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!


Escaping the Realism Trap, or Why I Write in Spanish

stop making sense

At readings or in interviews, I am inevitably asked: “If your first language is English, why do you write in Spanish?” The underlying implication, it often seems, is that one should write in one’s mother tongue, and that it is almost unnatural that one doesn’t (Steiner writes of this historical suspicion of polyglots and translators in After Babel). Another implication is that, as the literary market for English is so much larger than the corresponding one for Spanish, I am effecitively shooting myself in the foot by choosing to write in the latter: a sort of literary malinchismo writ large. There are, in fact, a lot of reasons why I choose to write in Spanish. The first and foremost of those is that I live in Mexico and am a naturalized Mexican citizen. The second is that writing in a language that is not originally my own allows me a distance from myself, a capacity for reinvention, which is fundamental for breaking through the solipsist lurking just beneath the surface of any writer. The third is that the act of writing in another language forces me to write more slowly, more contemplatively, rather than skimming along the surface of my native tongue. Fourth, Spanish is a beautiful language with an eminent literary history all its own that I am proud to be a very small part of.

And here’s another reason. In a recent article for The Observer entitled, “Experimental Fiction: Is It Making a Comeback?”, William Skidelsky, himself paraphrasing Zadie Smith, writes that in healthy times, the realist and the avant-garde literary traditions would “comfortably coincide” (I find that in itself far too neat, but let’s continue for the sake of argument). But these clearly aren’t healthy times, as evidenced by the fact that, in the anglophone world, the realists rule the roost: “A breed of lyrical realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked.” Skidelsky continues, “The well-made realist novel, inherited from the 19th century, is what we are stuck with now, and even if we aren’t excessively fond of it, it seems to be pretty much all we have.”

This sort of realism (the kind that, as Cortázar writes, that smugly continues to believe that everything can be described and explained within the parameters of Enlightenment philosophy), stifles me. In fact, I have recently taken to composing a series of Aphorisms Against Realism on my Facebook and Twitter pages in order to explain both to myself and others exactly why that is. When I pick up an issue of Harper’s or The New Yorker to read the short story, I do so by force rather than volition: unless the issue happens to be dabbling in a bit of Latin-American “exoticism” by a Bolaño or the like, I hold my breath and go back in the windowless, airtight rooms just to see if something, anything has changed since I left. In today’s anglophone world, the fate of genuine literary creativity, more often than not, are the ghettos of what is known, pejoratively, as genre fiction.

Fortunately, this trend does not necessarily hold for the rest of the world. As Skidelsky points out, “[t]he assumption that genuine experimentation is no longer possible is in many ways a parochial quirk of the anglophone world. Things are very different, for example, in Latin America, where anti-realist techniques have long been part of the mainstream…” I recently finished Adolfo Bioy Casares’ masterpiece La invención de Morel and was blown away by the visionary and philosophical fantasy wedded to the most precise, the most literary, the most scientifically realistic of language. Yes, the novel was written back in 1940. Yes, America has had its Barths, its Pynchons and its Vonneguts since then. But it’s funny: just as our technology traps us ever more in its virtual world – precisely as Morel’s invention does to Bioy’s fated protagonist – mainstream anglophone literature has chosen to enclose itself atavistically in a throwback trap: the positivism of a bygone world. I put down Bioy Casares’ novel and, wrapped in the glow of the awestruck reader, said to myself: I’m home.

P.S. To be fair, Skidelsky’s piece mentions a series of current anglophone authors writing experimental fiction (the fact that it’s called “experimental” showing in and of itself how much realism rules), among them Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which I went right out and bought. I’ll share my comments in a future post.

Aforismos anti-realistas / Aphorisms Against Realism


1.) El realismo es el derviado del fracaso de la imaginación. / Realism is the by-product of the failure of the imagination.

2.) El realismo es una asfixia voluntaria. / Realism is a voluntary asphyxiation.

3.) El realismo es la tentativa de tapar el siglo veinte con un dedo. / Realism is an attempt to pretend that the twentieth century never happened.

4.) El realismo es una choza de lámina en medio de un vendaval. / Realism is a tin shack in the midst of a gale.

5.) El realismo es reacomodar los muebles y creerse en otra sala. / Realism is rearranging the furniture and believing oneself to be in another room.

6.) El arte imaginativo crea, produce, conoce. El realismo, en cambio, recrea, reproduce, reconoce. / Imaginative art creates, produces, cognizes. Realism, in contrast, recreates, reproduces, recognizes.

7.) El realismo es una reclusión voluntaria en el carcel de los sentidos. / Realism is a voluntary reclusion in the prison of the senses.