In Boston we call it a “cucum-BAH.”
This was my gut-check response to the Hilaria Baldwin drama that unfolded this past week, an event comprising themes ranging from cultural appropriation to canned phony accents and lingual disparities—“How do you say in English…cucumber?”—to blatant, old-fashioned mendacity.
Pandemic lockdown ennui aside, it might seem pointless to unpack this social media soap opera any more than we collectively already have. And yet, there is far more mileage to be drawn from this wellspring of questionable Iberian lineage. Trust me, I know. I’m from Boston. Born and raised. I live in Los Angeles now, but I spent the first 18 years of my life in and around the greater Boston area. And in Boston these things matter. Especially where there’s an accent involved.
Not the Spanish accent — the Boston one.
Hilaria Baldwin has been hammered for what some see as faking her Spanish accent, and she’s responded with claims essentially saying that this is just who she is. She’s got family in Massachusetts and family living in Spain. Being “authentic” has been her steady line of defense. She is simply “living her life.” But here’s the key question: Did Hilaria Baldwin ever have an authentic Boston accent? And what does she mean when she says she’s a “different sort of Bostonian?” Is this a Bostonian who was authentically born on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca?
To be clear, the Boston accent is no small thing. It is infamous. It is legendary. It is mocked and mimicked at every turn. It is reviled, but also applauded. Because it is just so…much. It is a vast expanse of pahked cahs and abandoned R’s dropped into the alphabetical abyss. It is the stuff of which comic sendups such as Seth Meyers’ “Boston Accent” movie trailer and Casey Affleck’s Dunkin’ Donuts parody on “Saturday Night Live” are born. I have yet to meet one single Bostonian that has journeyed to places afar that has not, at some point and time, been poked fun of because of said accent, which isn’t even one specific accent, but varying regional accents depending on where one is from. It is the difference between John F. Kennedy and Mark Wahlberg.
Either way, there is nothing subtle about the Boston accent. It’s loud, it’s trashy, it’s elegant given the right strand of grandma’s heirloom pearls. Like the accent, Boston itself is a juxtaposition of disparate universes. It’s MIT and Sylvia Plath, but it’s also your buddy Sully, face-down drunk at the bar. It’s Donna eating a Kelly’s roast beef while tanning herself on “Reve-ah” Beach. The Boston accent is messy, but it’s also luminous and soft where you least expect it.
It’s also an accent that Hollywood rarely gets right. Most of the time, in fact, Hollywood gets the Boston accent outlandishly, maddeningly wrong. That the way Bostonians speak seems to forever elude the film biz is so endlessly confounding, it’s become its own ranked sport. A few non-Bostonians have succeeded — Christian Bale in “The Fighter,” Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” — but far too many others have failed disastrously, their attempts at an R-less dialect devolving into caricature. And if you are from Boston, then the Bad Boston Accent is virtually impossible to ignore. A few glaring examples from years gone by: Tom Hanks in “Catch Me If You Can,” Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea,” Amy Adams in “The Fighter.” Alec Baldwin, a Long Island native, didn’t even bother going full-on Boston in “The Departed,” opting instead to just speak at a slightly louder volume and adding swagger to each step. I’m not sure what to make of Sacha Baron Cohen’s take on Abbie Hoffman’s accent in “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” Worcester by way of Dorchester? I’ve been parsing it for months.
Which is not to say that these are not all brilliant actors. Because they are. That they can’t do a Boston accent, a notoriously difficult one by theatrical standards, is not entirely their fault. They likely just haven’t had the right coaching, or maybe they’re thinking too much instead of feeling. I know plenty of Bostonians who’ve long moved away and can no longer do a proper Boston accent. I can’t even do one unless I’ve been in the company of my Boston townie parents for six weeks straight. Matt Damon doesn’t even entirely sound like he’s from Boston anymore. Neither does Ben Affleck. And yet, they do. Because the Boston accent is more than an accent — it’s an energy, an attitude, a spirit.
The Boston accent is a vibe.
I do not know if Hilaria Baldwin, who was raised in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, has a Boston accent underneath her cultivated Spanish one, but I would wager a bet that it’s there. Or there was one, at one point and time, long before she decided she was from Spain.
But I also understand the impulse to feel that what one is, is not interesting enough, is not exotic enough. Boston is not exotic. Any city wherein grown adults wear seersucker shorts with lobster appliques unironically can not be exotic. There was a time, when I was a freshman at Cornell, that my thick Boston accent became a source of crippling embarrassment. I felt dumb, incapable of being taken seriously. How to read De Sade aloud in Comp Lit 407 when I sounded like one of the concession clerks at Fenway Park? So I made a conscientious effort to change it. I worked at it, studied the students and professors on campus. I pronounced my R’s with intention. But it was all just so much effort. And after a few weeks, I just stopped. And I realized I just didn’t care. I liked my accent, it was fine. Truth is, you are always better at being yourself than you are at being anybody else.
I can’t speak for Hilaria Baldwin. Maybe it was all part of a marketing stunt. Maybe she just got bored. Maybe Spain appeals to Hilaria Baldwin in a way that the Boston Common never has. Who knows why people do what they do? But what I know to be true is this: once a Bostonian, always a Bostonian. And that’s a badge of honor that we should forever wear with pride.