Everything I Know About Spanish I Learned from AMLO

Some people learn Spanish by memorizing verb conjugations and vocabulary lists. Others – the more fortunate among us – seem to just soak it in through books, movies and songs. Still others go the language-exchange route, honing their Spanish chops with a conversation partner in what often turn out to be transparent preludes to a pickup attempt.

Me? I learned my Spanish from AMLO.

AMLO is Andres Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican politician, former mayor of Mexico City, two-time Presidential candidate and two-time victim of electoral fraude. This post isn’t about his politics, though, but about his language.  You see, unlike the technocratic, triangulating, telepromptered, say-nothing-but-say-it-pretty crowd of formless fluffballs that have come to occupy our television screens like scarecrows in a fallow field, AMLO has a way with words that years of media feeding frenzies have been unable to hammer out of him. He’s from the coastal state of Tabasco, you see, where saucy speech comes with the territory. All of which makes him, hands down, the best Spanish teacher I’ve ever had.


It was AMLO, for example, who taught me that a good for nothing is a mequetrefe.mequetrefe who steals an election is an espurio (yes, the word “spurious” also exists in English, but without anywhere near the same edge to it). But the real power behind the throne is the mafia de poder, the power mafia, making the espurio nothing more than a pelele, a rag doll. And when the power mafia and their allies amongst the delincuentes de cuello blanco (white-collar delincuents) put on their little ceremonies like the Grito de la Independencia as if the espurio were actually legítimo, such spectacles are nothing more than faramallas, empty shows, or rather, numeritos – “little numbers”.

As you can imagine, AMLO’s plain-speaking ways have at times gotten him into trouble, as when, during the 2006 presidential campaign, he referred to then-president Vicente Fox as a chachalaca, apparently a rather noisy little bird and the rough equivalent of a chatterbox. Pretty mild stuff from an extranjero‘s point of view, but in Mexico, where the figure of the president has been historically sacrosanct, it amounted to high insult.


Undeterred, AMLO has continued to tour the country, calling a spade a spade. Legislators – or anyone – who need to show some backbone need to fajarse los pantalones, or tighten up their pants. In order to keep an adversary under close watch, AMLO recommends that you traerlo a mecate corto, or keep them on a short rope. In the fight against drug trafficking, one must be intelligent in order giving un garrotazo a lo tonto al avispero, or  stupidly whacking the hornet’s nest. President Peña Nieto, who has a penchant for skipping the country when things get hot, is a candil de la calle y oscuridad de la casa, or, roughly, the “lamp in the street and the darkness at home”. In a neat example of a culinary metaphor, the unconditional support Peña – who is famed for having very little between the ears – received from the television station Televisa during the campaign of 2012 was a case of inflar a un merengue, or inflating a meringue.

And, of course, all the spicy language that is to come as AMLO gears up to run for president again in 2018. A feliz navidad to all, and happy Spanish learning!


Only Spanish Says “Fuck You” With Class

Everyone who’s slogged through Beginning Spanish knows that there are two registers for referring to people: the informal (and, in some places, vos) and the formal usted. This distinction, so natural to native speakers, tends to tie English speakers into protocolar knots. When do I refer to someone with one form or the other? Will I sound too stiff and awkward if I use usted? Or worse, will the person I’m talking to think that I think they’re old? But will sound too chummy, too igualado (someone who dares to consider himself on the same level as the person he’s speaking to – horror). What do I do in emails that are kind of semi-formal? And hey, what about X person who began addressing with someone with usted and wound up using , or vice versa?  And so on.

What is not often taken into account in this consideration of register is that the tú/usted distinction extends to every situation life throws at us. Not just basic, textbook greetings or emails of ambiguous formality, but also social situations of the most sensitive nature. In Spanish, for example, you can not only rip someone a new asshole, but do it with class, that is, with usted. I know, because I’ve seen it done. Although you might think the piercing aggressiveness of many insults would lend themselves by default to the use of , Spanish speakers, even in the most heated of disputes, take remarkable care to calibrate their register. Thus, if you wish to transmit the desire that your interlocutor engage in sexual intercourse with his or her female procreator, you can say ¡Chinga tu madre! (tú) or ¡Chingue usted a su madre! (usted). If, after getting your own back with someone who cut you off in traffic, you wish to accompany your colorful hand motion – for example, the famous Mexican “¡Huevos!” gesture – with a suitable epithet, you can choose between ¡Ten! (Take that! – ) or ¡Tenga! (??? – usted). I was once picked up at the Querétaro bus station by a taxi that apparently was only authorized to drop off, but not pick up passengers. We were followed out of the terminal by another taxi which proceeded to draw abreast of ours at a stop light and dress our driver down with such vehemence that I started making contingency plans for when he jumped out of his vehicle with a bat. But – crucial point – at no point in this irate and expletive-filled rant did he vary from the use of usted. Perhaps tellingly, the dispute did not go beyond words.

insultar con respeto

In the semantic world of English, of course, such conjugation-driven code switching is not grammatically available. That does not mean, however, that the concept does not exist, only that we have to resort to more creative forms of register mixing to arrive at the same effect. “Would you consider fucking your mother?” “Might I suggest that you fuck your mother?” or even “Here’s an idea! How about you go and fuck your mother and then you come back and tell us all about it!” are about as close as we can hope to get to Chingue usted a su madre. The problem is, unless you’re a member of the landed aristocracy, such phrases (including delightful variants such as Fucketh Thine Self) are always used in an ironic manner, the mocking formality only adding fuel to the fire of the original insult. This is not to say that the Spanish usted insult cannot be used ironically – of course it can – but I would argue that it is much more often an expression, even in the depths of one’s rage, of the key underlying element to all social interaction in Latin countries: respeto. Respect.

Another situation that tends to scramble English-speakers’ circuits is the formal imperative: that is, the giving of orders with usted. A daughter will dump a load of dirty dishes into the sink and tell her slothful father: Lávelos. Wash them, paternal authority figure. A shopper buying flowers in the market will tell the seller: Déme una docena. Give me a dozen, person I don’t know and may very well not care to. The ability to give orders with usted opens up a nuanced social space allowing one to lay down the law and be nice about it. It doesn’t necessarily follow, of course, that the orderer, in his heart, really respects the person he’s ordering any more than a person whose language does not offer him the option, but does have at his disposal a protocol to follow that enables him to act as if he did. And in most everyday social interactions, let’s be honest, that’s usually enough.

Insulto 2

This being said, Spanish is far from being the only language which distinguishes between formal and informal registers in this way. French learners struggle between tu and vous, Italian learners between tu and Lei, and, for those intrepid enough to take on German, the choice is between du and Sie. And so on. In none of these languages, however – and please correct me if I’m wrong – have I noticed such an extensive use of the formal-register insult. A angry French speaker might suggest that you cut short whatever it is you’re saying with a snappy Ferme ta guele! but I have never heard one say Fermez votre guele! (Although I admit, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy came somewhat close in the 2012 presidential debate when he accused his rival François Hollande, nostrils aflaring and with the appropriately formal vous, of being a “little slanderer“). I have never heard an Italian formally recommend that one retire for the purposes of defecating, although apparently it does occur. And an irate German might spit out a Verpiss dich! but rarely, if ever, a Verpissen Sie! In the category of insulting with respect, Spanish – and more specifically, Latin American Spanish – is in a class all of its own.

¡Chingado! My Top Five Writing Challenges in Spanish

habla español

As of ten days ago, I’ve lived in Mexico for fourteen years. I conduct my daily life in Spanish and write, publish and perform in the language. And yet, to this day, there are elements of my beloved adopted tongue that continue to elude me. Following are my top five.

1.) Words that have different meanings in their masculine and feminine form. Like modern German, English once divided its nouns into three genders – masculine, feminine and neutral – but along the way, it ditched them. Romance languages such as Spanish retain the first two. And, of course, unlike the biological gender distinction of English’s he/she, his/her couplings, this type of gender is what is known in the lingo as “grammatical” gender: which means, for the most part, it’s completely arbitrary. Now, all of this is fine until they go and come up with words that have one meaning when they’re masculine and another entirely when they’re feminine. For example, the first sentence of my short story Fosa (“Grave” or “Pit”) reads as follows: Germán me llama después de que la primera de las palas toca hueso. Translated, it reads: “Germán calls me after the first of the shovels touches bone”. In my initial version of the story, I wrote el primero de los palos, making it masculine instead of feminine. Now, “un palo” is a stick; “una pala” is a shovel. Hence, unbeknownst to me, my first sentence originally had Germán calling the narrator after the first of the sticks touched bone. As this is also a plausible sentence, no one caught it. But it’s not what I wanted to say.

2.) The prepositions “para” and “por”: the bane of the existance of every learner of Spanish-as-a-foreign-language of all times. In the most felicitous of cases, “para” translates as for and “por” translates as by. Except when they don’t. When you vote for somebody (for whatever good that does), you vote “por” them. When you thank someone for something, you’re thanking them “por” whatever they did. Spanish teachers come armed to their “por/para” class with a whole laundry list of cases in which you use the one or the other, but unless you were born into it, it all seems like a giant conspiracy to wring two practically identical prepositions out of one. In a rather ironic parody of Stephen Pinker’s Words and Rules, unable to grasp the rule, I’ve resorted to memorizing individual cases. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can sort of “feel” the difference. But I still have to check every now and again.

3.) Register. Register is “a variety of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting”. Basically, it refers to formal vs. informal language and all the shades and nuances in between. Mastering register – not what to say but how to say it – is one of the most challenging parts of learning a foreign language (a great deal of Monty Python’s humor, for example, comes from their deliberate manipulation of register; think “The Parrot Sketch”), and in speaking, I think I’ve got it pretty much down. In writing, however, things still come up. In another section of Fosa, I wrote:

Pero por más que Gil crea que su cargo de libros sin valor lo ampare del interés de cualquier malhechor, yo soy más abusado. Suscitar el disgusto de algún funcionario con ganas de lucrar con su mercancía presupone que llegue a buen puerto.

Tentative translation: “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am not so naive. Arousing the displeasure of some official desirous of profiting with his merchandise presupposes his getting there in the first place.”

Besides its more obvious meaning of “abused,” abusado also means “clever” or “sharp”. ¡Ponte abusado!, for example, would translate to something like: “Wise up!” Besides being a particularly Mexican slang term (see point #4 below), it is also a spoken-register word. Now, there is nothing wrong with using spoken-register words in writing (literature has been heading ever more in that direction over the last hundred years), but in the context of the high-register content surrounding it, and the arousing of displeasure that occurs immediately after it, it jars. When a trusted reader pointed this out, I went back and, after long deliberation, changed abusado to curtido en batallas. Now the sentence reads, “However much Gil may believe that his shipment of worthless books shields him from any criminal attentions, I am more battle-hardened.” Besides being more register-consistent, it is also, in my opinion, a straight-up improvement over the original.

It is worth noting, as well, that the average written register of contemporary Spanish tends to be higher than in contemporary English. This is not a value judgment, but simply a register measurement.

4.) Mexicanisms. Regionalisms abound in every language, of course. And not only is it a phenomenon of different words, but the same words meaning different things in different places: “pants” means one thing to Americans and something rather intimate for the British, I once learned to my chagrin while living in London. This is all the more true with Spanish, it being the official language of some 20 countries. One meaning of “pendejo” in Mexico is someone who is taken advantage of; a Peruvian pendejo is the one taking the advantage. A Mexican “huevón” is a lazy-ass; in Peru, that same huevón can be anyone, lazy or not.

I write – proudly – in Mexican Spanish. This poses some interesting dilemmas regarding when to use regional speech and when to hew to some kind of straight-and-narrow, though artificial, pan-Hispanic Spanish. Indeed, it is often difficult to know what may be a Mexicanism and what may not be! Case in point: in the original version of Fosa, Álvaro considers his son Gil to be precisely a “pendejo” for being willing to blithely deliver school textbooks to the most violent, ravaged parts of Mexico; in the published version, “pendejo” became replaced with the more pan-Hispanic “imbécil”. Consider, too, that Álvaro was born in Spain but came to Mexico as a child; to what extent would he retain his native vocabulary and to what extent would he have taken on that of his adopted country? In the story, he is back in his hometown in Spain; would that homecoming have triggered a renewed use of his childhood speech? And what would come out at a highly emotional moment? At the story’s climax, he shouts into the phone that the grave being dug up is located under a pinche olivo – a “fucking olive tree”. But pinche is very, very Mexican. Upon further consideration, I changed pinche to the more standard maldito, making the olive tree more goddamned than anything else.

(Mind you, I don’t always scrub out the Mexicanisms; this just happens to be two cases when I did. In the last movement of my Symphony in prose, currently in the works, the main character is a first-person, Mexican narrator, and there, I let the Mexicanisms fly.)

5. False Cognates: false cognates or, more dramatically, “false friends,” are words that look the same in both languages but have different meanings: classic example is the Spanish “actual”, which, actually, means “current” in English in the sense of something happening presently. Or, even more trickily, the word may be a true friend, meaning the same thing in both languages, but may not apply to all of the same cases. In Fosa, one of the characters above states that the fucking olive tree of Point #4 is not indigenous to Mexico. Following the same logic, I wrote: No es un árbol indígena al lugar. But in Spanish, indigenous is not used with reference to flora: the correct word is oriundo or perhaps endémico.

Needless to say, all of this is what makes me love writing in Spanish all the more.