The office manager at my work, Nancy Trujillo, is obsessed with the Minions. On her desk are little post-it drawings of Minions, a Minion stuffed animal, a Minion bucket, a knitted hacky sack Minion and even a Minion sleep mask. Every time a coworker spots Minion-related merchandise outside the office, they feel compelled to buy it for Nancy. Currently a four foot-tall Minion piñata sits in a chair in the middle of our office, as if it were another employee.
The Minions are pill-shaped yellow animated characters from the Despicable Me franchise. They are the mischievous sidekicks of the film’s anti-hero and supervillain Gru, voiced by Steve Carell. The Minions went from being comic relief in the first Despicable Me to being the stars themselves in the wildy popular Minions movie. They wear little blue overalls and speak in what sounds like high-pitched gibberish with identifiable words sprinkled in.
When I was hired by my company a year ago, I saw the Minion craze as a children- and Nancy-specific phenomenon. But I started to see a lot of Minion GIFs on my Facebook feed and some of my friends were even sending me a barrage of Minion stickers through Facebook chat. Interestingly, this was coming mostly from my Latino friends. I knew in my heart that there was some Minion-Latino connection.
After watching the first Minions movie trailer, certain aspects of it really stuck out to me. They say things that sound a lot like Spanish including “ayayay” or “tu le bella comme le papaya.” They arrive in New York City on a boat in search of an evil master to serve (presumably in his or her evil lair, i.e. their home). My crazy theory was that the Minions are a metaphor for domestic Latino workers.
So I went to the man who could confirm or deny my theory: Pierre Coffin, co-director of Minions. He is also the voice behind every Minion you’ve heard. I asked him if these creatures are Latino, he laughed through his response: “I don’t want to be rude, but not at all.” He tried to let me down easy. But talking to him about how he created the voice for the Minions helped me understand why they’re so popular with Latinos.
Unlike other fictional languages like Star Trek’s Klingon or The Lord of the Rings’ Elvish, the Minions don’t actually speak a made-up language but rather a mashup of noises and words.
“I could actually express anger, happiness, laughter or whatever with ridiculous words put together,” said Coffin. He puts words from a variety of languages into the Minion “language,” but Coffin is a native French speaker, knows English and studied Spanish in high school. “What’s supercool about the Spanish language is that [the words] end with either a-o, and all these words for some reason are the Minion language.”
He says that putting familiar words that he likes together in a sentence structure where the words become meaningless is what makes the dialogue funny. For example, it might be obvious through his intonation and gestures that a Minion is asking for the salt, but he is saying, “chicken tikka masala” (the Minions also use a lot of food menu items in their language).
For an often bilingual, Latino audience, this play on words is a familiar way of joking. Maybe in developing my theory I got the chicken and the egg confused: It’s not just that Minions are popular with Latinos but rather the Minions are popular because of Latinos.
Today, one in four movie tickets bought in the U.S. is by a Latino, with Latina women over 25 being most frequent moviegoers. After all, the Minions appeal to moms looking to take their children to family-friendly movie. With their slapstick physical comedy and language mash-up dialogue, the Minions are fun for an audience at all levels of language proficiency (in any language) and appeal to all ages.
In the first Despicable Me there’s an adorable scene in which a Minion hands a gift one of the main characters and says “para tu” (in not-perfect Spanish: “for you”).
Regardless of whether the Minions themselves are Latino, Latinos like Nancy know that the movie is “for them.”