Tower of Babel
That melodious cacophony? It’s Jersey City talking
Apr 05, 2013 | 5853 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sylvio "Marujo" Bastos - Photo by Terri Saulino Bish
view slideshow (3 images)

Jersey City is a bastion of diversity, as anyone in City Hall will tell you. We’re home to more than 65 languages, and that doesn’t even include unofficially spoken ones. My Eritrean-born neighbor speaks Tygrinya, along with Swedish and English. Among the documented languages are the usual suspects—Spanish, Polish and Italian—spoken in communities with longstanding roots in JC. But for such a relatively small city, we’ve amassed an interesting collection of native tongues. And there’s some cool overlap. Who knew that the Gujarati language has linguistic roots in Portuguese?

Among our bi- and multi-lingual residents are:

Sylvio “Marujo” Bastos

English, Portuguese, Spanish

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to taste Marujo’s Brazilian-themed catering, then you have Mickey Mouse to thank. Growing up in Rio, he says, “All I wanted to do was come to America and see Disney World.” Once here, he decided to stay and headed to Boston to take a job in a kitchen. He spoke no English, a circumstance that wasn’t helped by the chef, a fellow Brazilian who chattered nonstop in Portuguese. But a year later and with a language course under his belt, Marujo mastered his own unique spin on English. If you’ve heard him directing the pack of dogs he looks after—his other business, along with catering—then you know he likes to repeat things for effect. Three times, to be exact. He’s my friend, so I can confirm this after 20 years of being called “darling, darling, darling.” Is that a typically Portuguese way of communicating, I asked a mutual Brazilian friend on the block. Not really, she said, it’s just typical Marujo.

It’s also not typical for a Brazilian to be called “Marujo.” The exact translation is sailor or seaman. It was also the name of a beloved cow on the Bastos family farm in Minhas, where young Sylvio would scream in delight each time the baby cow jumped into her bath. Today, the kids on his Jersey City block have shortened it to “Mujo” and follow him around as eagerly as the dogs do.

He and his partner have been here since 2003. He decided to leave Manhattan for good after running from the towers on 9/11. He has more Brazilian buddies here than he ever did in Boston or New York, and recommends nearby Newark for great Brazilian food.

Caroline Garnier

English, French

Back in 2008, when Caroline’s husband was offered a job in the States, they did not hesitate. She is from Vendee, on the west coast of France, just under Brittany, and he’s from Burgundy, the land of wine and cheese. They were both big fans of New York City. They considered living across the river, but they were planning a family and thought Jersey City seemed a much better option. They were delighted to uncover a large French community. “The first French people we met were Alice and Mathias,” the proprietors of Madame Claude and Madame Claude Wine. Since then, she says, her family kept bumping into more and more French speakers. There is now such a big French-speaking local community that Garnier and two other French moms, Céline Monthieu and Ludivine Venturini, opened the French Academy of Jersey City, offering after-school programs in French and soon a full-time bilingual preschool.

Garnier, who has been bilingual since she was 10, says it was very easy to learn English because they started with songs like “Old McDonald” (or “Uncle McDonald,” as she charmingly put it). Of course, the French accent is admired the world over, but how easy is it to acquire an American one? Not so easy, she says: “It’s hard to get the accent right, and it’s an endless source of fun. Just ask my husband how the whole conference room [at work] laughed the first time he said ‘focus!’”

Johanna Lillpers

English, Swedish

Like most kids in Sweden, Johanna grew up speaking both Swedish and English. Two languages is the bare minimum. The small country is multicultural, with many young kids exposed to French, German, Italian, and Latin. Still, nothing prepared her for the fast-paced, sonic, and sensory overload of American English. “The first time I ordered a sandwich in a fast-food restaurant in New York City, I was completely ignored,” the soft-spoken Swede says. And then there are the actual words that just get totally lost in translation, like “dude.”

“The first time we [Johanna and her California-born husband, James] had a party, I kept hearing his friends call him ‘Dude.’ I didn’t get it.” She’d heard it in movies, but there’s no translation for it in subtitles. “I didn’t understand how you went from ‘James’ to ‘Dude’ and how everyone at the party could have the same name.”

After a long stay in New York City, it was a longing for Sweden that found her setting up home in JC: “I was in my apartment on the 34th floor in Battery Park, looking across the river and I thought, I wonder what’s over there. I bet it’s quieter than New York City, and has a better view.” The next day, Johanna set off for the PATH train and felt a weird sense of déjà vu when she exited at Exchange Place. “It looked like Europe!” she remembers. “A modern, clean subway with an elevator. We [her husband, and future daughter Emma] could live here!” Soon after, she started Vyssan Lull, an organic Swedish clothing company that’s responsible for some of the cutest—and socially conscious—kids outfits in the neighborhood.

Sejal Patel

English, Gujarati, Hindi

Jersey City-born Patel was one worldly kindergartener. She moved to Gujarat, on the western coast of India, to stay with her Ba and Dada (Gujarati for Grandma and Grandpa) when she was two years old. She returned to Jersey at four and a half, and would stare longingly at airplanes out her Journal Square window, hoping that they might be delivering her beloved grandparents back to her.

Growing up in Jersey City was a truly multicultural experience, says Patel, who is a McNair Academic and Rutgers graduate. “I didn’t have so many Gujarati friends … My best friends were Chinese, Filipino and Spanish.” She did have one close Indian friend, and they bonded over Indian clothes, movies, and her friend’s highly prized talent for threading eyebrows.

At Rutgers, where she majored in psychology, there were lots of Indian people, as there are in JC. Here, she says, food is the common denominator among all Indian communities. Everyone speaks Hindi (the national language of India) and most everyone can understand Gujarati.

Patel, who is now a preschool teacher, made three trips back to India as an adult—each time to attend or shop for a wedding, and to endure some good-natured ribbing about her American-inflected Gujarati.

Lycel Villanueva

English, Tagalog

Villanueva moved from Marikina, the Philippines, to the States midway through high school with her family, all of whom speak the two official languages of The Philippines: Tagalog and English.

Extended Filipino families are usually very close, and Villanueva’s is no exception “My Tita (Aunt) Rose, the eldest in my father’s family, took the initial risk of coming here for a job in the late ’60s … She made it ultimately possible for everyone in my family to move here.”

Another defining Filipino characteristic?

“They like to joke and make fun of each other. A lot. It can seem cruel if you are outside the culture,” she says, “but it’s really just about a playful way to make fun of their own culture and the struggles of everyday life.” Puns and word play are huge, while sarcasm and irony are completely unheard of, which may explain why the jokes don’t translate well between our cultures. The informal word for Filipinos is “Pinoy.” Many words Pinoys use don’t have an English counterpart, like these gems:

Achuchuchu: words that refer to the pointless insincerities and meaningless chatter invoked during long conversations about nothing.

Gigil: an overwhelming desire to pinch, bite, or squeeze an unbearably adorable being.

Hipon: Tagalog for shrimp, the body of which is eaten, while the head is thrown away. Describes someone with a lovely body and not-so-lovely face.—JCM

Some Languages Spoken in Jersey City











Chinese (simplified)

Chinese (traditional)














Haitian Creole







































Comments-icon Post a Comment
No Comments Yet