As an FBI agent weeks before the 9/11 bombing I was assigned to assist in a telephone wiretap investigation in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex involving a group of Hispanic drug dealers. Shortly after my assignment I was called by one of our Spanish language specialists monitoring the wiretap who advised me that she had called out the surveillance squad and the other case agents because the subjects were about to engage in a drug transaction of 12 kilograms of cocaine.
Our interpreter was a Puerto Rican lady from New York and our subjects were a mix of local U.S. citizen Hispanics and illegal aliens of Mexican decent. The young lady was very confident and asked me if I’d care to listen to the recording. I asked her to proceed and play the interception and she complied. I listened intently and when I was satisfied with my review, I then asked the young lady to call back all the other personnel and ask them to go back home. “Why?!” she protested, sounding confused. I then explained that the crooks had ordered groceries for breakfast, including a dozen eggs, and not 12 kilograms of cocaine.
The bad guys used a legitimate Spanish word, “blanquillo,” common to northern Mexico and throughout the south of the United States rather than the more common word “huevo” for chicken egg. Blanquillo can also mean, “little white one,” whitish, and the cluster of eggs or sphere-like droppings or eggs laid by insects or reptiles, and certainly it is valid for the common chicken egg. However, it is not used by all Spanish speaking cultures.
Our well-meaning interpreter was not versed in the vernacular used by blue-collar Mexicans. The primary reason was that in her Latino culture this word was simply not used. What’s interesting is that had the crooks been Colombian, Cuban, Salvadoran, or just about any other Spanish speaking group from the Americas the interpreter would more than likely not have made the same mistake and misinterpreted what the subject actually meant.
A 2013 U.S. Census Bureau statistic puts the national Latino or Hispanic population at about 39 percent, and the statistic for Texas at about 38 percent. It is the opinion of this writer that the actual value of this percentage is much higher. Nonetheless, what is important to us that deal in criminal defense is how many of these folks only speak Spanish and the level of their education. Lastly, what part of the world are they from? Through experience about 95 percent of the clients that I am hired to help defend, may not have completed a high school education, if they have an education at all.
The client’s education, and country or region of origin is a combination that needs to be assessed when evaluating their defense, if a defense exists to benefit them. As demonstrated by the mistake of the interpreter in a language she knew well, all Hispanics do not speak a “one size fits all” Spanish.
Now let us assume that your defendant – a native Spanish speaker – is read his Miranda Rights by a police officer whose second language is Spanish. Nothing wrong with that; however due to his lack of command of the language, he proceeds to advise the defendant in Spanish by saying what translates into, “If you value your life, you should cooperate and talk to me.” I venture to say that this declaration will likely end up in the form of a motion to throw out any statement the defendant may have made, even though that defendant may have signed a Miranda Rights form. What is important here is that this defendant may come from a region of the world where corrupt police and military members participate in kidnappings and killings and where Miranda Rights do not exist. Therefore, the whole ritual of administering Miranda Rights to Hispanics from other countries is in itself foreign to them.
The finite nuances of the Spanish language are best left to scholars in the field. However, the truth is that most of us born into Spanish speaking families in this country become a type of “lost boys” in the Neverland that is America. We learn to speak Spanish in the home and not formally. This Spanish is laced with slang and invented words commonly called “Spanglish.” The Hispanic immigrant, legal or illegal, brings his vernacular from the Spanish speaking culture he hails from. They may use and/or avoid certain terms or words that may differ as much as the cuisine they are accustomed to. When defending this variety of individual, knowing something about their education and their particular Spanish speaking culture may make the difference in a successful defense strategy. Gil Torrez