What mean ‘Yo’?



W Fordham Rd & University Ave, Bronx, NY 10468

Neighborhood: Bronx

When I first working as ESL teacher twenty year ago I was be a little nervious. In that time I am more young than now, and when I turn around to writing at blackboard, I am think the students looking at my ass. But that a long time ago. Now my ass she is nothing for look.

Today I am teach in Bronx, my students from the Rep. Dominicana, from Mexico and from others Latinoamerica nation, many in this country too many years but they still speaking too less English and that English, it is just like this. Three hour a day three day a week, it student English have it own sabor it will get inside a teacher head and duration there even after class is finish. Inmigrant English living in the teacher mind even if teacher is no want.

My student they are too intelligent even student they got no too much education in they country. José from Guatemala by example. In he country he was farmer now butcher at Hunts Point, working here fourteen year. He have only little bit of opportunities for study English, but he know all words of Gettysburg Address also read maybe all books in English, every one, on construccion the Brooklyn Bridge. He was only person from his town to inmigrate. José, he have cassette player he play music from “Rocky” too many times, he say because when he first come to USA in 1988, walking through Mexico, crossing to LA over hot desert cold mountains, “Rocky” is still popular music in he old country and now he in new country want to remember that especial time of challenge and hopes for surpassing in the life. In New York he marry once but only for green card. Loved her too much anyway, but she no loving him, he not married now, living by heself, he getting up 2:30 a.m. to go to work, work overtime because boss say he have to, no extra pay, if he say no he be fired. Lonesome he say, and his back hurting, bad neighborhood the boys outside in summer with marijuana it coming smell through the window he cannot sleep! Still, he no have plans return his country. Very difficult, life here but still better than Guatemala.

I ask Jose: he have one problem cutting up animal? No, he say, because in Guatemala on farm he kill the pigs and others similar. The pigs screaming, the baby goat screaming this was hard, he thinking many things. But here at job in New York, he just playing “Rocky” on headphones while he cut the meat, and anyway already dead. Already dead, José tell me. And I am not exact know who he meaning dead – pig, goat, or he?

Vicente is from Ecuador, he worrying too very much about correct language. “Teacher,” he say, “What is mean ‘Yo’? Is OK to use, or is bad, angry talk? And it’s black people talk only?” I tell it is OK, not angry, is not just black people either but also white. Vicente is not believing. “Teacher,” he say, “I want to talk like a University but all day at work on train on bus I hearing only street English. People saying yo, maybe they going to fight. And a man on TV say ‘The couple was making out.’ Teacher you say ‘make out’ mean only kissing and hug but I know the TV mean real sex so teacher please don’t tell class other thing because it sound ugly if I use wrong, maybe I offend someone maybe I no get better job.”

Vicente back when in he country he have a small business, computers. Now he working night shift in one box factory in Brooklyn. “Teacher,” Vicente say, “I try on the subway talk to American women and they no talking to me. Teacher, what is? They afraid? This is racism? Or what?”

“Teacher,” Vicente say, “I am be frank with you: I no like the Unite States so much. I have friends in France. I thought U.S. is going to be like France it is not. Teacher: We see Enron. Martha Stewart. U.S. policy to Iraq starvation the kids. Being bully in all place, dishonesto to the people. Nine Eleven — of certain manner, I believe the U.S. is deserve it. I only being frank with you teacher.”

I no say nothing to Vicente about Martha Stewart and Nine Eleven, just listen him. But I worried about what he say about TV talk, this “make out” thing. At home after class I ask my daughter-she a student at Cooper Union, never go to Bronx but very young, still having good ass, knowing how the English sound in street and others places. “You ever hearing one person or any peoples say ‘make out’ when they meaning not just kiss, hug — but real sex?” I ask. She say yes, she do hear. She laugh at me say “Mommy, you’re too old – you don’t know slang anymore. It’s not what it was 20 years ago. When it comes to teaching ESL you’re over the hill!”

I am don’t believe her. I am published writer too many year. Often I watch the TV. I reading. I am pay too much attention to our cultura. How it’s possible I do not knowing all of English? I lie in bed sleep not good. I wonder if students noticing not my ass but other thing about my age, thing like I not knowing some English they need. I toss turning all night.

On bus next day a man say ‘yo.’ He is young, black man. Say to other black man. I listen I get nervious. His ‘yo’ it is friendly or unfriendly? I no can tell but keep think about Vicente. He say ‘yo’ is black people talk and is angry. I feeling I want to get off bus. I go to class. Vicente he have new haircut, new glasses. ‘Very fashion, teacher,’ he say. “Fashionable,” I say, smile. But no say nothing about ‘yo.’ I come home miss another sleep.

I decide write one letter to William Safire on New York Times Magazine, ask him who exactly say ‘yo’ in these days and why they saying. Does mean yo “Hello?” It friendly thing? Unfriendly? Hip Hop? Only black?

I am tell students I writing important New York Times person with Vicente question. I wait too many days then same letter back in my mailbox – I not put enough stamp, $0.34 but price change to $0.37. My daughter laughing again, “Mommy,” she say, “Didn’t you read the papers about how it was going up 3 cents? You’re the one who needs the English lessons!”

I read letter again see words misspelled, not one but two. Maybe good it come back, I think, and plan to fix, mail next week.

Not so important though because before I have free time, Vicente disappear from class. “Where is Vicente?” I ask others student. No one heard from he, but soon I reading about INS raid at box factory in Brooklyn. This article not in New York Times, this article in Daily News. Daily News no have articles about right language wrong language. But maybe have the news about Vicente.

Well I hoping he safe wherever he is. Hoping he not very angry. Hoping he no hate my English. Wanting he understand ‘Yo.’ Wonder he think teacher ass.

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