by Jon Worley
Here in Durham (that would be North Carolina, not England or any of the other well-known Durhams), the city likes to kick off the holiday season by encouraging everyone in town to put up "luminaries." You know, those small paper bags with sand in the bottom and a candle wedged in. Luminaries.
Back when I was a kid, my parents did the same thing. My father, having grown up in New Mexico, called them "luminarias." And, indeed, most of the electric light sets that approximate the effect have been called "luminarias."
There's a reason for this. They are luminarias. Not luminaries. Even if the spell check gets stuck on "luminarias" and kindly suggests "luminaries."
As Charlie Brown said, "Aaaaaargh!"
I've fought this battle for years. I always figured the whole "luminary" thing was just a case of people not being able to quite get their mouths around the original Spanish word. Now I've come to see that this is just another form of cultural integration. The sets of electric lights are now called "luminaries." Even as Hispanic culture ascends within the American bouillabaisse, we still feel the need to make minor changes.
This isn't a new phenomenon, of course. You see it with names all the time. The Irish "Sean" is anglicized into "Shawn" (and any number of variants). I'm sure you can think of a thousand other examples.
And this is hardly the first time Hispanic culture has been refined for an American audience. Tacos and burritos are authentic Mexican dishes, though very few Americans have tasted the real thing. The same goes for "Chinese" food. Or "Italian" food.
So maybe I shouldn't be so ticked off about "luminaries." After all, the English and Spanish words are somewhat related. They sound almost alike and have similar roots. Their meanings are different in significant ways, but what the hey. If you tell an American that you put out luminaries for Christmas, most likely they don't think you're talking about cutouts of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
Nonetheless, this assumption of culture bothers me. North Carolina experienced a higher percentage increase of Hispanic immigration than any other state in the last 10 years. A lot of that has to do with how few Hispanic immigrants lived here back in 1990. But the fact remains that Durham now has a sizable Spanish-speaking population. Even more interestingly, there are many small towns (particularly down east toward the Atlantic Ocean) where the only grocery store is a tienda. A lot of folks who never figured they'd need to speak a foreign language (except, say, New Joisey) habla a little es pan yol. It's not like the language is totally foreign.
But folks around here don't know what I'm talking about when I mention "luminarias." They don't seem to make the connection between that and "those pretty luminaries." The separation, in their minds, is infinite.
It's gonna bother me. I can't get around that. But at least here in Durham they make the luminarias correctly (bag, sand and candle instead of the electric stuff), even if they can't pronounce the name right. I'll have to settle for flickering beauty and accept the dissonance as the price of assimilation.
Even if I really, really don't like it.