Having lived in Mexico for 12% of my life, I find the Spanish language only a bit less bewildering than before I was a resident.
I am now resigned to the fact that I will never become fluent and now I only hope for acceptable mediocrity.
While struggling with my linguistic inadequacies, I have honed my communication skills by using a combination of hand gestures and street slang, both of which convey a more complex meaning than my clumsy attempts at proper elucidation.
As a gringo, my knowledge of hand gestures was limited to a middle finger thrust in the air or the OK formed with the thumb and index finger. It was only after a couple of years in my adopted country that I learned the OK in Mexico was not OK.
At first, I used the OK gesture liberally to signal agreement or acceptance because I lacked the verbal equivalent of articulate acknowledgment. Then one day my friend Juan explained that what I thought of as OK actually symbolized intense animosity by miming a normally concealed bodily orifice.
However, I did not allow my cultural insensitivity to deter my quest for Spanish language short cuts.
Sometimes hand gestures and slang are simultaneous actions, each reinforcing the other. One of the most common greetings between locals in Mexico is “Que onda,” a casual “what’s up” accompanied with a light palm slap and knuckle bump.
This is a very safe acknowledgment, between men, and will make the average Anglo more personable to a local.
Another greeting, “que pedo,” also means “what’s up?” and is used by the working class people amongst themselves and is rarely heard by foreigners. However the literal translation of que pedo is “what fart?”
This earthy salutation is for men only and can be a real ice-breaker with the local tradespeople i.e. plumbers, masons, carpenters, etc.
The Mexican culture goes further into flatulence humor with the expression, “No hay pedo,” which means, “it’s not important” or “it doesn’t matter.” The literal translation is “there is no fart.” This slang phrase is usually accompanied with the classic Mexican shoulder shrug. This expression is not to be used with middle or upper-class nationals; they are above such vulgarities.
Another popular combination of gesture and slang is when someone is described as being lazy. The gesture is a cupped palm facing upwards as if you are holding something heavy, accompanied with “Muy huevón.”
This combination refers to lifting massive huevos (eggs), which is slang for testicles. The meaning behind this is that a person’s testicles are so huge and heavy he is unable to rise to any occasion. This reference is either jocular or very insulting, depending on how well you know the recipient; use with caution.
When bargaining with vendors you may see a bystander, or even the vendor, bend their arm and tap their elbow with the palm of the other hand. This implies a person is a cheapskate or stingy and is accompanied with the term “muy codo.” This bit of body language is completely safe and will elicit smiles or laughter from the locals when Anglos use it on each other.
There are a number of websites with Spanish slang that can be explored and then incorporated into daily conversations with the natives. The majority of Mexicans appreciate foreigners that attempt to communicate in Spanish and sometimes find the use of slang as a unique measure of a person’s cultural depth.
The key is to know when and where to use your new-found vernacular; this is a very important point. Several years ago, my Captured Tourist Woman and I were having a lovely dinner in a posh Mexico City restaurant when I extolled the quality of the experience with a colorful bit of street slang.
This same phrase always garnered smiles, laughs and hardy guffaws from folks in cantinas and taco stands. However, in Mexico City, the most sophisticated province in Mexico, I was castigated with looks of distain and revulsion that even a gargantuan tip could not defray.
So, choose both your patois and its beneficiary with caution, but by all means, go forth and have fun with slang.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.