Translating Latina/o Studies in the Classroom with Ricky Ricardo and Babalú Ayé

(Comments presented on October 2, 2012, in a panel on New Ways to Engage Students in Interdisciplinary Learning: Pedagogies of Translation at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor)

I want to talk to you about untranslatability, about living between cultures and the distinctions between insider and outsider knowledge, about authenticity and appropriation and subaltern power and artistry and skill and how you translate or transmit these in a classroom. The teacher is the ultimate translator, although never unaccompanied or unchallenged, and of course, her or his goal is precisely to transmit not simply the specific knowledge but also the technique, the critical ability or hermeneutics, the ability to carry out that same type of interpretation or translation on your own. To teach by example and model, but also, ideally, to create situations that allow reciprocal modeling or dialogism to occur. In other words, to avoid practicing what Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed calls the banking model of education: the idea that students are empty vessels that are to be filled with the knowledge that the professor transmits (or in this case, the mechanical competency to translate like a machine or software program without cultural nuance).

I teach U.S. Latina/o and Latin American and Caribbean literature and culture in English and Spanish here at the University of Michigan and face constant challenges and opportunities for translation, broadly defined. In this scenario, linguistic competence is a crucial knowledge but frequently is not enough. It is not enough to simply know the meanings of a standard set of vocabulary items that correspond to a vaguely defined “neutral Spanish” as it is called in the studios of major Spanish-language TV networks such as Univision and Telemundo according to news anchor Jorge Ramos, and that comes closer to the Spanish undergraduates learn in their first and second year of language training. Clearly, study abroad opportunities serve to widen students’ linguistic repertoires and help them familiarize themselves with specific regional or national dialects, most frequently Spanish or Chilean but sometimes Mexican and even Cuban. It is never enough. Even native speakers can spend a lifetime recognizing linguistic variation in more than 20 countries where a wide variety of languages and dialects are spoken, not to mention the challenges of cultural variation and diversity. How, then, should one approach teaching U.S. Latina/o and Hispanic Caribbean studies in English or Spanish in a U-M classroom?

The Dominican American Pulitzer prize-winning and MacArthur genius grant recipient Junot Díaz begins his 1996 debut collection of fiction Drown by quoting Cuban American poet and scholar Gustavo Pérez Firmat in an epigraph:

The fact that I

am writing to you

in English

already falsifies what I

wanted to tell you.

My subject:

how to explain to you that I

don’t belong to English

though I belong nowhere else.

Pérez Firmat’s sentiment, echoed by Díaz, speaks to us of the incommensurability of language and experience for individuals who live between languages and cultures (those of the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States, in their case) and who have self-chosen or been molded by the dominant hegemonic language, English. It speaks of belonging to English while being profoundly aware of its falsification, that is to say, of one’s exclusion and outsider status, of the incompleteness of monologic communication. To say something in English clearly transmits the message but leaves much out.

In his landmark volume Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way Pérez Firmat privileges the figure of the musician and performer Desiderio (Desi) Arnaz, best known as the husband (and then ex-husband) of Lucille Ball, with whom he starred in I Love Lucy in the role of Ricky Ricardo. One of his most memorable musical numbers (a veritable American classic) is “Babalú.”

There is a lot going on in this clip. At one level, we have the lyrics of the song:

Yo quiero pedir

Que mi negra me quiera.

Que tenga dinero

Y que no se muera.

Ay, yo le quiero pedir a Babalú

una negra bembona como tú

que no tenga otro negro

Pa’ que no se muera.

¡Ea! ¡Caballos!



¡Babalú ayé!



¡Olé olé olé olé! (x2)

Yeah yeah yeah yeah!

¡Arriba con las congas!


Most Americans of a certain generation know this song and enjoy it, dismissing it as light, exotic entertainment; they certainly don’t see it as an authentic manifestation of religious devotion or as sacred music and don’t recognize this religion (Santería or the Yoruba worship of the Orishas) as such, but rather as superstition or backwards heathen belief. The act of translation here has to do with enabling religious tolerance or awareness, a consciousness raising about the validity of Afro-Caribbean religion: sharing knowledge of Santería and its relation to Cuban popular music, the fact that Babalú Ayé is the orisha or divinity of illness, syncretized as Saint Lazarus. Conveying the complexity of this scene also entails explaining the metaphor of caballos (horses): the invocation for spirit possession (to be mounted by the orisha, be ridden by him or her, to serve as a tool or mechanism for his manifestation and communication on earth).

Translation of this song and performance also has to do with Caribbean racial vocabulary (bemba, bembón, negra), with the specificity of black Afro-diasporic experience, and also with recognizing the hybridizing mixture (a type of “anything goes” attitude), where the Cuban invocation of African divinities is accompanied by the Spanish interjection of “olé!” (a standard of bullfights and flamenco in the Old World) and by the American “yeah”: a veritable melting pot, or rather, ajiaco (stew), as the Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz would say, using this metaphor as a sign for the coexistence of diverse elements in Cuban culture.

At the performative level, it is important to recognize Arnaz’s musical skill and the intensity of his musical execution, which is captured well through the alternation of camera angles. Also noticeable are the idiosyncrasies of the band, located in the background: their flashy rumba costumes and instruments, particularly the use of the harp—not unusual in Veracruzan Afro-Mexican music, but not common in Cuba.

In teaching this clip, it is valuable to discuss Arnaz’s race, personal biography, and migratory status, some of which are analyzed by Pérez Firmat. Here, one is advised to resist idealizations of Arnaz as an exemplary (and unproblematic) performer, who does not embody his own contradictions and exclusions. “Babalú” allows for a discussion of Latina/o culture in the U.S. as a hybrid mix (translation as an act of inclusion) but also of its inherent marginalizations.

Finally, this clip invites an argument precisely against translation, pointing to the risks or limitations of engaging particular cultural performances that are overdetermined by their previous circulation. This song and performance have long been part of a process of exoticization, appropriation, and tropicalization of Afro-Caribbean culture by Anglo-American and white Hispanic Caribbean audiences and artists, as discussed more broadly by scholars such as Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman. English-language versions such as the one available here partake of limiting views:



Babalu aye

Babalu aye


Jungle drums were badly beating

In the glare of eerie lights:

While the natives kept repeating

Ancient jungle rites.

All at once the dusky warriors began to

Raise their arms to skies above

As a native stepped forward to chant to

his Voodoo Goddess of love.



Great Babalu!

I ‘m so lost and forsaken

Ah, great Babalu.

Teaching this song in an English-dominant university in the United States inevitably invokes (even if only marginally) the hegemonic vision captured in the above-cited translation. Perhaps one could argue that the performance in itself and the fifty years of cultural associations it has accrued are profoundly tainted, and that the best strategy would simply be to move on.