In our everyday speech, we use sayings naturally — without ever considering that their literal meaning would be incomprehensible for a foreigner learning the language. Are you in a downpour? Then it’s raining cats and dogs. Will you care for two matters on the same trip? Then you are killing two birds with one stone. Did you accidentally reveal a confidential tidbit? Then you let the cat out of the bag.
In the same way, Mexican Spanish is littered with colorful sayings whose literal meaning may perplex you. Let’s unpack seven common sayings, so that they will be at your ready command.
1. Hay pa’ aventar pa’ arriba.
Literal meaning: There is [enough] to throw upwards.
The airspace above your home or workplace is infinite. Suppose you were to begin tossing some of your belongings skyward. When would it fill up? Never! That’s the idea behind this clever local saying. If you have an excess of something, then the sky’s the limit.
Después de la boda, todos nuestros amigos nos mandaron las fotos que sacaron. Ahora hay pa’ aventar pa’ arriba.
(After the wedding, all of our friends sent us the pictures they took. Now we’ve got pictures coming out of our noses.)
2. Entre menos burros, más olotes.
Literal meaning: The fewer donkeys, the more corn cobs.
Did fewer guests than expected show up at your dinner party? Don’t fret. Look at the bright side. There’s more food and drink for everyone else! That’s the basis for this barnyard wisdom. If your party of 12 just became a party of eight, fire off this optimistic adage — even if it is a little “corny.”
A: No vinieron los Vargas.
B: Entre menos burros, más olotes.
A: The Vargas family didn’t show up.
B: Great! There’s more for us.
3. Se cree la divina garza.
Literal meaning: He thinks he’s the divine heron.
Ever met someone who thought they were God’s gift, better than everyone else? Mexican actress María Félix once boasted:
Yo no me creo la divina garza; soy la divina garza. (I don’t think I’m God’s gift; I am God’s gift.)
4. Dar el gatazo
Literal meaning: to give the cat a slap.
According to an article on the website of the Mexican Radio Institute (IMER), this phrase is a derivative of dar gato por liebre. This literally means to give a cat instead of a hare. In most Spanish-speaking countries, this saying is applied when a salesman gives us the switcheroo and sells us inferior goods. The implication is that our intention was to buy a hare, but the salesman sold us a cat instead. Mexicans took the gato from the phrase to form this phrasal verb, which means “to look like.” In other words, even though the item being discussed is not the original, it could pass for it.
Esta refacción no es Toyota original, pero da el gatazo.
(This part is not genuine Toyota, but it could pass for it.)
5. Un ojo al gato, y el otro, al garabato.
Literal meaning: One eye on the cat, and the other on the meat hook.
Imagine the scene at home in the kitchen back in our grandparents’ day. There’s no refrigeration. The meat hangs from above on a hook, called a garabato, thus out of the reach of rodents. But watch out for the family cat! An agile leap could be the end of the family meal. Clearly, the meat had to be protected from multiple dangers. This saying, then, means that we shouldn’t focus on just one possible threat, but rather, remain on high alert for anything that may happen. For example, a friend may leave your home late at night in a bad rainstorm and have to traverse a dangerous neighborhood to get home. You might say to him in parting:
Amigo, está lloviendo fuerte y hay muchos rateros por aquí. Así que, un ojo al gato, y el otro, al garabato.
(Hey, buddy, it’s raining hard and there are a lot of thieves around here. So be on high alert!)
6. Quedarse como el perro de las dos tortas
Literal meaning: to end up like the dog with two sandwiches.
What a dilemma! A dog loiters just in front of a stand where tortas, hoagie-like sandwiches, are sold. Suddenly, a stroke of fortune comes his way when two tortas fall to the ground. Upon which of the two does he pounce? This one? That one? This one? Before he decides, other animals rush in for the steal; he is left with nothing. This saying is applied when indecision and perhaps a little greed leave us empty-handed.
Pedro comenzó a noviar con Ariana y Selena al mismo tiempo. ¡Pobrecito! Quedó como el perro de las dos tortas.
(Pedro started dating Ariana and Selena at the same time. The poor guy ended up with neither one!)
7. Aquí solo mis chicharrones truenan.
Literal meaning: Here only my pork rinds thunder.
Picture yourself back in the day, ready for the family meal. On the menu is chicharrón, or pork rinds. Who gets first dibs? The father, of course. He selects the largest and crunchiest piece. When he tears it in two, according to this saying, it thunders. Nothing captures macho authority better than this. It means: I am the only one in charge here. For example, a family may be discussing possible vacations destinations. Frustrated and angered by the lack of consensus, the father may finally blurt out:
¡Ya basta! ¡Vamos a Cancún! Aquí mis chicharrones truenan.
(That’s enough! We are going to Cancún. I am the only one in charge here.)
Learning and using Mexican Spanish sayings in everyday conversation will add color to your speech. Hungry for more? Review the article Make your Spanish more Mexican with these 10 everyday phrases, which appeared on Mexico News Daily in December or check out 20 ways to speak Mexican Spanish on insiderspanish.com.
Lee Jamison has lived and worked in Latin America for more than 25 years and is a resident of Mexico. He operates the site insiderspanish.com and is the author of the book My Burning Tongue: Mexican Spanish available in paperback and Kindle formats at Amazon.com. He has also written guides on the Spanish spoken in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama.