After having been married for so very, very long to someone who speaks Spanish fluently, I’ve picked up a thing or two in the Spanish language. Full disclosure: I’m not exactly fluent. I throw in English words whenever I can’t think of a word in Spanish. This is not a problem here in New York, where you can always find someone who speaks both languages. Most New Yorkers know a few words in Spanish, too – such as “Pendejo”. I know that out there in the middle of our great nation, people can say “chalupa” and “La quinta” but it’s hardly the same thing.
Here are my other linguistic sins: I speak in the present tense when I mean the past, and make the meaning clear in other ways. Example: “I buy a nice pair of shoes yesterday.” You know what I mean, but it doesn’t sound too great. I use “going to” instead of the future tense. Like “I’m going to fly on an airplane tomorrow” instead of “I will fly tomorrow”. At least that’s grammatically correct. The subjunctive escapes me completely, which is a shame, as it is one of the lovelier and more nuanced parts of the language. The mark of a fluent speaker in any language is the ability to tell and understand the punchlines of jokes. So, not me. I usually get Al to explain even the worst puns found in Condorito comics.
On the plus side, I can curse fluently and I can give basic directions to lost tourists. Sometimes at the same time.
Once, long ago, I witnessed a short Dominican granny at a police station in the capital of the Dominican Republic, holding forth against a bemused police captain. She was the soul of eloquence. Cervantes could have done no better. I was so impressed, I attempted to memorize some of her more flowery phrases, and now I like to trot them out if there is a need. My favorite is “Let us all hope there is justice with God in Heaven, because there is none here below in Santo Domingo!” I also liked “Never in my life … never! Have I seen such shameful conduct! It is an outrage to all people!”
Aside from such inspired public speaking, one of the joys of Spanish is a colorful collection of folk expressions. Every language has them, but Spanish is able to pack a lot of expressiveness in a small space. Don’t go running to Google Translate for these, because you’ll get meaningless nonsense back. But if you can practice them and use sparingly, you’ll sound like you know what you’re saying.
Here’s the short list.
“Si quieres conocer a Fulanito, dale un carguito.”
Literal translation “If you want to know Fulanito, give him a charge.”
Meaning “if you want to know a pompous jackass for who he is, give him a task.” Fulanito is a cross between Joe Blow and a flaming douche. While he has the everyman chops of Mr. Blow, he lacks the salt-of-the-earth quality that makes you want to have a beer with Joe. Instead, Fulanito carries the kind of self-righteous egotistical douchery that is personified by Martin Shkreli.
If you need to assess someone’s character, test him. Give him a job. The results will tell you who you’re dealing with.
Just don’t give him the job of President of the United States. Because that would be crazy!
“No hay felicidad completa.”
Literal translation “there is no complete happiness.”
Meaning The best approximation is “nothing’s perfect,” though it sounds way more fatalistic in Spanish. A closer idea would be something like “perfection can’t be achieved here on earth by mere mortals.” Al’s Mom likes this one. You use it when some spoiled little prince starts whining. “Yeah, my boss lets me come in whenever I want and leave whenever I want and work from home whenever I want and I just got a promotion, but yesterday I came in and the cappuccino machine was out of milk. Can you believe it?”
No hay felicidad completa. Pendejo.
“Lo que haces con las manos lo destruyes con los pies.”
Literal translation “What you make with your hands you destroy with your feet.”
Meaning There’s no real equivalent in English. There should be, though. The closest idea is a poem called Constance Hately in Spoon River Anthology. An upright citizen is praised for raising her orphaned nieces, and they are condemned for their obvious contempt of her. But she confesses that while she provided food and clothing for them, she poisoned every good
deed by constantly reminding them that they were dependent on her charity. When someone is intentionally or unintentionally sabotaging all their own good works by undercutting them with bad feelings, you say this one.
“La mala hierba nunca muere.”
Literal translation The bad weed never dies.
Meaning This is the flip side of “The good die young.” It means that the Bad are tough, resilient, and never die. This is so true. When you find yourself wishing “I don’t care if Pence is horrible! I wish that Fulanito would just keel over and die!” you can remind yourself that in the real world, things are a bit different. The weeds have to be uprooted another way.