Part 3: Proverbs, ‘Dichos’ and Mexican Behavior

Life in Mexico is filled with a variety of socially important and colorful customs, and they tell us a lot about the culture. It has been a custom of lower and middle class boys and young men in their 20s, for example, to gather at street corners in evenings, and wait for girls. Some make outright sexual proposals to girls passing by and most follow the ritualized custom of calling out ‘piropos’ or flirtatious comments to girls who appear attractive to them, a tradition said to have originated among Spain’s gypsies in medieval times. The workers on our roof right now are not given to poetry, or even flattering language of the common piropo type, like ‘Dios mio, tanta curva y yo soy sin frenos’ .. ‘My God, so many curves and me without brakes.’ Instead they give a hearty wolf whistle as if it’s all the time they have for. If you hear these piropos just ignore them, not like an American student of mine last year who was unable to ignore them, in whatever form they came to her. ‘What am I going to do?’ She asked, wringing her hands in frustration. ‘They’re probably telling you how pretty you are’ I replied, almost adding

Mexicans love to quote proverbs. Many of them serve the status quo and postpone debate on pressing problems. ‘El que no tranza no avanza’, or ‘whoever doesn’t trick or cheat gets nowhere.’ Better ‘trick’ or ‘cheat’ than direct confrontation because many Mexicans still hold the belief that after controversy there is no reconciliation. This attitude is not hard to understand; everything divides people in Mexico – geography, ethnicity, religion, class, money.. And their complicated relationships with colonial and imperial powers in the past have added to their mistrust of others as well as made them resistant to collective action. There’s still that ‘us versus them’ mentality, unfortunately, as seen in this proverb: ‘Amisdad que no se refleja en la nómina no es amistad’, a cynical quote meaning ‘ friendship that is not reflected in the payroll isn’t friendship’. Or ‘con dinero baila el perro, si esta amaestrado’ – ‘properly trained and paid a dog will dance’. In Mexico the family is the locus of trust, solidarity and support; generally family counts, group efforts don’t. In art, for example, individuals stand out, Frieda and Rivera, Orozco; even the conquest of America was not the work of Spain but primarily the achievement of individual adventurers. The drug cartels reveal their passion for flaunting power and wealth, and with the obvious risk of capture, doing it all ‘alone.’ Not too surprising, as officials for centuries have interpreted the laws according to ways that would benefit themselves, their families and friends. ‘Personalísimo’, a concept best understood as behavior controlled by a code, rather than laws, logic, fairness or equality. ‘En la boca cerrada, no entran moscas’, ‘flies don’t enter a closed mouth’. We’ve all noticed the absence of competition in the economy and in the political arena.. ‘Es mejor decir aquí corrió, que aquí murió.’ .. ‘It’s better to say he ran here than he died here.’ Even today the most influential corporations in Mexico are controlled by families, limiting the expansion of public ownership and frustrating the average Mexican. ‘Ni modo’, they say, which can be interpreted as ‘why bother, it’s no good to try..’ It’s an expression of resignation. Why don’t Mexicans turn up on time for an appointment, we wonder. Why don’t they get health insurance..? ‘Ojala,’they say, ‘God willing’. ‘Ojala que lo tenga el próximo año.’ God knows what the future will bring, man does not. And time, being the cheapest commodity around, is on their side – anything can be accomplished by waiting.
A discussion of national characteristics of a people has serious limitations and superficialities. Stereotyping is offensive and labeling individuals as well as groups is damaging. This ‘talk’ has attempted only to highlight some ‘Mexicanisms’, both linguistically and culturally. ‘Ojalá que sea divertido’ .. I hope ( God willing ) it’s at least fun.


Part 2: Spanish Slang and Idioms in Mexico

Mexican Spanish abounds in slang, especially insults. It’s as colorful and as loud as a pinata. A bribe, for example, is a ‘mordida’, literally a ‘bite.’ To be drunk is to ‘paracer arana fumigada’, or seem like a fumigated spider, or ‘andar bien burro’, to ‘go very donkey,’ to be smashed. Carl Franz in ‘A People’s Guide to Mexico’ says humor is used by Mexicans to poke fun at adversity, to ridicule and laugh at his own condition, and to thereby spiritually surmount his circumstances. I think the average Mexican has a great sense of humor. ‘Hacer puente’ is to us a strange idiom, it means to take a long weekend by taking a day off either before and after a holiday. A ‘gallo’ is a brave man and, understandably, a ‘gallina’ is a coward. They have – surprise – a hundred ways to mean ‘hit’ or ‘beat up’, such as ‘dar en la torre’ ( to give in the tower, to hit someone’s block off ), ‘dar corte’ ( to cut down ), ‘dar la calentadita’ ( give a little work-over, a little heating up ), ‘dar en la madre’ ( to give in the mother, to hurt someone where he or she is vulnerable ), ‘hacer tortilla a alguien’ ( to break or crush like eggs for an omelette ), ‘hace puree a alguien’ ( to make someone into a puree, to do serious physical or mental damage )… and the list goes on, like the verb ‘madrear’ or ‘desmadrar’, meaning give a major in ‘they’re going to give me a major beating if they see me at school with this pink shirt on..’ ‘ Mentar la madre’ ( mention the mother ) means to insult someone by suggesting the moral impurity of his or her mother. Did you notice the word ‘madre’ in these verbs? And yet ‘madre’ or mother is the paragon of Latin American society, suggests a young Mexican friend of mine. ‘Que padre’ is like saying ‘how cool’, and ‘padrisimo’ is ‘the very best’; but ‘decir madres’ is to say crude, disgusting things; ‘echar madres’ ( throw mothers) means about the same. And ‘valemadrisimo’ is an expression of indifference. ‘Me vale madre’ means ‘I don’t give a damn.’ And yet ‘what would happen if mother wasn’t here?” my young friend asks, expecting the answer to be obvious. Why the ambiguity, I wonder, attached to females in this country? The eagle and the serpent, both sides to one face perhaps..  the Malinche figure, the Indian princess given as a mistress to Cortez, the traitor and the sexually violated, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, representing purity, suffering and sacrifice. Both faces. Sleeping with the enemy – La Malinche; the mother of all Mexican people – the Virgin of Guadalupe. Mexicans love to diminutize, ‘casa’ becomes ‘casita’, ‘poco’ becomes ‘poquito’. Some feel the objective is to reduce the importance of things, to bring them down where one doesn’t have to be, or shouldn’t be, concerned with them. And maybe this is true. I just find it funny, especially when they say to me something like, ‘It won’t take long, solo un ratito.’ ‘North Americans magnify things,’ a major writer states, ‘Mexicans shrink them.’ Possibly, but frankly ‘me importa un comino’.. it’s unimportant, it matters to me a cumin seed.

Culture in Mexico as Expressed in its Language

Language learning is cultural learning. And nowhere is that more evident than in Mexico. This ‘talk’ will attempt to examine this concept in three parts; the first, formalities and rituals; the second, Spanish slang and idioms; and the third, proverbs, ‘dichos’ and Mexican behavior.
Mexicans appreciate the art of eloquence. Conversations begin with polite and formal exchanges and then slowly move toward the subject matter. Mexicans are indirect speakers, avoiding clear-cut statements. I like one chapter in the book ‘Mañana Forever’ called ‘Never Put Up a Fight You Can Avoid’ in which the author, himself Mexican, states that elaborate formulae of verbal courtesy and the use of the subjunctive are defenses against verbal abuse. Mexicans have had a history of having to exercise caution towards their superiors, ward off negative reactions with flattery, and although face-to-face criticism may no longer be the matter of survival it once was, speaking with politeness and formality is still a deeply entrenched custom. When Mexicans say, “No tiene educación” he is not talking about education in the school system; he’s saying that the person he’s talking about has failed to grasp the finer points of Mexican culture ie. good manners. Speaking aggressively and frankly is viewed as an insult to one’s ‘dignidad’, which De Mente says in ‘Mexican Cultural Code Words’ represents an unbounded need to be respected regardless of the cost to the individual, family members or strangers. Emphasizing style and form rather than substance, keeping things vague and uncertain, downplaying anything that might attract attention and result in some kind of disharmony is general mode of self-expression. In ‘Mañana Forever’ Castañeda concedes these anxieties are understandable in a country founded on the conquistador’s brutal conquest of American’s indigenous people and later invaded by the French and the American army.
So, be happy to inflict your fledging Spanish on anyone who will listen, not just drop into a shop and look around without saying ‘hello’ or ‘good-bye’. Remember to say ‘adios’ or ‘hasta luego’. Better still, if you’re leaving a shop, say ‘gracias’ or ‘buy amable’, or both. Spanish requires more spoken formalities than English which is good because it supplies us with lots of opportunity for practicing those key words and phrases. Skipping over the formalities will tag you as a gringo from the get-go which is what you’d like to avoid. These phrases will get you through 90percent of your daily encounters… ‘Como esta? Cómo le va? Qué hay de nuevo? Qué tal? Qué onda? Qué paso?’ Greet everyone possible, and greet them individually. An older person can be greeted with ‘Buenos Dias, Sr. Alvarez’, a same-aged friend with ‘que tal? Cómo estas? Qué paso?’ The boss can be addressed with ‘Muy buenos dias, Sr. Álvarez. Como le va?’ And don’t forget your magic words like ‘con permiso’… ‘Perdon’ .. ‘Me permite?’ ‘Se puede’? A linguistic nicety is asking permission… We ask a person permission to squeeze by them in a crowd or on a crowded sidewalk . ‘Se puede’ is used to ask to see something in a store . Say ‘gracias’ when someone says ‘saludos’ to you through another person: ‘saludarme a tu esposa.’ Always use ‘por favor’ when you wish to say ‘please’.. and if you’re tired of using it, and you want to flex some Spanish-speaking muscles in say, a cafe, use ‘si es tan amable’ before your request. When you’re passing someone eating, say ‘buen provecho’ . In terms of taking your leave say ‘nos vemos’ or ‘que le vaya bien’ or ‘que te vaya bien’, and ‘con permiso’ to the others staying behind.
‘Mexico is a country of rituals’ wrote Paz in his book ‘What We All Need to Know About Mexico.’ Both Spanish and Indian heritage, he writes, have influenced a fondness for ceremony, order and tradition. Morality in this country is based on face, image and reputation rather than laws or a Christian concept of sin. The important thing is social consequence; what can be seen is important. When Mexicans do something wrong it is often blamed on outside forces, such as dropping and breaking a glass. ‘Se me cayo’ or ‘it dropped itself to me.’ Any textbook on Spanish grammar can find this concept usually titled under ‘unplanned ocurrances’. I didn’t plan to break the glass, I didn’t plan to forget, or burn my jacket, or leave it behind… It just happened. By using a few wee pronouns a speaker can avoid the responsibility of making or allowing something to happen. This grammatical structure and its constant use can perhaps be seen as a cultural phenomena in that Mexicans can be seen as having a built-in victim mentality, a product of more than 400 years of physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual abuse.
When people of different socioeconomic status meet, the individual with the socially ascribed inferior status will wait for the other to define the terms of the encounter. The one of inferior status will use ‘Ud.’ And the other of superior status will use ‘tu.’ Gender, age and personal relationships are important in determining vocabulary. Social harmony is not yet quite based on principles of equality between men and women although perceptions of masculinity and femininity are shifting, driving a new Mexico towards a proud and less self-conscious identity.
There are still very macho men living alongside horribly suffering women, and distrust remains the long-term consequence of conflict, but Mexico is unique and we love it. It’s neither the eagle nor the snake and we’re fascinated by the duality. Mexico has two faces like a split personality, its Catholic exterior and its native interior, its sunny face and sad face, but we are drawn to it just the same.