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Albures

An American friend of mine would constantly whack her boyfriend on the shoulder and say, “Get your mind out of the gutter!” You see, her boyfriend was an aficionado at “albures”. Anyone learning Spanish and planning on traveling to Mexico needs to be forewarned about them, especially if you are a woman.

You see in Mexico, anything at any given moment could have two meanings. I remember one time when I was traveling by myself in some city in southern Mexico when I got lost. It started to rain and I went deeper and deeper into some unknown “colonia” (neighborhood). I hailed a taxi and gave him my hotel’s address. I made some silly comment about the rain to which the “taxista” (taxi driver) replied, “¿Te gusta mojarte?” (You like to get wet?) I didn’t get it at the time. It wasn’t until a year or so later that I realized what had really happened.

I had already been living in Mexico for quite some time and spoke Spanish fluently before I realized that I couldn’t walk into a store and ask the attendant, “¿Tiene ustéd huevos?” unless I wanted to become the butt of the joke. The word “huevos” in Spanish, especially among men, refers to testicles. Instead of questioning a man’s manliness, most women ask, “¿Tiene blanquillos?” Now that’s something they don’t teach you in Spanish class.

Ringing in the New Year

For my husband’s family, New Year’s is generally a family event. We all get together for enormous quantities of food, drink, music and talk. Children run wild, “comadres chismean” (ladies gossip), the men play poker and we all drink and are merry until the clock strikes midnight, at which point we eat 12 grapes so that our 12 wishes for the New Year will materialize.

This year is different. This year we did anything but the traditional familial gathering. We went to Playa del Carmen to stay with my “cuñado” (brother-in-law). An apartment that may cost 1000 pesos in other parts of the Republic, like in Xalapa for example, will cost around 4500 pesos in Playa. So my husband, his daughter, our baby, my “suegra” (mother-in-law), my “cuñado” and his partner all settled into inflatable mattresses in a one-room apartment to ring in the New Year.

Traditionally, families sit down to dinner at midnight, although they start celebrating sometime in the afternoon. This time we made it until 9 and then gathered up our 12 grapes to head out to “La quinta avenida” (Fifth Avenue).

I must say, all seemed eerily calm, until, that is, we made it to the hot spots where foreigners from all over the globe were congregated, drinking, dancing and partying the year away. Here, playing tourist for the evening, we ate our twelve grapes and chimed in to the shouts of “Happy New Year!” and “¡Feliz Año Nuevo!”

Chilanga Banda

Chilanga Banda
(Juan Jaime López; performed by Café Tacuba)

Check out the video here:
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Ya chole chango chilango, Cut it out, chilango (guy from Mexico City).
¡qué chafa chamba te chutas! What a crappy job you have.
No checa andar de tacuche Wearing a suit doesn’t suit you.
¡y chale con la charola! Your badge is no good.
   
Tan choncho como una chinche, As fat as a flea,
más chueco que la fayuca, As crooked as contraband,
con fusca y con cachiporra With pistol and with billy club,
te pasa andar de guarura. You dig working as a bodyguard.
   
Mejor yo me echo una chela I’ll down a brew,
y chance enchufo una chava And maybe pick up a girl.
chambeando de chafirete Working as a driver,
me sobra chupe y pachanga. I have drinks and parties to spare.
   
Si choco saco chipote If I crash and bash it up.
la chota no es muy molacha The cops don’t mind too much.
chiveando a los que machucan Bribing those who crunch,
se va a morder su talacha. They’ll like what they can clip.
   
De noche caigo al congal At night, I hit the seedy clubs.
‘No manches,’ dice la “Changa”, “No way,” says the chick,
‘A chorro de teporocho, To the wasted guy’s ramblings.
en chifla pasa la pacha’. Hurry up and pass the drink.
   
Coro:  
Pachucos, cholos y chundos Pachucos, cholos and chundos
chichifos y malafachas Pimps and ruffians
acá los chómpiras rifan Here the thieves rule
y bailan tibiritabara And dance tibiritabara (tropical music)
   
Mejor yo me echo una chela I’ll down a brew
y chance enchufo una chava And maybe pick up a girl.
chambeando de chafirete Working as a driver,
me sobra chupe y pachanga. I have drinks and parties to spare.
   
Mi ñero mata la bacha My main man kills the roach
y canta La Cucaracha And sings “La Cucaracha.”
su cholla vive de chochos His head is filled with pills,
de chemo, churro y garnachas. Glue, grass and garnachas.
   
Transando de arriba a abajo Conning around town,
¡ahi va la chilanga banda! There goes the group of chilangos.
Chinchin si me la recuerdan, Screw you if you screw me over.
carcacha y se les retacha. Bounces off of me and sticks to you.

Christmas in Xalapa

Christmas time here is Veracruz is unique not only within Latin America, but also within Mexico. Beginning about mid-December, posadas and la rama are expressions of the holiday season.

Posadas (inns) are held throughout Mexico and are generally religious fiestas in which people ask for shelter for the baby Jesus. In my suegra’s house, one group of people goes outside with candles and a ceramic baby dressed in white. The other group stays inside. Together, we sing a call-and-answer song that depicts the biblical moment in which Mary and Joseph went looking for an inn. We huddle together and drink warm ponche (punch) and eat pambazos (round, bean, lettuce and tomato sandwiches). The night ends with a piñata and plenty of treats for everyone.

There is another tradition here that seems to be particular to the area. It’s called la rama (the branch). Like the posadas, la rama takes place between December 16 and December 24. Children anywhere from 5 to 15 find a branch and decorate it with tinsel, ornaments, balloons, stars or any other piece of festive material. They then go door to door singing a song and requesting treats, drink or even money. They often make their own instruments: bottle caps on a wire serve as rattles; glass soda bottles make for great maracas; and maybe even a tambourine or a guitar.

These festivities are only those leading up to noche buena (Christmas Eve). On noche buena, my husband’s family gets together to celebrate with ponche and tamales until midnight, at which point we all sit down to Christmas dinner. We spend the night, laughing, talking, eating and drinking. Then, on Christmas day, we meet up again for the recalentado, or leftovers (literally, reheated). Christmas is a magical time anywhere, but this is especially true here in Xalapa.

Vocabulary

Navidad – Christmas
Posada – Inn
Las posadas – Celebration
La rama – The branch, literally
Ponche – A hot, natural fruit punch
Noche buena – Christmas Eve
Recalentado – Leftovers, literally re-heated

Mastering Immersion: Learning to Street Speak

Once you’ve mastered slang in any given language, you know you’re immersed. You’re in up to the crown of your head and there is no going back now.

In Mexico, there are words and phrases that are used throughout the Republic. Phrases like, “¿Qué onda?” (What’s up?), chido (cool), and simón (yes) are common enough and understood by the majority.

However, there is a vast vocabulary that is specific to any given region. Take, for example, Mexico City. People from Mexico City are often referred to as chilangos. They generally have a way of speaking that is unique in intonation and vocabulary to, for example, people in Yucatán, Chiapas, or Sonora.

Within Mexico City, there are numerous areas that also have their distinctive way of speaking. The most notorious of these is Tepito. This is the kingdom of contraband, the blackest of the black markets and home to any number of colorful characters. About thirty years ago, no one outside of Tepito would have been able to understand the locals. Now, though, most chilangos and more and more Mexicans can follow along with the jerga (slang). We can thank the writers Luis Zapata, José Agustín and the following song, “Chilanga Banda” for a lot of the renown that Tepiteños have now.

The following song, “Chilanga Banda,” (gang/ group from Mexico City) is no easy translation. It is written entirely in jerga from Mexico City, spefically, Tepito. It is a must for anyone hoping to learn about Mexico’s underbelly, street talk, and underground culture. I strongly recommend checking out a translation to common Spanish before trying to really understand it. There is a great translation by Toni Merchant here. I also recommend checking out Jergas de Habla Hispana here. They offer Spanish definitions of the palabras chilangas (words from Mexico City).

When I sat down to do the translation, I had to decide if I would do a literal translation that wouldn’t have any rhythm or a loose translation that might. I decided to mix it up. So, all excuses aside, in the next post I will provide you with the impossible: my English translation of “Chilanga Banda.”

Vocabulary

¿Qué onda? – What’s up?
Chido – Cool
Simón – Yes (an extension of Sí…)
Chilango – A person from Mexico City. This term was originally pejorative, but it is now widely accepted.
Jerga – slang

Palabras – Words

Ya is Ya

I remember my Spanish teacher in college reading off a list of vocabulary words that appeared in a short story. She came to the word ya. “Pues, ya es ya,” she said and quickly moved on. We all looked at each other blankly.

It’s a short word, seemingly inoffensive. It is also quite deceiving. A simple word that simultaneously means now, already, later, and enough poses a challenge for language learners.

My son, who is only one, holds his hands up and says, “¡ya ya ya!” when he doesn’t want to eat any more vegetables. In this case, it means enough.

My husband came home yesterday and asked me, “Did you pay the phone bill yet?”

I said, “Ya lo pagué.” (I already paid it.)

Then he turned to his daughter, “Have you cleaned your room yet??”

“Ya lo voy a hacer,” she said. This could be understood as, “I’m going to do it now” or “I’m going to do it already.” But, instead, she keeps watching la tele.

“¡Sofía!” he says, “¡Ya!” That simple word, with the right tone and the look that only an angry father can give, means “You’d better clean your room right now or you can forget about going to that party on Saturday!”

You see, it’s all in the context. Ya is an example of the nuances of a language that one can only learn through immersion, through practice listening and speaking on a daily basis.

I might also say to my husband, “Ya lo pagaré.” This means, “I’ll pay it…” (eventually). Sofía might say, “Ya que estas aquí, lo voy a hacer.” This translates as, “Now that you’re here, I’ll do it.” But if she said, “Ya que estes aquí lo voy a hacer,” that would mean, “I’ll do it once you get here.” But that’s a topic for a whole new post.

It might be easiest, for the time being, to think of ya as already, which can also be used in reference to the past, present or future. To really get ya, though, you’ll have to immerse yourself in Spanish and all of its intricacies.

Trabalenguas

Learning another language is hard enough. Learning to pronounce like a native is even harder. The most obvious challenge to Spanish pronunciation is the r and double rr sounds. However, the vowels can also be tricky. By themselves, they’re straightforward and easy to master. Once you get going in a rolling conversation though, the vowels often pose the biggest threat for mispronunciations.

A few weeks ago, my stepdaughter brought home a book of trabalenguas (tongue twisters). We sat down together and went through them. I realized that this is an excellent way to pay close attention to the individual sounds that one makes while speaking. Here are a few simple tongue twisters to get you started.

R con R cigarro,
R con R barril,
rápido corren los carros
cargados de azúcar al ferrocarril.

(R with R cigar
R with R barrel
Fast go the cars
Loaded with sugar for the railroad)

En tres tristes trastos de trigo,
tres tristes tigres comían trigo;
comían trigo, tres tristes tigres,
en tres tristes trastos de trigo.

(In three sad dishes of wheat
Three sad tigers ate wheat
They ate wheat, three sad tigers
In three sad dishes of wheat)

El que poco coco come, poco coco compra;
el que poca capa se tapa, poca capa se compra.
Como yo poco coco como, poco coco compro,
y como poca capa me tapo, poca capa me compro.

(He who eats little coconut, buys little coconut
He who uses little cape, buys little cape
Since I eat little coconut, I buy little coconut
And since I use little cape, I buy little cape)

Pancha plancha con cuatro planchas
¿Con cuántas planchas plancha Pancha?

(Pancha irons with four irons.
With how many irons does Panch iron?)

Immersed in TV Land

I’ve never been much of a TV watcher. I must say, though, that it is a good way to learn another language. My professors in high school and college recommended watching telenovelas, or soap operas. The dialogue and gestures are so exaggerated it’s easier for English speakers to intuit what’s happening, even if they don’t get all the words.
Unlike American soaps, Latin American telenovelas are not eternal. They are, as their title suggests, novels acted out on television. After three to six months of airtime, there will inevitably be a grand finale.

They are a great way not only to learn the language, but also to get a glimpse into Mexican society. I am in no way saying that society is accurately portrayed in the novelas, but rather, that they show us the stereotypes present in today’s Mexcio. For example, there is almost always an indigenous maid complete with folkloric dress, trenzas (braids) and huaraches (sandals). This is much more comfortable for viewers than having to see how a servant really lives. Wealthy families fight over affairs, inheritances, and the like. It’s always entertaining for the have-nots to see how the haves suffer. The plot is nearly always akin to a rags-to-riches Cinderella fairy tale.

If telenovelas aren’t for you, there are plenty of other shows on primetime. Take, for example, the sitcoms in which grown men and women dress like little children and act out sketches in classrooms. If you can understand what they say through the baby talk, you will have significantly advanced in your understanding of the Spanish language.
I remember when I first learned about El chavo del ocho (The Kid From Apartment 8). I was in a bar trying to communicate over the loud music. I asked someone a question. Instead of saying yes, she held up her index finger and moved it up and down like it was nodding. I thought this was an odd thing to do, if not a little infantile, until I learned that this gesture was made popular by El chavo del ocho, a television program from the 70s that follows the adventures of an orphan and his neighbors in a low-income apartment complex in Mexico City. Keep in mind: these children are also played by adults.
There’s an interesting article about telenovelas in Mexico here. HYPERLINK ”
You can see fragments of El chavo on You Tube.

Vocabulary
Chavo – Slang for “guy” or “kid.” The feminine equivalent is chava.
Telenovela – Soap opera. Consists of tele (television) and novela (novel).
Trenzas – Braids
Huaraches – Sandals

Words and phrases made popular by El chavo:
Fue sin querer queriendo. – This phrase is kind of like, “I didn’t mean to do it, but I did.” It was used by el chavo when he did something wrong.
Eso, eso, eso, eso. – This was el chavo’s way of saying “yes.” He would say it while moving his index finger up and down, as though it were a person nodding.
¡Se me chispotió! – Is like saying, “It slipped!” It’s said when one says something without meaning to.

The Complexity of Tú and Usted in Mexican Spanish

Before I leave behind for the time being the and usted topic, I want to share a couple more personal experiences with you to help paint a picture of the complexity of the issue.

Experiencia #1

My husband has a friend he calls Don Manuel. Don is a sign of deep respect. They speak to each other using usted (formal – you, singular). This always seemed peculiar to me because they are contemporaries in their respective fields, are almost the same age and go out together on occasion with the guys. When they do hit cantinas, I’m sure everyone else at the table uses , but my husband and Don Manuel insist on using usted.

Usted can be a way to demonstrate respect. My husband uses usted to let Manuel know that he admires his academic work and respects him as a person. The same goes for Don Manuel toward my husband. It’s just one of the many ways that one can use usted.

Experiencia #2

We hired a neighbor to help with household duties once a week. I soon discovered that we have a lot in common. As we grew closer, using usted became a little awkward.
One day Mari said to me, “Why don´t you use when we speak? Call me Mari, like everyone else.”
¡Qué bueno!” I said. “I’d like you to use also.”
It seemed to me to be the natural response, but Mari just looked at me blankly.
“You want me to use ? You don´t want me to call you señora?”

It has not been easy for Mari to get used to. Usted, in this case, is used to establish distance and a hierarchy. It lets it be known who is in charge. It sets boundaries. It makes it clear that this is a working relationship, in no way to be confused with a friendship.
Real life is a lot more complicated. People and their respective situations are a lot more complicated. I’m happy to say that Mari and I are breaking down those boundaries to begin to create a friendship within a working environment.

Vocabulary
Don – Used in a person’s name to show respect. Doña is the feminine equivalent.
Sirvienta – Servant, used to describe the person who helps with household or kitchen duties.
Experiencia – Experience
¡Qué bueno! – That´s good!