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

By Cantu, Tony | The World and I, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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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.

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