"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
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. …