoke Spanish or Portuguese only imperfectly (in a halting manner). According to Lipski (2005: 5-7), there are two hypotheses in regard with Bozal Spanish. The first one holds that Bozal Spanish was acquired by enslaved Africans natively, once this speech was coalesced into a stable creole. It means that slaves could have acquired a creole language formed with a Spanish or Portuguese supersaturate, and a substrate made up with the linguistic traits of their corresponding Bantu languages, such as Kikongo, Kimbundu and other Sub-Saharan languages, typically from Congo and Angola. (1).

The second hypothesis states that Bozal Spanish actually extended beyond the pale of the barracks of the enslaved and plantations in Latin America and permanently affected the evolution of all Caribbean Spanish, touching upon not just vocabulary but phonetic/phonology and morphology/syntax as well; not to forget, we add, semantic and pragmatic features. Lipski explains in a note (2005: 6) that the second hypothesis refers to Bozal merely to the imperfectly acquired Spanish spoken by the first generation African-born speakers (maybe, we believe, in the form of foreigner's talk, so not such a creole). However, in the following paragraph, he explains that Spanish may indeed have briefly creolized during the nineteenth century in some of the more labor-sensitive Caribbean sugar plantations, but that "the subsequent abolition of slavery and the rapid collapse of the hermetic enslaved barracks environment precluded extension of such embryonic creoles past the first generation of Cuban-born slaves" (p. 7).

As seen above, Lipski and other researchers favor the second hypothesis. The first one is favored, for instance, by German de Granda (e.g., 1988, 1976), among others, who argued for a monogenetic origin of Spanish-based creoles, stemed from a supposed previous Portuguese pidgin. One could think that, if Bozal is cognitively conceived as a language contact phenomenon, which entails not only second language acquisition processes, but also linguistic variation, and socio-cultural interaction, and then various factors of inter-dialectal interference may exist, which may result in a lesser degree of homogeneity. For example, consider Caribbean Spanish (sometimes called Costeno), which exhibits, such characteristics as deletion/aspiration of syllable final 's', deletion or neutralization of 'r' and 'l', deletion of intervocalic 'd', nasalization of final 's', and weakening of velar fricative 'x', among others. Thus, in the case of Mexico, where African Black communities concentrated, as mentioned above, around the Pacific Coast, including the Costa Chica (Short Coast) of the states of...

To continue reading