My Way of Talking - Life Lessons in Mexican-American Proverbs

By Cantu, Tony | The World and I, September 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

My Way of Talking - Life Lessons in Mexican-American Proverbs

Cantu, Tony, The World and I

Growing up in a Mexican household, learning a life lesson without the appropriate refran (proverb) to fit the occasion was impossible. For each defining moment, each coming-of-age occurrence, each youthful lapse of judgment, my Mexico-born parents would have the accompanying refran--one of countless, time-honored Mexican sayings of unknown provenance--to encapsulate the occasion.

When not approving of my friendships, a favorite refran, or dicho, was Dime con quien andas y te dire quien eres (Tell me who you're with and I'll tell you what you are). A parental perception of neglect of siblings in favor of friends would yield Candil de la calle y oscuridad de su casa, literally translated to mean "Light for the street and darkness at home." At times when I was expected to be seen and not heard came the stern el pez por la boca muere (the fish dies though his mouth).

And so it went throughout my youth, a refran to fit every occasion. As much as I tried to assimilate the words, however, their meaning was often lost on me. Perhaps because as a Mexican American I was more acclimated to American culture than my parents had been growing up. Or maybe, as a mere product of prepubescent nonchalance, I often dismissed my parents' proverbs as too cryptic to be taken seriously.

Yet, with time, I began to sense that these were important words to heed, a feeling buttressed by my parents' serious expressions when uttering them. By my teen years, I knew the words had weight and power behind them. But they arrived so stealthily and without warning--in the midst of a standard scolding or advice-filled session otherwise replete with everyday verbiage--that they often failed to register. Amid normal-speak, the unmistakable cadence and rhythm of a refran would slip out. As its timbre lingered in the air, I would feel the lesser for not having understood its meaning.

I felt the currency of the words that had just been said--the collective wisdom of thousands of years of civilization--and yearned to understand. I felt like the hopelessly deferential Jedi Knight in training, perplexed by the coded life instructions coming from the master Yoda, knowing it was not my place to ask for an interpretation.

What did it all mean? It was maddening.

Tempered by reality

After leaving home at eighteen, I found myself missing my parents' dichos. By this stage, I understood what many of them meant, their meanings hitting me with the force of epiphany born of sometimes harsh, real-world experience. It was shortly after embarking on my own that I achieved intellectual curiosity about the Spanish proverbs that abounded during my formative years.

Being born in this country alerted me to the differences between Mexican proverbs and their American counterparts in a way that was perhaps lost on my parents. It was during summerlong forays into Mexico to visit my grandparents that I began to see the contrasts between the two cultures as well as to compare their respective proverbs. Beyond the disparity in the way people lived, the divergent trajectories of each country--one a superpower abounding in riches and the other a Third World nation mired in poverty--began to loom large in my interpretation of these differences.

Since September 11, much has been said about the American loss of innocence. In many countries, Americans are perceived as strangers to the daily strife and inconvenience to which people of other cultures are accustomed. Indeed, throughout our history, no crisis has seemed insurmountable for Americans--neither the British invasion, nor the Great Depression, world wars, or energy crises. The resolve that begat this nation, the uniquely American can-do attitude and idealism that have seen it through many a crisis, is at once both admired and resented abroad.

By contrast, in Mexico, poverty is entrenched and political corruption endemic.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

My Way of Talking - Life Lessons in Mexican-American Proverbs


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?