La sirena

Lotería, el juego para todas las edades

When teaching Spanish, I always learn something new from my students, or rather mis estudiantes. Sometimes I don’t notice things that are part of our Mexican culture because they are just part of everyday life. For example, we don’t always notice daylight because it’s always there (in the daytime, of course) and we just take it for granted. In my Spanish classes, I just happen to take Spanish for granted. In fact, I’m rarely aware of which language I’m speaking. So when I’m supposed to be speaking English, I’m speaking Spanish, and vice versa.

So, today, we had a little bit of free class time so I decided to show a movie that was filmed in Spanish. Students just love watching movies in class. Rather than conversing in Spanish or doing more exercises. Well, I like to show movies in Spanish because this way they can learn something about Hispanic culture that they can’t learn from a textbook. A student had mentioned the Mexican movie Y tú mamá también earlier in the semester. In the culture section of our textbook SueñaGael García Bernal  is profiled and specifically mentions Y tú mamá también in his film credits. I thought this would be a good movie to teach students a little about Mexican culture and Mexican expressions, otherwise known as mexicanismos. Afterwards, the student who had originally mentioned the movie told me she thought the movie was a little racy. I have to admit that it is. I saw it at the show when it first came out. I was in a theater full of Mexicans at the Ford City Theaters and they were all shouting “¡Huy!” at some of the scenes at the end of the movie.

It seems that no matter what movie I show in class, a few students always comment about something in the movie that was offensive to them. All good movies will offend at least some of my students. Most of the other students love seeing the movie regardless of the content, whether deemed offensive or not. I’ve shown movies from México, Spain, Guatemala, Argentina, and the U.S. (in Spanish). They always seem to address some controversial topic such as sex, incest, murder, etc. and they usually have a tragic, depressing ending. But they are always good movies. The advantage of showing these movies is that I know none of my students saw them in their high school Spanish class. No sane high school teacher would dare show such risqué films without taking a chance of getting disciplined and/or fired. I teach at a university, so I have a little more liberty in film selection since all my students are older than eighteen.

Sometimes when students tell me they find a movie offensive because of too much violence or sex, I tell them that they may leave the class without penalty if they find the movie objectionable. No one ever leaves. In fact, they find the movie enthralling. So I just don’t understand why they complained in the first place. Perhaps, to clear their conscience. Besides, everyone loves Penelope Cruz movies and she hasn’t made a movie without any offensive topics. My favorite movie with her is the one where she plays a pregnant nun with AIDS.

On a couple of occasions, I offended some students unintentionally by playing Lotería. This is a board game similar to Bingo that I have been playing since I was a little boy. Every student gets a board with pictures of people and things such as La dama, El soldado, La rana, etc. There is a deck of cards with these same pictures. So I shuffle the cards and call out the names. If your board has the picture that I called out, you mark the picture with an uncooked pinto bean (provided by me, since students don’t happen to walk around carrying pinto beans with them, but I do). When you cover all the pictures with pinto beans, YOU WIN! And you shout ¡Lotería! at the top of your lungs and I give you a little prize like a packet of chiclets or something else that’s Mexican. This is a child’s game that you would think would not offend anyone. Well, if you thought that, you would be wrong!

Once, actually this happened several times, when I called, La sirena, a female student shrieked and said that the mermaid had exposed breasts. She was genuinely offended by the nudity. I didn’t know what to say. So I looked at the card of La sirena and sure enough she had exposed breasts! I’ve been playing Lotería my whole life and I never even noticed her exposed breasts. To me she was just a mermaid. A cartoon mermaid. All I ever saw was her long hair and her fish tail. I mean, if I saw a real mermaid in person, I wouldn’t be caught staring at her breasts!

Why didn’t I see La sirena‘s breasts before? I’m not sure. Probably because I always saw my mother breast-feeding my younger brothers. And in public, too! I remember my mother taking my brothers and me to the park to play in the playground and she would breast-feed my baby brother right there on the park bench. And she wasn’t alone, either! There were always at least two or three other mothers breast-feeding, too. Maybe I just view breasts differently from everyone else. Breasts were just part of my Mexican culture while growing up and I just never noticed them on La sirena or in movies until students point them out to me! ¡Ay! ¡Ay! ¡Ay!


El Paseo de la Reforma, México D.F.

Mexicanismos are words or phrases in Spanish that are unique to México, but may not be familiar to other Spanish speakers, also known as Hispanophones. French speakers are Francophones and English speakers are Anglo-Saxophones.

Anyways, in Mexico, people use words and phrases that are unique to that region and are commonly misunderstood by other Hispanophones. At UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago), we have graduate students who come from all over the Spanish-speaking world, most of whom specialize in linguistics. They can spot the dialect and region of most Spanish speakers almost immediately. Some have trouble identifying me because I have my American accent and I use words and phrases from almost every dialect that I’ve ever heard. I’m like a sponge in this regard. Sometimes, someone will throw their hands up in the air and just ask me where I’m from. They’re often surprised to hear that my parents were from México. My cousin’s husband thought I spoke with an Argentine accent. Once, a friend and I were speaking, and then I didn’t hear something she said. So, I said, “¿Mande?” and she said, “¡Ajá! You’re from Mexico!” That simple little mande gave me away as a Mexican.

Once, at the end of the semester, a professor from Argentina told us that she would bring us a torta for the last day of class. To most Mexicans and me. a torta is a type of sandwich that is served on a bun with meat and other condiments. I didn’t eat before class because I wanted to be polite and eat everything that was offered to me. Well, she came to class with a torta, but it was a cake, as in a pastry for dessert. I left the classroom hungry that day.

Another time, I brought some Thanksgiving leftovers to UIC for lunch. A graduate student from the Basque Country in Spain asked me what I was eating. I told her guajolote and camotes. She didn’t know what I was talking about. For her turkey was pavo not guajolote and yams or sweet potatoes were patatas not camotes because they didn’t differentiate between the different kinds of potatoes in Spain.

I have a friend who grew up in Seville, Spain, and we once had a minor misunderstanding. He told me that his car had broken down: “Se me estropeó el coche.” Being the nice guy that I am, I wanted to be helpful, so I offered him a ride: “¿Quieres un aventón?” I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was a little upset when he replied, “¿Y yo qué te hice?” You see, to a Mexican, un aventón is a ride, but to just about any other Spanish speaker un aventón implies some kind of physical violence. I explained to him that I only wanted to help him by giving him a ride to wherever he wanted to go and I am happy to say that we are still friends to this day.

Another graduate student from Spain taught a class that had many Mexican-American students. She frequently used the word coger, meaning “to get” or “to pick up” when she spoke not realizing that to Mexicans coger is a profanity that refers to the act of sexual intercourse that begins with the letter “f.” So one day, she talked about picking up her dog: “Cogí mi perro.” She was surprised when the class began to laugh until someone explained to her what she had said.

While I was in México, I learned a few more mexicanismos. My cousin used the diminutive “-is” instead of “-ito, -ita.” For example, she went to see her “amiguis” instead of her “amiguitas.” Before we went to visit my cousin David Rodríguez in Celaya, everyone refered to him as Davis.

In the U.S. we have Spanglish, which is the mixture of English and Spanish, but I only thought it existed north of the Rio Grande (In Mexico, they call it El Río Bravo). For example, you take an English word like “to check” and make it Spanish: chequear, instead of comprobar or some other Spanish word that already exists. Anyway, they have a similar word in Mexico: checar. Several street venders approached me and called me jefe, showed some product they were selling, and said, “Checa esto.” Or, “Check this out,” in English. So this word is a little different than the Spanglish word chequear because it’s a mexicanismo. Or maybe it should be called inglañolismo.

I always thought of an aquarium as un acuario, but to my cousin in Celaya it was el pecero. I had never heard the word before, but I knew exactly what he meant. Then when I was in Mexico City, when people talked about taking the bus they still called it el camión, but now a lot of people also called it el pecero. That made perfect sense because if you look at the buses with their large windows, they do look like aquariums with people swimming inside instead of fish.

If you park your car in México City, you’re likely to meet el viene viene. He is a self-appointed parker of cars and is often found on public streets and grocery store parking lots. He doesn’t officially work for anyone. He’s just there–and everywhere else. You can’t miss him. He pops up out of nowhere waving his salmon-colored mechanic’s rag as you park your car. As you back up, he tells you how far you can back up by saying “Viene, viene.” When you get out of your car, he’s standing next to you with outstretched hand and you’re supposed to give him a tip of two pesos or so.

Then, there’s also the aguinaldo that is a bonus that most employees receive before Christmas and before el Día de los Reyes to buy holiday gifts or pay off debts. At Christmas, children received candy bags. They were told, “Come get your aguinaldo!”