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Earnestly Speaking Nonsense — In a Spanish-Speaking Land

Published Aug 2, 2007 - (Updated Dec 11, 2012)

Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007 issue.

I doubt any gringos actually set out to make fools of themselves here. But speaking “Spanglish” certainly adds to the likelihood that it’s going to happen now and then.

Personally, since my livelihood depends on a facility with language, I’m mortified to have an IQ that apparently slumps 80% when speaking what I’ve come to call “Silly Spanish.” Often meaning one thing and expressing quite another, I am usually oblivious to the absurdity of what I’m saying at the time. And yet, truth be told, I sometimes dare to wonder what is wrong with people that they don’t understand me!

When this topic came up over dinner with fellow writers Norma Schuh and Josef Kandoll, it turned out we’ve all had our share of rocky communication experiences in Vallarta. Yet, in retrospect, some of our faux pas are really quite funny.

“Even the way one answers the phone can’t be taken for granted; the thing to say here in Mexico is ‘Bueno,’ rather than ‘Hola’ or ‘Hello.’ And then, of course, there’s ‘Estoy caliente’ and ‘Tengo calor.’ While both mean ‘I’m hot,’ I’d be careful which one you announce in a crowded bar. Other common expressions that use the verb ‘tener’ (‘to have’) instead of ‘ser/estar’ are ‘I’m hungry’ (‘Tengo hambre’), ‘I’m thirsty’ (‘Tengo sed’), and ‘I’m 30’ (‘Tengo treinta años’).”

Norma, meanwhile, focused on some essential vocabulary linked to cultural practices:

“If you don’t know what a ‘paqueteria’ is — which is where you check any bags you’re carrying when you enter a store — you risk getting apprehended by a security guard, like I was. If you don’t ask for the check in a restaurant (‘La cuenta, por favor’), you’ll sit there all night, since wait staff consider it rude to present the tab unrequested.

“When signage offers something seemingly too good to be true (‘Jeep Gratis!’), be prepared for a time-share presentation. If you think you can use a public bathroom without heeding the $3-peso entrance fee, reconsider — particularly if you’d appreciate some toilet tissue. And if you like something, ‘Me gusta mucho’ is the appropriate response. But if you like someone, strictly platonically like your friend’s ‘esposo,’ ‘Me cae bien su esposo’ is a safer bet.”

My most common bugaboo is to confuse similar-sounding words. I shudder to think how many times I’ve told people how married I was, and I’m not, when I thought I was saying how tired I was (“casada/cansada”). Or that I had a man, when what I really had were hunger pangs (“hombre/hambre”). And to this day my cheeks turn scarlet yet again when remembering feeling embarrassed and saying “Estoy embarasada” — actually announcing that I was pregnant!

Now, no one wants to rob you of the opportunity to make some outrageous statements of your own. And if you’re like us, you will. But to spare you unnecessary aggravation, we humbly offer some useful information and Spanish words you just might want to remember.

• Be crystal clear when telling your taxi or bus driver that you want to go to “the Marina” or “Marina Vallarta,” because they are two distinctly different places. If you’re catching a boat, unless it’s a fishing charter, you probably want “the Marina,” where the cruise ships dock. But if you want to wander along an oceanfront promenade where hundreds of yachts are docked and there’s a wide range of restaurants and shops to explore, head to “Marina Vallarta.”

• Enunciate clearly your readiness to order in a restaurant (“Estoy listo para ordenar”) lest you inadvertently announce you are about to urinate(“listo para orinar”). And when a waiter asks if you want something served “al tiempo,” he means at room temperature, not on time (“a tiempo”).

• Should the menu offer “quesadillas con queso y chapulines” and you’re not in the mood for cheese-drenched grasshoppers, specify “sin (without) chapulines, por favor.”

• Be forewarned that neither Visa nor MasterCard, nor any other plastic, will buy you dinner if the menu says, “No acceptamos tareta de credito.”

• Understand that when a Mexican appears to be stating the obvious while claiming to be from Mexico, he means Mexico City.

• When inviting someone to join you in strolling the downtown boardwalk (“Malecon”), avoid misconstruing it with “maricon,” a pejorative of which the gay community is not enamored.

• And finally, if you don’t want to sound like a real rube, pronounce our fair city “vayarta” — not “valarta.” Similarly, those gorgeous bougainvillea blossoms adorning our buildings are pronounced “buganviyas.”

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