Thursday, September 6, 2007

Art Spanish: A Meditation on Colors

Red [1]
Color in Spanish is color (stress on the second o.) That is the extent of similarities between the cultures each language represents.

If colors were a language, I would scream contrast. I would communicate through a cataclismo de rojos, violetas y magnetas, said a young Latino fashion designer.

Cataclismo is that tropical tempest caused by overheating oceanic atmospheres.

Rojo would be in every woman’s vocabulary because it represents pasión, deseo (desire), fuego (fire), sangre (blood), and celos (jealousy.)

Don’t forget underwear, la ropa interior, interceded an assistant. And encage, mucho encage (lace, lots of lace), and coquetería (being a flirt).

Rojo is one of the four primary colors in the printing world. The other three are azul (blue), amarillo (yellow) and negro (black), which technically is not a color, but the absence of all color. Webster defines color as a visual perception that enables us to differentiate identical objects.

White, on the other hand, Newton discovered back in seventeenth century, is a mixture of different wave lights, as seen in the arco iris (rainbow.) According to Maya Pines from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute “objects appear to be a particular color because they reflect some wavelengths more than others. A red apple is red because it reflects rays from the red end of the spectrum and absorbs rays from the blue end. A blueberry reflects the blue end of the spectrum and absorbs the red”.

Amarillo (from the Latin amarellus, from the Arabic anbarí --the color of amber,) glitters with energy. El sol (the sun) is amarillo; el huevo frito (fried egg), and oro (gold). Jorge Luis Borges, blind in his last years, said: "I used to stop for a long time in front of the tiger's cage to see him pacing back and forth. I liked his natural beauty, his black stripes and his golden stripes. And now that I am blind, one single color remains for me, and it is precisely the color of the tiger, the color yellow."

Yellow is not devoid of controversy when used to define race-along with white and black. Since DNA has proven that we all come from one single African origin, it would be ludicrous to speak of anything but the human race. Yellow is, therefore, the dominant color in the infinite mosaic of the human skin. To put it more succinctly: I never met a Caucasian who was not, really, closer to pastel orange, naranja [2], than white nor a black who was not, really, brown, marrón.

Amarillo has also come to symbolize sensationalism, as in prensa amarilla (yellow journalism), from news coverage during the Spanish-American War, 1898. It is also negative in reference to health, connoting weakness, liver disease, and the deadly fever, la fiebre amarilla. i

Amarillo mixed with azul becomes green. Verde [3] stands out among derivative colors. Spanish is as rich in gradations of green as Alaskans are with words for snow. We have verde limón, verde aguacate, verde oliva, verde billar, verde oscuro, verde botella, verde agua.

It is both adjective and noun: el verde (green plantain), and viejo verde (dirty old man). Paradoxically, it expresses both hope, verde esperanza, and the monster of envy, verde envidia. With the verb estar -the temporary state-, in reference to fruits, verde means not ripe, as in está verde la manzana (apple). With ser -the permanent state- it connotes type, as in la manzana es verde (a green apple) Está verde la cena means dinner is far from ready, but la cena es verde means you have prepared a dinner for Saint Patrick’s. La secretaria está verde indicates she needs more training, but la secretaria es verde implies she might have recently immigrated from Mars or has fallen in the severest stage of malaria, also know as paludismo [4].
Verde is also associated with American economic and military power. Tanks and dollars, f, are verdes. In fact, the word gringo, connoting Americans, according to some Mexican theorists, derives from green. When American troops irrupted in Mexican territory in pursuit of revolutionary General Pancho Villa, Mexican citizens, protesting their violated sovereignty, resorted to the word green of the uniforms. As American troops rode by the villages, Mexicans shouted: ¡Greens go! Greens is phonetically pronounced grins. Eventually, the ‘s’ in grins disappeared and gringo became the noun and adjective for a foreigner, especially American and European [5].

How could verde be absent from poetry? Spanish dramaturgic and celebrated poet Federico García Lorca, assassinated by Franco at out set of the Spanish Civil War, 1935, wrote:
Green, how I love you green / green wind, green branches / the boat on the sea / and the horse on the mountain. / With darkness around her waist / she dreams on her balcony / green flesh, green hair / with eyes of cold silver. / Green, how I love you green / Under the gypsy moon / things are looking at her / and she cannot look at them.

Green, how I love you green / Great stars of frost come with the fish of darkness / which opens the path to the dawn. / The fig tree rubs against the wind / with the sandpaper of its branches / and the hill, like a stealthy cat, / bristles its sour cactus prickles. / But who is coming, and from where...? / She stays there, on her balcony, / green flesh, green hair, / dreaming of the bitter sea. [6]

The Mysterious non-color
Negro [7] is the scorpion of colors. El color del cuarzo “quarts.” It is temido “frightful,” misterioso “mysterious,” and seductor “seductive.” The mere mention of the color negro brings to mind images of Velázquez, Murillo, El Greco, and the French painters like Manet who made the Spanish Golden Age masters their masters (as a New York Times’ head line read.)
The Jester Pablo de Valladolid, Ca. 1632-35Diego Velázquez (Spanish, 1599-1660)

Negro also brings to mind los pantalones de cuero “lether pants,” ojos mediterraneos, “Mediterranean eyes,” and Africa. Negro is the color of music: Brazilian samba, Colombian cumbia, Dominican merengue, Puerto Rican bomba, the new Cuban timba –an urban mixture of rap, salsa, jazz and classical music--, jazz, el rock and rhythm and blues.

Combined with white, black becomes gray, another color of contrasting associations. It brings to mind clouds, shadows, rain, questionable character, yet, simultaneously, it connotes probity, even authority. Gris is a confidence color. It speaks financial stability (estabilidad financiera.) Business consultants at seminars preparing college graduates for job interviews advise that the darker the gray, the more formal the look. “When you want all the odds in your favor and you must close the deal, wear charcoal gray,” said clothier Tom James. “When choosing what to wear, consider what you want to say. Colors, like words, communicate many different things!”

Marrón “Brown.”
Mixed with yellow black becomes marrón, the color most representative of diversidad “diversity.” Marrón is not to be confused with moron, idiota “idiot,” pendejo “asswhole –literally pubic hair--,” or tontón “impressively stupid.”

Marrón is used interchangeably with café and chocolate, as in me compré una chaqueta [8] chocolate “I bought a brown jacket,” me encantan tus zapatos cafés “I love [9] your brown shoes.”

For Richard Rodriguez, essayist and Los Angeles Times columnist, author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, brown is the color of impurity. And perhaps that’s why it is also the color of American hope. In an interview with Salon, Rodriguez said that what interested him most about the color brown was that it derived from many colors. “It is a fine mess of a color. Initially, I had a sense that most Americans probably regard Hispanics as brown. But my interest was not in the Hispanic part of that observation but in the brown part of it -- what is brown? And it seemed to me that the larger questions about America that the color raised is the fact that we are, all of us, in our various colors, our various hues, melting into each other and creating a brown nation… I love that word "Hispanic" because it introduces a paradox that I live with: I live in an English-speaking world but as a descendent of the Spanish empire.”

Azul and Chocolate
The only proven repellent for mala suerte “bad luck,“ sapphire, is azul “blue.” Azul derives from the Latin azura, from the Arabic al-láwaurd, from the Persian lwärd.

Pre-Colombian cultures revered the color blue. Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz wrote that in Mesoamerican mythology, Xiuhtecuhtli, Señor Azul, the God of Fire, was the oldest and more feared deity. Naulatl had six different words for blue, including Toxpalalt, azul agua, texolt, azul celeste, matlalli, azul oscuro.

Not in Europe. It was scorned by ancient Greeks as barbaric. The French medievalist Michel Pastoureau traces the color’s changing status from its rare appearances in prehistoric art and language to its current international ubiquity. His social history narrates how blue was virtually inexistent until el medievo “medieval times.” It was absent from the caves of Altamira [10]. “As people began to associate blue with the Virgin Mary,” Mr. Pastoureau writes, “the color entered the Church despite the efforts of chromophobic prelates. Blue was reborn as a royal color in the twelfth century and functioned as a formidable political and military force through the French Revolution.”

Currently Azul has come to symbolize internationalism, peace (the UN peace-keeping forces wear blue helmets), elegance, coolness, and that side of the soul prone to introspection, la melancolia (not to be confused with the English melancholia --a clinical depression. Melancolía is rather the mystic lethargy sixteenth century monks achieved after prolonged meditation on nothing but chocolate caliente “hot chocolate”.)

What a chromatic contrast: bone-white monks drinking chocolate to get blue. The word chocolate was incorporated to English in 1604. Other wonderful gift from the Nahuatl language is tomalt, adopted by English from the Spanish tomate.

Los monjes melancólicos cantaban “sang” their Gregorian chants to maintain, among other things, their blood pressure under control. French doctors demonstrated that Gregorian chants reduce blood pressure [11]. No wonder Industrial England banned chocolate from the masses well past the eighteenth century. Give workers tea to keep them alert, was the industrial motto. That sinful chocolate, spiritual opiate from the New World was reserved for artsy aristocrats prone to contemplation and promiscuity. Un periódico británico “a British newspaper” even called chocolate sexo líquido “liquid sex.”

Science, as it turns out, now justifies those early fears, connecting Chocolate’s consumption to neurological activity love making triggers.

[1] From the Latin russus or rubrus. Rojo is synonym of Colorado (from the Latin coloratus, to color.) The U.S. state is named for the river that Spanish conquistadors named Rio Colorado "colored river.” Coloratus derives from colorem, color, from the Old Latin colos "a covering" (from celare "to hide, conceal").
[2] Both naranja and orange derive from the Old Provençal auranja, which borrowed from the Arabic nAranj, from Persian nArang, from Sanskrit nAranga orange tree.
[3] Verde derives from the Latin virids --vigorous, young, as in fresh plants. From verde we have verduras “vegetables, greens.” The expression viejo verde “ dirty old man” stems from the viridis’ sense of youthful vigor even during old age. Virgo is anther close relative associated with youth.. The state of Virginia was named after the Virgin Queen Elisabeth I. “Ironically,” writes Fernando Navarro, in Parentezcos Sorprendentes, “a cousin of virginity is the word verga “penis, derived from a green branch cut from a tree with the purpose of whipping someone,” which also is the origin of verdugo, the one in charge of administering the punishment, the executioner.
[4] Paludismo derives from pálido “pale.” Jaundice is a symptom of malaria. When a person is extremely pale or his/her skin turns yellowish, verde (not yellow) is commonly used to describe it, as in ¡hombre, estás verde de pálido! Malaria derives from the words mal and aire “bad and air,” as it was believed the air from contaminated waters caused the disease.
[5] Webster Dictionary defines gringo as an alteration of griego “Greek”, connoting stranger, a foreigner in Spain or Latin America.
[6] Verde que te quiero verde./ Verde viento. Verdes ramas. / El barco sobre la mar / y el caballo en la montaña./ Con la sombra en la cintura / ella sueña en su baranda, / verde carne, pelo verde, / con ojos de fría plata. / Verde que te quiero verde. / Bajo la luna gitana, / las cosas la están mirando / y ella no puede mirarlas.
Verde que te quiero verde./ Grandes estrellas de escarcha, / vienen con el pez de sombra / que abre el camino del alba. / La higuera frota su viento / con la lija de sus ramas, / y el monte, gato garduño, / eriza sus pitas agrias. / ¿Pero quién vendrá? ¿Y por dónde? / Ella sigue en su baranda, / verde carne, pelo verde, /soñando en la mar amarga.
[7] English borrowed the word negro “black” from Spanish or Portuguese around 1555. It derives from the Latin nigr-, niger
[8] Watch the pronunciation of the first 'a' in chaqueta. 'A’ in Spanish always sounds like the English 'a' in father. Mispronouncing it can completely change the meaning. Instead of saying that he had bought a chocolate-color jacket, a student said, to his wife’s dismay, that he had gotten una chiquita chocolate “a young lady as sweet and dark as chocolate.”
[9] Spanish has three verbs to express love: amar, querer and encantar. Amar has a definitive romantic and sexual connotation. Querer encompasses both romantic and filial love, as in quiero a mis hijos “I love my children.” When a woman tells a man that she loves him in a movie, the subtitle also reads: te quiero. But encantar is the superlative of gustar ”to like very much.” Me encanta el helado “I love ice ream,” me encanta la profesora “ I love my teacher –I like the way she teaches” If you say amo a mi profesora, it connotes passion, infatuation, politically incorrect, even illicit emotions. And if you express amor for el helado it would expose a kinky streak in you.”
[10] Located in Northern Spain, the caves show wall paintings done by the Magdalenian people between 16,000-9,000 BC.

[11] The Vatican practically banned Gregorian chants in the 1960’s. Benedictine Monks in Southern France --known for their merriment and industriousness—grew depressed and succumbed to heart disease. Doctors recommended resuming daily chanting. In no time the monks recovered their joyous nature and health.

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