Some dirty words

Ask a Mexican

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Here’s my request: I would like to ask for translations of all the smutty street-Spanglish put-downs my courtly maestros de español wouldn’t have dreamed of teaching me. Pendejo-I’ve long assumed it means “hanging one,” as in, “can’t get it up": a pansy, contemptible cake boy. Is that right? What does gabacho mean? How about güey” What does cabrón mean? Something relating to a goat?
—Cuss ‘n’ Hoots

Dear Pocho and Gabacha: Welcome to the wonderful world of Mexican-Spanish swearing, where words assume different meanings according to placement but ultimately reference gonads! Güey is derived from the word büey, which is an ox, the word Mexicans use to call someone an ass—not a hooved ass, but an ass ass. It’s the Swiss Army knife of Mexican-Spanish cussing-we use it affectionately (”¡No mames, güey!” translates as “Don’t suck dick, ass!” but actually means “Don’t bullshit me, brother!"), in anger (”Eres un pinche güey” is “You’re a fucking idiot") or as a boast (”No me haces güey"- “You won’t make an ass out of me"). Pendejo and cabrón, meanwhile, are synonyms for “idiot,” but their actual definitions are “pubic hair” and “castrated goat,” respectively.

But Mexicans rarely use güey, pendejo or cabrón literally—instead, we forge them into some amazingly baroque insults. To wit: when a Mexican tells his friend, “¡Güey, no seas pendejo, cabrón!” we’re saying, “Man, don’t be an idiot, jerk!” but it literally translates as “Ass, don’t be a pubic hair, ball-less goat!” So much better than the English “stupid-ass fucking faggot,” no? As for the meaning of gabacho, Pommie to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you gotta ask, you’re one.

As an Asian person, would I be considered a gabacho? Or do I fall into the yellow bucket labeled chinito, even though I’m not Chinese?
—OC Asian

Dear Chino: Like Americans assume all Latinos are Mexican, Mexicans think all Asians are chinos-Chinese. When I used to go out with a Vietnamese woman, my aunts would speak highly of mi chinita bonita-my cute little Chinese ruca. When I’d point out she was actually Vietnamese, mis tías would think about it for a bit and respond, “¡Que chinita bonita!”

But just because a Mexican calls you a chino doesn’t necessarily mean we think you’re Chinese, OC Asian. “Chino,” like so many of our swear words, has multiple negative meanings. In the colonial days, a chino was the offspring of a half-Indian/half-black and an Indian. This association with race also transformed chino into a synonym for “servant” and “curly.” The term “barrio chino” (Chinatown) also became a euphemism for a town’s red-light district. And a popular schoolyard refrain that all Mexican kiddies eventually chant at their Asian classmates is “Chino, chino, japones: come caca y no me des” ("Chinese, Chinese, Japanese: eat shit and don’t give me any").

So why the Mexican chino-hate? After all, Chinese were the Mexicans of the world before there even was a Mexico, migrating to Latin America a couple of decades after the fall of Tenochtitlán. And our most famous native dress, the billowy, colorful costume worn by baile folklórico dancers known as a china poblana, was supposedly first worn by a 17th century Mexican-Chinese woman. Bigotry is bigotry, though, and since Mexico’s Asian population is still small and overwhelmingly Chinese, we lump Asians into the chino category-makes the racism easier, you know?

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