Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Speaking Mexican

"Oh, so you must speak really good Mexican."

That phrase -- usually uttered by a well-intentioned family member/neighbor/co-worker/acquaintance/would-be friend after learning that I was traveling to/living in/coming back from/moving to somewhere in Mexico -- used to make me cringe.

"Mexican" is NOT a language, people.

At least that's what I used to think.

Spanish is the official language of Mexico. (Nerdy linguist note: There are hundreds of deliciously fascinating indigenous languages spoken here, too.) However, español's "official" status doesn't mean that the Spanish spoken in Mexico is the same as the Spanish spoken in, say, Cuba or Argentina or Nicaragua or even Spain.

(Perhaps English speakers can best appreciate this phenomenon when comparing the very-different brands of inglés spoken in the USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. To be "pissed" or to put something in a "boot" or to ask for a "rubber" mean very different things, you know, depending on which side of the Atlantic you're doing the talking.)

Anyway, the possibility of "Mexican" as its own language became very clear to be this past weekend, when I found myself in a bar in Oaxaca with a friend we'll call "V." V is from Madrid and is my next-door neighbor here in Huajuapan. She works at the same university as I do, doing research for her thesis. She's a smart, funny girl, and we've become fast friends.

V is endlessly delighted by the "mexicanismos" she's learned while living here in Oaxaca. Mexican slang, it turns out, is very very very different from Spanish slang. And because I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, I don't appreciate all of the differences because, well, I just don't know any better.

So, V and I are in the bar, accompanied by three other friends of V's, also from Spain. We're laughing and chatting and drinking lots of beer. Some live music starts (trova, for all of you acoustic fans) and the guitarist announces that we should all give a round of applause to Leticia, seated at the next table, who was celebrating her birthday that night.

So we all clap for Leticia. We're all so happy for Leticia. Birthdays are so exciting, Leticia.

Just as the applause starts to die down, V shouts out, "¡GUÁCALA, LETICIA!"

Now, it is important to note here that "guácala" roughly translates to "disgusting" in Mexican Spanish, meaning that V had essentially screamed:


So, of course, all heads in the crowded bar turn toward the direction of this bizarre insult, to our table. Who said that to Leticia? And on her birthday? What had Leticia done to deserve this? Poor Leticia!

Of course, such a stupid comment could have only come from a gringa, and I, the only blonde-haired person seated at the table full of Spaniards, was the likely culprit. I was beet red, partially out of embarrassment, but mostly because I was laughing so hard at V.

Me: Why the [insert choice curse word en español here] did you say that?!?

V: What?!? Doesn't 'guácala' mean 'congratulations'?

Me: No! It means 'disgusting.' Didn't you know that?

V: No! I've heard you say it before. I could've sworn it meant 'congratulations.'

The idea that I -- an Illinois-born, blonde-haired, freckle-faced gringa -- could possibly teach any kind of español to a native speaker of the language is mysterious enough. But the idea that V would have thought that 'guácala' was a good thing -- especially when I'd used the word in reaction to seeing dog poop or eating nasty-to-me food or walking through the bloody meat aisle at the market -- is even more mysterious. And kinda funny.

We apologized to Leticia. We cleared up the misunderstanding. We all had a good laugh. But the next time someone remarks on my ability to speak really good "Mexican," I'll probably accept the compliment with a smile. ¡Guácala!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The early bird makes lots of noise

Back when I was living in Chicago, I sometimes had trouble getting to sleep at night. My old neighborhood, Wrigleyville, was what some people might call acoustically interesting. The neighborhood surrounds Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and thusly is a mecca for late-night baseball, crowded post-game bars, screeching sirens, big buses, and, of course, the occasional pair of drunk Cubbie fans engaged in a rowdy rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the street. It's noisy.

During my stay in Wrigleyville, I was going to grad school and working a full-time job, so I wasn't getting that much sleep anyway. I was already awake at 3 am, studying or working or otherwise stressing myself out, so what was the bother in a little extra noise? I kind of liked the company, the thought of someone else awake at that God-forsaken hour.

Now I live in Huajuapan, a city that seems to go to sleep by about 8:30 pm. Long gone are the days of police sirens and drunken serenades. The place is dead quiet at night, save the chirping of crickets or the occasional dog bark.

Mornings, however, are a different story. On my first Sunday in Huajuapan, I woke up at about 6am to the sound of what I thought were gunshots. Big, explosive gunshots fired off at five-minute intervals. Given the fact that I'd moved to Huajuapan to escape a drug war in my former home of Culiacán, I was less than thrilled with the notion that the narcotrafficantes had followed me to Oaxaca. I lay stiffly in my bed, paralyzed by fear, anxiously waiting for the shooting to subside. Later that morning, when I worked up the courage to leave my apartment, I asked my neighbors about the noise.

Turns out it was coming from the church.

Wait, gunshots at the church?

Nope. It's actually fireworks. At 6 am. The folks running the show at the cathedral here in Huajuapan use fireworks (called cohetes -- rockets -- in Spanish) to call people to Sunday services. Something about the tradition dating back to the Spanish conquest, when the conquistadores used 'em to call folks down from the indigenous villages in the mountains.

Okay. But c'mon people. It's 2008, and the Spanish conquest wrapped about four centuries ago. Don't we have church bells to do that job now? Or maybe a simple, quiet announcement that church services start at 6am? But I'm here as an outsider. I'm here to learn, not to judge, so whatever. Fireworks at dawn is just dandy. At least it's the weekend, so I can roll over and fall asleep again when the fireworks wrap.

But lately, there's been more: Following the fireworks, there's now a full hour of loud organ music, singing and clapping at the church. Hymns at 100 decibels. Every Sunday for the past five weeks or so. So much for sleeping in on Sunday morning, but still, I can't judge.

This week, however, brought on the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. December 12 marks the celebration of Virgin of Guadalupe (Mexico's Virgin Mary), so now there's a fair going on in the street, building up to the big day. Normally, I'd be pleased with the prospect of a street fair -- it'd add some excitement to this little city. But the thing is, the fair starts up every morning with fireworks, a parade, and singing.

And by 'every,' I mean every day until December 12.

And by 'morning,' I mean 4:30 am.

Now I'm all for people celebrating their faith. I'm happy that they're happy, singing in the streets and banging drums and shooting off fireworks and whatnot. I'll even ignore the irony that all of this noise is coming from a religious celebration, instead of from drunken revelry like it was back in Chicago.

But 4:30 am?!? It's not even light outside, folks. And the drums wake up every damn dog in Huajuapan, so you have barking and howling on top of the parade noise. Wouldn't the Virgin be just as honored by a celebration at a more civilized hour, like 9:30 am? Or better yet, noon?

As the cliché goes, the early bird gets the worm. But not if you've made so much damn noise that you've scared all the worms away. La güera needs her beauty sleep, y'all.