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Learning Mexican Spanish

by Julie Etra

By Julie Etra for The Eye Magazine

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.


  • 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 más te da?: What’s it to you?
  • ¿Como vas? ¿Como te va?: 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
  • ¿Qué 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.
  • Qué pena: What a shame. (Also, que lastima – What a pity.)


  • 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? ¿Cómo?: 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


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 ¿Qué onda 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?
  • ¿Qué 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!

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