Tag Archives: language

The “Poor Man’s Ox” – The Mexican Burro “¡No seas burro!”

By Julie Etra

Burro, donkey, jackass, mule, hinny.

Starting with nomenclature, burros are the same as donkeys and are related to horses and zebras (the Equidae family). They were bred in Egypt or Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago, originating from the African continent, where they were used as beasts of burden. A jenny or hinny is the offspring of a male horse and female donkey; they are usually sterile and therefore cannot reproduce. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, and is also sterile (sterility also applies to zebra hybrids). A male donkey is also called a “jack” or “ass” (hence the word “jackass”). A young donkey is called a “foal.” In Mexico one often hears the expression “no seas mula” or “no seas burro,” as per the COVID 19 signs posted around Huatulco (also saying ‘with all due respect to the animal), and meaning “Don’t be stubborn,” just as we say, “Don’t be a jackass” (although that implies more than stubbornness).

Although I have read that the current population of burros in Mexico is estimated to be three million, I have also read that they are in danger of extinction with only 300,000 burros left. We do, however, forget about the usefulness of this animal in Mexico, and its historic significance.

Popular belief has it that Bishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548), felt sympathy for the native load carriers or porters (cargadoras, or Tlamemehs or tamemes in Nahuatl), and the strenuous burdens they carried. Part of the lower social class called los macehuales, tamemes were not slaves but were trained from birth for this work, following in their parents’ footsteps. They fulfilled an important role in Aztecan society and were essential, as there were no pack animals in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. They wore a wide leather strap with ixtle (agave fiber) rope that held the load carried on the back. Called a mecapal, the strap was wrapped around the forehead; some of them included wooden structures for additional support. The tamemes could carry up to 60 pounds; although travel routes and distances varied, a common trip averaged 15 miles.

Back to the burros. At the time of their importation to New Spain, burros had been domesticated in Spain for at least 3,000 years. There is evidence that four male and two female burros accompanied Columbus on his 1493 voyage, and that they disembarked either in Cuba or Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On his first voyage (1492), Columbus – with a European eye – noted that crops and domesticated animals were in short supply, and recommended that all subsequent voyages include them. Along with the burros, horses, longhorn cattle, crates of chickens, and seeds and cuttings of about 30 crops, including sugar cane. The cattle lost no time crossing the Gulf to Mexico and quickly became successful, in terms of both production and money-making. So, although oxen (technically speaking, an ox is just a big strong cow, usually male, trained to work – plowing, hauling, milling, etc.), were well-established in New Spain by perhaps 1520, they belonged to the ranchers of New Spain, not the lower classes of the conquered Aztecs.

Fray Juan apparently accomplished the Mexican importation of burros in 1533, with animals from Castile (Castilla), in northwestern Spain. The burros evidently found conditions in New Spain to be ideal, and so the donkeys went forth and multiplied throughout areas of the Spanish conquest, but particularly in Mexico and Central America, where llamas, endemic to areas of South America, were already in use as pack animals.

What makes a burro a burro? We know they have long ears and colors vary. They are usually calm and astute but can also become stubborn; they are known to be playful and affectionate. They emit a long “bray” (rebuzno in Spanish). Lifespan averages 15 to 30 years, depending on the care they receive. They are vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, alfalfa, shrubs, vegetables and, especially hay (which can include multiple baled species including alfalfa), but are very tough and can find forage even in deserts. Reproduction varies according to sex: the male reaches sexual maturity at about three years and the female at about four years. Pregnancy varies from 11 to 14 months, typically with just one offspring. In the wild, they are solitary and don’t form groups or harems of females as do wild horses. They have a well-developed olfactory system, detecting smells up to six miles away. And unlike a llama, they can carry up to four times their own weight. Hooves help.

So, “¡No seas burro!” Wear your cubreboca, maintain social distancing, be respectful, and listen to what the experts and authorities tell you. We’ll get through this pandemic eventually.

Learning Mexican Spanish

By Julie Etra

Spanish was established as a distinct language around the 13th century, distinct from Catalan and Portuguese, when Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise), assembled his scribes in the courts of Toledo to document various subjects, including astronomy, law, and history, thus acknowledging it as a written language. Spanish, like its cousins, was considered a Latin dialect, the Romans having invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 206 B.C. It is laced with Arabic words, such as almohada (pillow), as the Moors, from Morocco, arrived on the Peninsula about 711 (and were conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella in Granada in 1492). It is the fourth most common language in the world, following English, Mandarin, and Hindi. Standard Spanish can be considered Castilian Spanish.

Oaxaca, the name of our home state, is not a Spanish word. It is derived from the Nahuatl word Huaxyacac, which refers to a tree called a “guaje” (Leucaena leucocephala) found in many parts of Mexico. The name was originally applied to the Valley of Oaxaca by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, aka Aztecs, who had conquered the region.

Here are some helpful words and phrases to help you with your coastal Spanish.

Let’s start with “cool,” an American word supposedly coined in the 1930s by saxophonist Lester Young to describe something as intensely good.

There are three common ways to say something is cool.
padre (this widely accepted term means “father”)
chido
perrón (literally, “dog”)

And then there is chingón. This is a bit more intense and means something outstanding, super, and is very slangy. Watch it with this word as conjugations have totally different meanings. Chingar, the verb, is very vulgar in Mexico. Chingadazo means easy and quick, as in a quick and easy recipe, but also means a forceful blow. (The -azo suffix is very common, for example slamming a door is a portazo, derived from puerta). And chingadera, well, that means everything is screwed up, annoying, much like the US expression “SNAFU”; it also means to be far away in a nebulous place, as in hasta la chingada. You will hear these, but I don’t recommend using them.

HANDY EXPRESSIONS

A menos que: unless, as in “unless the flight is late.”
¿A poco? and No me digas: Both mean REALLY? As in “Are you kidding?” or “No way!”
¿A ti que mas te da?: What’s it to you?
¿Como vas? ¿Como te vas?: How are you doing? What’s happening?
Con permiso: Excuse me – literally, “with permission,” as in when you want to pass in front of someone; perdon also means “excuse me,” as in when you bump into someone or want to get someone’s attention.
Cuanto antes, en cuanto: as soon as
De vez en cuando: from time to time
Estamos a mano: We are even, as in when you pay your bill.
Mas vale tarde que nunca: better late than never
Ni modo: Too bad, tough luck
Para llevar: to go, as in food to go
Por si acaso: just in case
¿Que tal?: What’s up?
Sale vale: okey dokey
Sin son ni ton: neither here nor there, it does not make sense
Tengo ganas: I feel like it, I have the urge. As in Tengo ganas de regresar a Huatulco – I want to go back to Huatulco! Or Tengo ganas de llorar – I feel like crying.
Vale la pena: It is worth it.
Que pena: What a shame. (Also, que lastima – What a pity.)

HANDY VOCABULARY

Atajo: shortcut
Ballena, caguama: big bottle of beer
Banda: group of friends, clique
Chavo/chava: kid/child
Chela: beer (instead of cerveza)
Degustar, probar: taste, as in try a taste
Disponible: available
Eso (literally, “that”): That’s right, looks good, quite so, thumbs up
Garrafón: the 5-gallon jug of water
Grupo: band (music)
Hielera: cooler, essential for llevando las chelas a la playa
Huevos revueltos: scrambled eggs; huevos bien cocidos: over hard; huevos tiernos: over easy
Lana (literally, “wool”): money
Los invitados: guests, like those coming for dinner, as opposed to huespedes (hotel guests)
¿Mande? ¿Como?: What? Say that again? (used almost exclusively in Mexico)
Nunca: never
Próximamente: coming soon, like a vaccine for COVID 19
Quizás, a lo mejor, tal vez: perhaps, maybe
Pausa, descanso; break (as in take a break) – Tomar una pausa. Tomar un descanso.
Sino: in addition, on top of it

SLANG

Although we extranjeros may not feel comfortable actually “slanging,” we hear a lot of these common sayings.

Dale: Give it your all, everything, best effort
Fresa: snob (literally, strawberry)
Fuchi: smells bad
Güey or wey: dude, as in ¿Que honda güey? What’s happening, dude?
Hasta la madre: fed up
Huacala or Guacala: gross, tastes bad
Hueva: laziness, noun with same import as the adjectives
perezoso or flojo. Tirar/echar la hueva, tener hueva: to be doing
nothing
Porfa: short for por favor, please, Also porfi, porfis
¿Q’ hubo?: What’s happening?
¿Que onda?: What’s up?
Sale, dale, vale: Ok, let’s go! Let’s do it. Also, sale: See you
later.
¡Simón!: Yes! i.e., with enthusiasm
¡Ya basta!: Enough already!