I grew up in northern New Mexico, spending most of my time in Los Alamos but making frequent trips to visit my grandmother and other relatives in Chimayó. Spanish was the common language down in “the Valley”— meaning the Hispanic and Pueblo communities along the Río Grande—while on “the Hill” of Los Alamos we seldom heard that language, my mother’s native tongue. Although I was often immersed in the Spanish chatter of relatives in the Valley, and overheard my grandmother and mother constantly using itr, my parents discouraged me and my siblings from speaking Spanish because they believed that doing so would diminish our facility with English. During my formative years in the 1960s and ’70s, “Americanization” was still the trend and the priority, as it had been for a long time, and that meant sticking to English with determination.
Notwithstanding this prohibition, one year in high school I enrolled in an introductory Spanish course, but there was a problem: The idiom I encountered in the classroom was distinctly different from what I heard at home. The first day of class, someone greeted me with, “Hola, ¿que tal?”—a phrase I’d never heard before. I blushed at my ignorance and stammered to reply, and the class went downhill from there. I had learned to greet people with the more formal greetings buenos días, buenas tardes, or buenas noches. I would have been a laughing stock in Chimayó if I said hola, and many other words and phrases taught in the class would have elicited the same kind of derision.
Still, in spite of all the obstacles to learning Spanish, the New Mexico vernacular filled my ears when I visited Chimayó. Grown-ups lapsed into this mellifluous tongue to keep information from my siblings and me, which only heightened our attentiveness and unwitting apprehension. I learned scolding words first, since they were the ones most often directed at me. I sometimes wondered if my name was zafado, meaning silly, crazy, or just plain out of control; malcriado, meaning bad-mannered or rude; or cabezudo, which means headstrong or stubborn—for these were words that all too often came my way from adults trying to keep me in line. I also learned simple greetings and niceties of social contact, as well as the abrupt commands that came my way—“¡Cállate!” (Pipe down!), “¡Vete!” (Get out of here!), “¡Calla y come!” (Be quiet and eat!)—and I picked up more than a few cochinadas (obscenities) from the kids I ran with in Chimayó.
Also among the words that stuck were short phrases that stood out because of their compactness or peculiar rhythm or rhyme. If I complained about food, Grandma might mutter, “Con hambre no hay mal pan.” (When you’re hungry, there is no bad-tasting food.) To describe an exceedingly conceited person, she would say, “El piensa que nomás sus naranjas valen.” (He thinks only his oranges are worth something.) If she disapproved of the companions I kept, Grandma might caution me, “El que con perros se acuesta con garrapatas se levanta.” (He who lies down with dogs wakes up with fleas.) Or, “El que con lobos anda aullar se enseña.” (He who goes around with wolves learns how to howl.) To be perfectly frank about her opinion of a character she disliked, Grandma might say, “El no vale ni un zero a la izquierda.” (He’s not even worth a zero on the left side, referring to zeros placed on the left side of a multi-digit number). These folk sayings, called dichos or refranes, introduced me to a lot of language, and I carried a handful of them into adulthood.
Still more language seeped in through little songs Grandma would sometimes sing, two-line rhymes called coplas, longer versos, and daily quips and exclamations of delight or dismay about events unfolding around her. Then there were the cuentos, or folk tales (Mom and I gathered these together in a book published several years ago), prayers, and lullabies Grandma or Mom intoned at bedtime.
All in all, quite a lot of Spanish lodged in my memory, even though the language seldom slipped from my tongue.
Since those formative years I’ve made countless visits to Chimayó and lived there for some 15 years, next door to Grandma. In her final years, Grandma spoke only Spanish to me. She passed on in 2001, at the age of 103, and the last of her sisters and all the cousins of her generation have since died, leaving behind an empty space in the place and in our hearts.
Every aspect of Chimayó has changed immensely. Although many people converse in a distinctive patois of English and Spanish, only a handful of monoglot Spanish speakers from the old families remain. Almost no one mentions the once-ubiquitous dichos that peppered all conversations with the viejitos.
As the years passed after Grandma’s death, it dawned on me that I could remember only a small fraction of her dichos—but I was mistaken when I assumed the rest had disappeared, along with her and her generation of elders. My mother remembered many more than I could, and had been writing them down since the early 1950s. Her list included nearly 300. I became intrigued by the prospect of preserving and sharing this linguistic heritage, and my mother and I began translating and organizing the dichos. Suddenly, just as I feared I would lose them forever, I found myself immersed in dichos, deep in the throes of a tongue I was once forbidden to speak.
My mother and I began taking frequent trips to Chimayó, our newfound project providing us with an excuse to spend time together and to visit old friends and family there. Thus began a richly rewarding experience, a time to touch base with people and places that had begun to grow distant. And as we drove through the Valley and visited from house to house, the dichos ran through our heads and our conversation. It struck me how much the people and places I was visiting mirrored the spirit of the dichos. I found them reflected everywhere in this old culture, in the language, the faces, the personalities, the conversation—all of it, like the dichos, seemingly poised on the edge of dissolution. Yet we found that the insight and wit and playfulness of the old sayings remain strong in the character of the place. And as we made our way through the old neighborhoods, it struck us just how relevant and valuable these old sayings remain. Their pithy counsel still has a place in a world of rapid change and instant—if often shallow—communication via electronic media.
We immersed ourselves in the dichos and in the peculiar nuances of the Spanish, English, and Spanglish they carry, laughing at their poignancy and wit, and at their surprising relevance to our own life experiences. Often, prompted by a sight or by the memory of an old friend in a Chimayó neighborhood, we’d find ourselves on the verge of remembering a dicho, and we’d struggle to recall its wording and rhyme. And so, as we rambled through old Chimayó, we chased dichos and bantered about their sometimes elusive meaning. The common rejoinder, whenever a saying hit us with particular clarity, was, “Con buenas palabras no hay mal entendedor.” With good words, there is no one who doesn’t understand. ✜
Don Usner is a teacher, writer, and photographer in Santa Fe. His books include Valles Caldera (deBuys/Usner), Sabino’s Map, and Benigna’s Chimayó (Museum of New Mexico Press). He has contributed stories and photo essays to Lenswork, Photo Booth, El Palacio, and this magazine. This article is excerpted from a book to be published by UNM.