The Rolled R’s of Vanessa Ruiz


Ilan Stavans (Amherst College) recently published (The New York Times, 16 September 2015) an excellent opinion piece on language and the public’s perception/disapproval of linguistic authenticity: “The Rolled R’s of Vanessa Ruiz.” This is a topic that we often discuss in our academic conferences and our daily lives in this multilingual Caribbean contact zone of ours.

Vanessa Ruiz is a product of our “repeating islands'” (à la Benítez Rojo) rich cultural interplay: born in Miami, Florida, she raised in Colombia, where she grew up with her grandparents, while her mother worked to provide for her family. After returning to Miami for a few years, Ruiz went to high school in Spain, “an experience that taught her about the importance of learning from and accepting other cultures and their traditions.” She graduated with honors from Florida International University with a major in broadcast journalism and a minor in international relations.

Here are excerpts from Stavans’ article:

Rather than simply delivering the news, Vanessa Ruiz, an anchor for 12 News in Arizona, recently became news herself when her pronunciation of Spanish words drew complaints. The feeling was that, in an English-language TV newscast, she ought to be pronouncing these words the way a majority of English speakers do — and not as Spanish speakers would.

Exhibit A in this controversy is that when certain Spanish words crop up in the course of speaking English, she rolls her R’s. She also pronounces a Spanish name like “Mesa” as “Mess-ah” and not as “May-suh,” as English speakers do. In online comments, some viewers criticized these pronunciations as annoying, stupid or wrong.

The controversy over Ms. Ruiz’s rolled R’s can easily be framed in the context of a troubling strain of anti-immigrant sentiment, rooted in Arizona in this case, but much in evidence elsewhere. At issue is the contested coexistence not only of two languages, but of two cultures. In a public statement, Ms. Ruiz politely pointed out that her pronunciation honors Arizona’s original settlers, who were all Iberian.

But there is an even larger picture that deserves our attention: the miraculous malleability of language.

Ms. Ruiz, who was born in Miami and grew up in Colombia, is bilingual, as are about 20 percent of Americans. She started her career at Telemundo, one of the two largest Spanish-language TV networks, then moved to English-language newscasting positions in Florida and California. In other words, she moves between cultures, registering along the way many varieties of speech.

On the air, she speaks English with a standard American accent, in the tradition of Walter Cronkite. And in Spanish, she speaks with a neutral, pan-Latino accent, without any Colombian “localisms.”

It is wrong to think that polyglots inhabit several alternative universes, each defined by a different tongue. In truth, they live only one life, just like everyone else — except that they have the advantage of looking at it through different linguistic lenses.

Languages rarely exist in isolation from one another. English and Spanish, for example, are so intertwined that it sometimes feels as though they’re dancing a tango together. At times, this encounter looks like a fight; at others, a romantic affair. [. . .]

For full article, see

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