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!


Quinto Sol said...

That is WAY too funny :-)

Dahlia said...

Not quite the same situation but I once told a whole class that i was "muy embarazada" to give a speech. After a whole lot of staring, the teacher told me that I wasn't pregnant, but embarrassed.

Alan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alan said...

There are also many differences in different cities in Mexico. For example, someone say "ya fuistes al jale", or "ya jalaste" where in some cities the closest meaning is to work (trabajar, trabajaste), but in Sinaloa has a total and different meaning.

Your blog is cool teacher x10.

Dani said...

Interesting linguistic note for you: the Spanish spoken by New Mexicans (particularly those of Spanish decent from small mountain towns such as my family) is different from Mexican Spanish and really any other dialects...

It always makes for fun confusion when my mom helps my sister with her Spanish homework.