Curbside Musings: 1998 Isuzu Hombre XS – Correct Pronunciation Is Everything

1998 Isuzu Hombre. Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, March 31, 2024.

I’ve written plenty about having grown up in Flint, Michigan and my decades spent in beautiful Chicago, but there are entire chapters in between that were written in the Sunshine State.  My first three years of college starting in the early ’90s were spent in Gainesville, Florida (go Gators!), which represented several significant life changes for me at the time.  Not only was I no longer under my parents’ roof (that is, before I moved back for one year), but I was also in a different state and part of the United States.  For the first time in my life, I felt like so many choices were mine alone to make.  I had wanted freedom, and I got it.  However, this also meant that I now had added responsibility.  It was no longer up to me to simply come up with witty, sarcastic quips about things I was being forced to do and didn’t want to.

Joe Dennis at the University Of Florida, Gainesville, in the early '90s. Good days.

My early days at the University of Florida, Gainesville in the early ’90s were good ones.

I now had to buy my own groceries with my monthly stipend, which meant that I had to learn what things I could afford to put into my cart at the local Kash ‘N Karry grocery store.  For example: Could I live with the house-brand mac-and-cheese if it meant I could also get some Pringles?  I had new friends to choose not only from the guys and gals in my dorm complex (gender-separated by floor), but also in my classrooms.  This freedom of choice also extended to the curriculum in the pre-semester enrollment period.  All of us had general education (“gen ed”) requirements to satisfy, but for the first time in my life, I felt like my destiny might just be up to me, and that my choices then might affect the rest of my life.  This was even more so than in high school, where all I had really wanted to do was get decent grades to get into college, which was where I had just arrived.  Now what?

1998 Isuzu Hombre. Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, March 31, 2024.

There was a foreign language requirement, regardless of your major.  I respected this idea, being a first-generation American and child of a Liberian-born and multilingual father.  I was familiar with studying a language other than English going back to the third grade in my gifted elementary school, where the German-expatriate mother of one of my classmates had given us lessons in her native tongue for what I recall to be half-hour blocks.  I took pride that Frau Tyler had told my parents that I demonstrated a gift for learning language and good pronunciation.  I had taken French from between the seventh and ninth grades with the encouragement of my parents, who had reasoned that there are many French-speaking nations in Africa.

Joe Dennis with '88 Mustang LX at the University Of Florida, Gainesville, in the early '90s. Good days.

You’ve seen my ’88 Mustang before here at CC.

Even though I had spent my fourth grade year in Liberia, I knew I was probably never going to live there on my own on even a semi-permanent basis.  It made more sense to me to learn Spanish, especially in Florida.  My earlier experiences with German, Spanish (also taught at my elementary school), and French made it that much easier to dive back into Spanish, which I elected.  My teacher, Señora Power, was Boricua (originally from Puerto Rico).  She was probably middle-aged at the time, had curly, honey-blonde hair, and was highly engaging and hilarious.  It was a real education for me at the time to learn about different dialects of Spanish spoken in different regions of the Americas.  For example, the double-l consonant cluster is pronounced with almost a soft “j” sound in Puerto Rican Spanish, versus in other dialects where “ll” is more commonly pronounced like an English “y” used as a consonant.

1998 Isuzu Hombre. Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, March 31, 2024.

The coursework was challenging, and there was a focus not only on learning the words, but also in correct pronunciation and stringing together and speaking coherent, conversational sentences.  Sra. Power was a fun lady, but she also didn’t mess around.  I felt a special responsibility not to butcher the Spanish language and to take these lessons seriously.  Part of me just didn’t want to offend her.  Framed within that context, I wonder if I would be as possessive and protective of English among non-native English speakers in a classroom.  I feel like honest effort merits grace.  College is a weird age between almost an expectation that a teenager will slack off, and him or her becoming a (mostly) self-actuated young adult.  I cared about learning Spanish the right way, even if I was mostly just a “B” student.

In learning how to say basic phrases, we got to hunger and thirst, and there were some big frat guys also in the classroom off of whom apathy seemed to sheet like secondhand pot-fumes.  I have since become close friends with many who had gone through the Greek system, but I’d wager that many of you know what I’m talking about here.  These were guys who looked like they could have done two keg-stands for every one, single, complete, correct sentence in Spanish that was ten words or longer.  “Tengo hambre” means “I’m hungry” (or more accurately, “I have hunger”).

Joe Dennis in his '88 Ford Mustang LX at the University Of Florida, Gainesville, in the early '90s. Good days.

Foolishness while behind the wheel of my Mustang in Gainesville.

This one frat bro with long grunge-hair said, “Tengo hombre,” in the irreverent accent that you’re probably accurately hearing in your head right now.  Sra. Power lowered her readers on her nose, looked at him with dead eyes, and said, “That means, ‘I have a man!’  It’s ‘Tengo AHM-BRAY.'”  The entire classroom roared (including me, I admit it), but Sra. Power retained her straight-faced expression to great comic effect, whether or not this was intentional.  That moment made me love her so much that you’re reading about her right now, thirty years after the fact.  It would have been awesome if an out-and-proud gay guy in the classroom would have chimed in afterward with “Tengo hambre y tengo un hombre“, but it was a different time in the ’90s.  Things have come a long way.

1997 Isuzu Hombre brochure cover, as sourced from the internet.

The sight of an Isuzu Hombre has always since reminded me of Sra. Power.  Believe me, it has been a long time since the last such sighting.  Just who was responsible for naming this thing?  It’s a rhetorical question and I don’t expect anyone in the CC readership to really know, but naming a truck a “Man” or “Dude” was phoning it in on so many levels.  The closest thing to this that I can think of is MAN Truck & Bus of Germany, but that name had originated as an acronym (as I was constantly reminded by a fellow high school classmate with a calculator with that logo, who had lived in that country).  This is not even the same thing.  Even more confusing to learn was that this Isuzu truck wasn’t even built in Japan, but in Shreveport, Louisiana.  (JP Cavanaugh had written this excellent essay on the Hombre almost six years ago, for those of you who want some facts.)

1998 Isuzu Hombre. Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois. Sunday, March 31, 2024.

“Hombre” is what bros sometimes call each other, but that’s about the only non-Spanish-speaking context I can think of in which that word seems to fit.  Can you imagine an ad campaign around this Chevy S-10-based truck in which various people exclaim, “That’s my Hombre!”  That’s just as bad as “Tengo Hombre!” would have been.  Ultimately, it didn’t matter, because almost nobody bought these.  I can’t even find a final tally for the Hombre’s five-year production run from between 1996 and 2000, let alone a breakout for each model year.  It’s not simply that I’m feeling lazy at this writing.  I couldn’t even source a print ad from the same ’98 model year as our featured pickup, so the ’97 brochure cover I borrowed will have to do.  Just think of this essay as a reminder to try to put some actual effort into pronouncing foreign-to-you words correctly.

Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, March 31, 2024.