'Dichos:' Wise Words, the Spanish Way ; Even Today, Proverbs Pepper the Speech of Spanish Speakers - and Are Being Featured in Exhibitions and a Book

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"Camaron que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente," my father used say. I loved the sweet, lyrical humor of the literal translation ("The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current") and the way it contrasted with the more abrupt English equivalent ("You snooze, you lose"). As I grew older, there were more phrases like this one as my father and my Mexican grandmother passed along pieces of cultural wisdom.

Pithy words to live by - every culture has them. In English we call them proverbs. In Spanish, they're known as dichos. Serious and sly, didactic and playful, los dichos continue to punctuate daily conversation, making their way from one generation to the next.

Now, the idiomatic expressions are being appreciated anew. A pop- culture book, with dichos at its heart, recently hit bookshelves. The popular sayings played a supporting role in a traveling Smithsonian exhibition on Latino achievement. And dichos inspired simultaneous art exhibits at two well-regarded museums here earlier in the fall. Each example underscores the way the sayings embody Latino culture and its romance with the Spanish language.

"In the Latino community these dichos are such a tradition," says Fox TV judge Cristina Perez, who lives in Los Angeles. "They're very catchy, very colorful, and funny." Her book, "Living by Los Dichos: Advice from a Mother to a Daughter," falls somewhere between memoir and self-help. Ms. Perez freely doles out the colloquial wisdom she learned from her Colombian parents on her English-language TV show "Cristina's Court." Even in an unfamiliar tongue, she says it tends to be well received. "Because the message is universal - it's about respect or love or faith in yourself or just faith in human beings in general - people are very receptive."

Appropriately enough, the judge cites as one of her favorites: "El que es buen juez por su casa empieza" ("A good judge starts with his own home"). It means, roughly: "Judge your own life before criticizing others."

As for the simultaneous shows in this desert town flush with artwork, the timing was accidental. Yet each offered a different and complementary take on the dicho.

"Dichos: Words to Live, Love and Laugh by in Latin America," at the Museum of International Folk Art (www.moifa.org) in September and scheduled to travel in August, was contemporary and playful. Forty large format portraits of trucks and buses decorated with colorful phrases were arranged by theme. The "vehicular dichos," touching on faith, love, humor, and sex, photographed by Grant La Farge over two decades, were akin to what you might find on an American bumper sticker.

In 1978, Dr. La Farge and his new wife were on their honeymoon. …