Author Archive

Say what?

January 11, 2008

Los Angeles. Jalapeños. Casa Grande.

Would you adjust the way you pronounce these words based on your audience?

In fact, some people would.

An informal study of Tucsonans conducted by two reporters reveals that people will often try to pronounce words of Spanish origin with a Spanish accent and pronunciation.

Others, however, will adopt the common English pronunciations of the Spanish-origin words, often to be better understood.

“If I was in Mexico or a Spanish-speaking country, I’d be more apt to change it to sound more with the accents and rolling the r’s,” said Amber Maker, 26, a barista at Wilko on E. University Avenue, near the University of Arizona. “But just here, I don’t really.”

Maker, of Tucson, said her high school and college-level Spanish is limited but she tries to adjust her pronunciation depending on her audience.

When she is around English-speakers, however, she knows she sounds “very American.”

Sometimes she pronounces things wrong on purpose.

“I really want to say ja-LOP-en-os,” Maker said of jalapeños. “Just because it’s funny.”

Anglos aren’t the only ones who switch pronunciations depending on who they’re around. Some Mexican-Americans do it, too.

Isaias Carrillo, born in Tucson but of Mexican descent, says he pronounces city names like Marana and San Francisco and other Spanish-origin named places without an accent “because the Anglo population doesn’t use an accent we kinda just follow their lead,” he said.

“When I speak to my Mexican relatives I would never say it like that. I’d say it with a Mexican accent,” Carrillo added.

But there are exceptions to his rule.

“I always pronounce Roberto Clemente,” he said. “I always say his name correctly.”

Some Latinos insist on always using Spanish pronunciations regardless of the audience.

Herminia Valenzuela, a regular at the El Pueblo Senior Center, said she always pronounces Spanish-origin words with a Spanish pronunciation in English.

“Maybe they don’t understand me,” said Valenzuela, 61, in Spanish. “I don’t like to change because that is the way it is pronounced.”


This non-scientific survey was conducted at two different times on Thursday night during dinnertime hours and on Friday around lunchtime. Fifteen participants read words from a sheet provided by two reporters. Reporters interviewed participants on the first day on E. University Avenue between N. Euclid and N. Tyndall Avenues, a location near the University of Arizona campus. Second-day interviews were conducted in South Tucson.

The testing words included: Casa Grande, Sahuarita, Marana, San Manuel, Mesa, Mexico, San Francisco, San Jose, San Antonio, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Rio Grande, sombrero, mariachi, fajitas, jalapeños, enchilada, burrito, tortilla, guacamole, Tony Gonzalez, Roberto Clemente, Alex Rodriguez and Pedro Martínez.

– James Wagner and Nathan Olivarez-Giles


Three quick writing/editing tips

January 10, 2008

I’ve been humbled twice within the span of about 12 hours.

I never thought my writing was perfect or untouchable. I appreciate all and any help from experienced editors because I know it will only help. So when my backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Russ Contreras) helped me work the 1,500 words of my enterprise piece down to about 1,200, I was pleased.
Then my second, and new, backfield editor (shout out to Boston Globe reporter Johnny Diaz) reworked it down to a tight 900 words, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Cheesy, I know, but my story was immeasurably better. It was tighter. It flowed better. It was more fun.

My story idea (about Latinos with Anglo-sounding names) is a lighthearted look at culture, society and assimilation. So when I used statistics, I needed to really justify the few I had. In my case, I was dealing with people’s experiences, and it was tough to quantify. Since I was writing about experiences in a trend story, I needed to weave the few numbers in, almost as if they were transitions between anecdotes. Ultimately, most of them were taken out. Overall, however, it’s a good rule.

I spoke to several experts at length about names and their relation to assimilation. But I had a specific focus and I needed to stay strictly to it, no matter how interesting other related ideas might have been. When I spoke to the experts, I needed to make sure that I kept them on focus. To clarify sometimes ambiguous terms, I needed to ask this question: “Can you explain that in layman’s terms, for the story and for the readers who might not know about this?”
Lastly, as my second backfield editor says, “Think of it as if you were talking to your close friend.” Make it fun and conversational, if you can. Listen to the flow. Read the story out loud.

And then maybe you’ll feel better about being a novice writer.

— James Wagner

The FBI, organized crime and more

January 6, 2008

frank-siantra.jpeg Frank Sinatra 


Picturing the scene of the coming funeral of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno here in Tucson, Ariz., on Monday, I can’t help but imagine the possibilities.

Members of one of the most infamous crime families in American history will be sitting among friends at the service, huddled in the back or spread throughout the church. Law enforcement will be there, too, noting who appears. The suited individuals in the back row could be FBI agents, watching every step.

The FBI has a history of tracking citizens, notorious or not. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, which allows for the disclosure of government documents upon request, a collection of files on individuals the agency has monitored is available online and can be viewed at the agency’s Electronic Reading Room.

If you’re interested in gangster files, there are 10 sets of records, including documents on Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. But there are also files on other famous figures, including Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, the Beatles, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. (Of the 16,659 pages of files on King, only about 1 percent are available online.)

There are 2,403 pages on Frank Sinatra, who “socialized with organized crime figures,” the Web site says. Sixteen hundred pages explore what might have been behind 15 animal mutilations in New Mexico in the 1970s — UFOs? Satanic cults? “Pranksters”? There’s also a 131-page file on the baseball star Jackie Robinson, though according to the Web site, he was never the subject of an investigation; his name “came to the attention of the FBI as a result of his National Association for the Advancement of Colored People membership.”

The file on Tupac Shakur, who was killed Sept. 7, 1996, in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, includes several reports suggesting that he had been involved in an extortion scheme that ensnared the rapper Easy-E. It also has numerous newspaper, magazine and Web clippings documenting Shakur’s life, time in jail and death. (It is interesting to note the prominence of media reports in the federal police enforcement file, including an 18-page New Yorker article from 1997 about Shakur’s death.)

The files may not provide any conclusive insight into the lives or struggles of these figures, but they are nonetheless an interesting written history from a fascinating American institution.

— James Wagner

W. Eugene Smith’s photography

January 5, 2008


W. Eugene Smith’s photography

(Jose R. Lopez/NYT Institute) 

I’m sure if I called myself a frustrated photographer I wouldn’t be doing the art justice. I am by no means an expert photographer or photojournalist, but I deeply admire the art. Anyone can take a photograph, but only a few can make it truly good.

On Friday, the students of The New York Times Student Journalism Institute were given a tour of the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s archive, most of it original prints, at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

The students stared intently at the photographs, often lingering for several minutes on a frame. My personal favorite: a photograph of the Battle of Iwo Jima. It shows soldiers crouched in the corner of the foreground behind a mound of mud. But in the distance, behind the barren trees and smoke-covered ground, an enormous dark cloud — an explosion — draws the viewer’s eye.

It is one of those photographs I never truly understood was real. I envisioned it as a fantasy, a barren land formed only from my experiences watching gritty war films like “Paths of Glory” (1957) or “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). But it was real, and the photograph made it so.

Smith draws the viewer directly into the photo and frames the fragility of the human body against the destruction of the explosion. This level of access, risk and realism encompasses true photojournalism.

And it makes me jealous.

— James Wagner

What’s in a name?

January 4, 2008

U.S. Propaganda Poster from 1940s 

Dozens of people in the United States have the last names “Hitler” and “Stalin” — 22 and 60, respectively, according to Do these people face interesting challenges day to day? Do they withhold their names when they introduce themselves? Were they born with the names, or did they actually choose them? (Adolf Hitler’s half-brother emigrated to the United States in the 20th century. Joseph Stalin’s daughter moved to the States, married an American and had a daughter.)

This is a story idea I’m working on that could provide an interesting look into the lives of these people. Do you have any interesting names: first or last, or even middle?

— James Wagner