Category Archives: Culture

Pizza boy

You might have missed it, but I made a brief mention of a pizza boy in the last post. How do you say that anyway in Spanish? I don’t want to lose the final round of Jeopardy someday because of this egregious ignorance.

Best supporting/delivery actor: the pizza man

Best supporting/delivery actor: the pizza man!

If you tuned in to watch the Oscars a few weeks ago, you saw Ellen order pizza on a whim for the stars. The pizza delivery boy was reportedly given a $1000 tip. My favorite satirical news site here in Colombia is Actualidad Panamericana (fine, the only one I know of, but so good!), and they did a local riff of this extravagant gesture soon after.

Repartidor de pizza de los Premios TVyNovelas recuerda haber recibido mil pesos de propina . . . Un repartidor de pizzas recibió la astronómica suma de mil pesos de propina . . . “Le entregué la pizza, y cuál no sería mi sorpresa al ver que me dio mil pesos de propina. Me dijo que era para el bus. Muy generoso el señor, ya que el bus cuesta $1400″.

Pizza Boy Recalls 1000-Peso Tip at the TVyNovelas Awards . . . A pizza delivery boy received the astronomical sum of one thousand pesos as a tip . . . “I handed him the pizza and to my astonishment was given a thousand-peso tip. He said it was for the bus, which was very generous of him, seeing as the bus costs 1400 pesos.”

1000 Colombian pesos is like a whopping 50 cents. I’m not quite sure in which direction this satire is aimed, but in any case a 50-cent tip for a delivery boy probably would be newsworthy here.

Repartidor de pizza was also the phrase I saw used as the story about Ellen was disseminated throughout newspapers in Spanish. Repartidor? Pizza passer-outer? Because, for me at least, repartir is when you divvy something up and then everyone gets a piece. Like a slice of cake, or a share of the booty. But, lo and behold, repartir can also mean to deliver, like mail or newspapers. It sounds so sterilized, like how job titles have changed over the years to make them genderless or make them sound more official. Pizza distributor. Pizza conveyor. Pizza dispatcher. Pizza destination coordinator. Pizza courier. Pizza transfer engineer. Pizza logistics manager. What a difference a change of perspective makes!

At a stoplight, who could resist reaching in for a slice?

At a stoplight, who could resist reaching in for a slice?

I was pleased to finally know how to say pizza boy/girl/man/lady/PERSON in Spanish, and then immediately crushed like red pepper flakes to be informed that no one actually says that, at least not in Colombia. Told that the phrase is always translated that way in Spanish subtitles on foreign movies, I assume that repartidor de pizza is standard somewhere. Speak up! The best alternative I could wrangle out was domiciliario, which is obviously all-encompassing for people who deliver orders, that is, domicilios. To domiciles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever noticed a delivery person on a motorcycle conveying anything pizza-shaped, but I do distinctly recall the surprise and charm I experienced when I first visited Bogotá in 2007 and saw fried chicken being delivered in little chicken coop-shaped containers atop motorcycle grills.

Repartidor de volantes, OK. A person who passes out flyers. That feels more natural for me. And here’s an old article on a repartidor de tinto.

I recently learned in my translation class that the classic movie Home Alone is known as Mi pobre angelito in Spanish. My poor little baby. In this clip in Spanish, you can watch the famous scene where Kevin has the Little Nero’s pizza boy go to the back door and then scares him half to death using clips from an old movie and sounds of a machine gun. “Keep the change, ya filthy animal” becomes Guarda el cambio, inmundo animal. Poor little pizza boy.

Fast food delivery boy is killed

Fast food delivery driver killed

Here you can get almost anything delivered to you, and I know that I am totally desaprovechando this laziness afforded me. To my shame, I don’t have any firsthand experience with repartidores/domiciliarios save for when a friend ordered pizza the other week. That should change, though. And you, what do you call the pizza boy?


How many phones do you have? Un fijo? (A landline?) Un celular? (A cell phone?) Pretty typical. Here in Colombia (and many other parts of the Spanish-speaking world), though, you get two more phones. But, don’t worry–no more numbers to memorize. Anybody got a dataphone? And where’s the closest citophone? They sound like something that must have been around in the 80s–some clunky device with big colored buttons and antennae out the wazoo– but in Spanish these are the names of very common objects. I’d forgotten them entirely, so we’ve been getting reacquainted.

Un datáfono is a credit card reader. If you’re at a restaurant and want to pay by card, they usually bring a small credit card reader to your table to swipe it. To ask if they offer this service, you can ask, ¿Tienes datáfono? Whereas I would say, do you take cards? Or you could say this when the pizza boy is at your door and you don’t have much cash on you. I see it translated as dataphone, but I’ve never heard that word. One website I found defined a Dataphone as an early version of a modem that was first released by AT&T in 1960. One look at pictures of this behemoth fuddy-dud and you’d see that dataphone is not an acceptable translation of datáfono. PIN pad, credit card transaction terminal, and credit card swipe machine are other ways of referring to a datáfono. Apparently, Datáfono was a brand name used by Telefónica in Spain in the 80s, and it stuck. The word is universal.

Just what you'd expect a "dataphone" to look like

Just what you’d expect a “dataphone” to look like

Though most are more along these lines

Though most are more along these lines

The missing ending: "en 2050"

Lo que no apareció: “EN 2050″

Un citófono is what is used in the reception areas of apartment buildings to buzz the residents to see if it’s OK to let visitors in. Or the buttons on the outside of the building that visitors press to call up to residents. In a word, a buzzer. (Which I always want to translate as buzón! But buzón is mailbox, or voicemail: buzón de mensajes) Or an intercom. The DRAE says that this word is Colombian, and it’s also used in Chile for some reason. Citofono is the word in Italian. The name comes from circuito (cerrado) + teléfono.

It’s normal to see signs on the doors of residential buildings that say something to the effect of, Todo visitante, sin excepción, será anunciado a través del citófono. All visitors must be buzzed in to gain access to the building.

Kids who grew up in cities had to play ding dong ditch (here called rin rin corre corre) with the citófono. More like buzz bozz ditch.

Probably best not to buzz this guy in

Probably best not to buzz this guy in

Of course, there are more phones (fonos) in Spanish, but they’re all phones in English as well. Megáfono (megaphone), dictáfono (Dictaphone, ie, voice recorder), micrófono (microphone), saxófono (saxophone, though saxofón is more common), and xilófono (xylophone). Also, I just learned during my nerdy virtual jaunt that homophone in Spanish is homófona.

And while we’re on the subject: French speakers get to be Francophones, and English speakers are Anglophones. And we Spanish speakers? What are we, chopped liver? Isn’t anybody going to give us a phone? Actually, there was one ringing for me this whole time, and I didn’t realize it: the Hispanophone. Rebuscado, yes, but it totally exists and I’m determined to use it at least once in this lifetime. And Lusophone exists for Portuguese speakers. Feel free to call me on any one of them.

So, with the addition of citófono and datáfono to your Spanish knowledge, it will now be that much harder to know which one they mean the next time someone yells at you, Pick up the phone! And your life gets decidedly more techy with these big words. I could almost imagine myself slipping them into my CV. Imagínate, TECHNICAL SKILLS: WELL-VERSED IN CITOPHONE AND DATAPHONE. Just remember, there is such a thing as being overqualified.

Tomémonos un tinto, seamos amigos

Reading some articles the other afternoon in El Tiempo, I noticed on the side box the top five shared articles. Number one was Panties y tinto, dos negocios que interesan a inversionistas foráneos. 

Panties and coffee, two businesses that interest foreign investors.

I remembered the story because I had read it earlier in the morning, and I knew that its headline definitely didn’t say anything about underwear then. At that time, the headline had been Extranjeros en Colombia ven opciones de negocios hasta en el tinto.

Foreigners in Colombia see business possibilities even in their coffee.

I’m pretty sure that even without panties the article was the most shared on the site. (Articles that make it seem like Colombia is being taken over by foreigners, or that foreigners are taking all the good jobs are extremely popular. Also, articles about Colombians who live abroad, especially when they aren’t exactly welcomed by locals. Basically, any article that features what the rest of the world thinks of the South American nation and their dirty laundry.) But I guess throwing the racy allusion to women’s underthings into the mix and the click bait that would translate into was too hard to resist. ¿Amarillistas? Yellow journalism? Yes, and it’s not even New Year’s Eve, which is when you’re supposed to don yellow underwear for good luck.

One thing I liked about the original headline was the play on words where they changed the traditional phrase ver algo hasta en la sopa to hasta en el tinto. To see something or someone even in your soup means you see it absolutely everywhere.

pocillo de tinto cup of colombian coffee

But what’s tinto? Do you know? In Colombia, tinto is black coffee, usually served in a small cup. Not to be confused, of course, with vino tinto–red wine. Ah, ¡tinto! How I’ve missed this word. Frequently diminutivized to tintico, naturally. Some sources report that they also say tinto for black coffee in Venezuela and Ecuador.

Nos tomamos un tinto un día de estos y nos desatrasamos, ¿te parece?

Let’s meet up for coffee soon and catch up. Sound good?

¿Le provoca un tinto a sumercé?

Would you like a cup of coffee?

Lo mejor del trabajo es la máquina del tinto, que es gratis, así que tomé y tomé tinto, alrededor de siete tazas; y eso que hoy era mi primer día y me sentía un poco tímido. Sin duda alguna la empresa se quebrará con mi forma de tomar tinto.

The best thing about the job is the coffee machine, which is free, so I drank and drank coffee, around seven cups. And, you know, today was my first day, and I felt a little shy. I’m absolutely certain that the company will go bankrupt with me drinking coffee like this.

When I first read those lines above a few years back, for some reason my mind momentarily blanked and read the lines as if they said tinta–ink. The best thing about the job is the ink machine (that’s nice), so I drank and drank ink (um, what?), around seven cups of ink (¡ay, Dios mío!). How strange this person was! And forget about the company going bankrupt–what about the havoc he was wreaking on his body? What did he think he was, a notebook? An inkwell? And then . . . oh, ¡tinto! Well, of course. The tinto machine is infaltable in Colombian workplaces. Even better is the señora de los tintos who comes by with the bandeja or the carrito.

la felicidad sabe a tinto comic

If you’re a coffee connoisseur, you might wrinkle your nose at tinto. Colombia’s premium coffee beans have traditionally been exported, and the Colombian coffee you drink outside of Colombia has little resemblance to what you’ll experience in the country. For better or for worse, I’m not a coffee buff (or snob, though I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong in knowing how to appreciate good coffee), so the allegedly “flavorless” coffee that is drunk in Colombia suits me just fine. But more than the perceived quality of the drink, what’s so magical about drinking tinto is the atmosphere it creates and represents. Colombians are wonderfully warm, hospitable, and good at making spaces cozy. By pouring you a cup of tinto, they masterfully put you at ease and make you feel welcome. Whether it’s a get-together of family members, colleagues, friends, or lovers, a cup of tinto is a must for setting the mood. How I wish I had a steaming pocillo de tinto in my hands right now as I sit here writing. Starbucks is coming to Colombia soon, and I don’t know how I feel about that for several reasons. Hopefully, though, Colombia’s coffee traditions and culture will be preserved. 

This post’s title, Tomémonos un tinto, seamos amigos comes from a successful advertising campaign for Águila Roja. Let’s have a tinto; let’s be friends. Starting over a cup of coffee always bodes well for new friendships, and friends and coffee are two things you’ll find no shortage of when you go to Colombia.


Every city has its own sounds–its purrs, dins, and melodies. If you want to plumb the rich auditory heritage of Colombia’s cities, this mapa sonoro (sound map) will let you do so. Listen to an entertainer tell stereotypical Boyacá jokes on a bus, hear the chants from a march for peace in Bogotá, enjoy the mellifluous accents of neighbors shooting the breeze in Medellín. A wonderful fonoteca: a sound archive. Next week is the second annual Colombian Week of Sound: a week of free lectures, round tables, sound exhibits, and performances in Bogotá, all of them dedicated to the country’s inadvertent music. 

segunda semana de sonido en Colombia

Although every city has scents and sounds that belong to it, each place will also have the scents and sounds you bring to it or those you create. In your memories of the soundtrack of a city, there might be the screeches and groans of public transport and the cries of the avocado vendor over his megaphone while he purveyed his goods in the neighborhood, but there will also be memories of the music you turned on when you were in your apartment (assuming that none of your neighbors played vallenato at all hours a todo taco that prohibited personal listening) or always had piping in from your earbuds on the bus. Did you listen to local artists? Cling to your favorite bands from back home like never before? Or perhaps incongruously fall in love with music from the other side of the world? Maybe you wanted nothing more than to disconnect from the bullicio of the outside world and the nonstop prattle in a tongue you didn’t understand, so your apartment became a sanctum of blissful silence.

My personal soundtrack in Bogotá was Lhasa de Sela (folk, Mexico/U.S.), and in Medellín it was Silvio Rodríguez (folk, Cuba). My banda sonora when I first got back to the U.S. was Mercedes Sosa (folk, Argentina). She died soon after I moved to Bogotá, and the fact that she received three days of official national mourning made it clear to me that she was hugely important. I listened to a few songs of hers then, but it wasn’t until I was back in the U.S. that I started listening to her obsessively. Of course, I listened to many other artists in all of these cities, but none as fervently as these three.

I want to look at a word that stumped me in songs by these artists: fuera. It’s also high time I wrote a grammar post. I usually feel comfortable with Spanish grammar, but one verb tense that still throws me off at times is the imperfect subjunctive. (Actually, I’m still a hot mess when it comes to expressing certain things. So, I naturally do lots of lingual gymnastics to avoid saying–or feeling–these things at all.) Of course, the subjunctive in general can be murky. Song lyrics are always enigmatic, but here are my attempts to decipher some grammar so I could understand and appreciate the songs better. And if we can enjoy some wonderful music in the background de paso, so much the better.

The first song is Lhasa’s Desdeñosa (Disdainful). It’s actually a traditional Peruvian waltz titled Desdén (Disdain), and it has also been interpreted by Julio Jaramillo, among others. She changed the lyrics slightly.

No necesito amar – absurdo fuera,
repetiré el sermón de la montaña
por eso de llevar hasta que muera
todo el odio inmortal que me acompaña.

I don’t need to love – absurdo fuera,
I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount
for carrying to my death
all of the immortal hatred that keeps me company.

I could be wrong, but to me it seems that some key word has been done away with. This ellipsis enhances word economy, of course, but also reduces clarity. Maybe the omitted word is aunque or así. If it said aunque/así fuera absurdo, it could be interpreted as “even if it it’s absurd, I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount.” Or maybe the assumed phrase is por absurdo que fuera = as absurd as it might be, I’ll repeat the Sermon on the Mount. It’s a beautiful song, and the overall meaning is clear enough.

¿Qué cosa fuera, qué cosa fuera la maza sin cantera?
Un amasijo hecho de cuerdas y tendones,
un revoltijo de carne con madera,
un instrumento sin mejores pretensiones
que lucecitas montadas para escena.

¿Qué cosa fuera, qué cosa fuera the hammer without a quarry?
A tangle of strings and tendons,
a mess of flesh with wood,
an instrument that can aspire at best
to be mere lights set up on a stage.

This song is by Silvio Rodríguez, but I, like many people, prefer Mercedes Sosa’s cover. And I like her version with Shakira even better. No matter who was singing it, though, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the lyrics. Even after I looked up maza and cantera, I still couldn’t understand the song’s essential refrain: ¿Qué cosa fuera? My thinking went more along the lines of: ¿Qué demonios “fuera” qué cosa fuera?

Research led me to the realization that fuera is used where sería would be used in standard Spanish. Why replace the conditional with the imperfect subjunctive? Well, they, ahem, I mean we, actually do it regularly in Spanish. For example, you might say, Quisiera hablar con ella a solas instead of querría to say I would like to. People say things like, Pareciera que no le gusto instead of parecería to say it would seem. I also think of the phrase, ¿Qué te dijera yo? to say “What could I tell you?” And ¡Ya quisiera yo! . . . (ser alta, tener novia, que me hubieran contratado) for I (could only) wish! ¡Ya quisieras! You (would) wish! And, then, of course, using hubiera instead of habría in conditional phrases. Habría largely disappeared from my speech a long time ago.

According to the RAE and the NGLE, the conditional form of some modal verbs such as poder, deber, saber, querer, and parecer and the auxiliar verb haber are often interchanged with the imperfect subjunctive. Also, valer. Sometimes this is to soften what you’re saying to make it more courteous or modest. Other times, it’s used in hypothetical phrases to express the apodosis, that is, a conditional phrase where you don’t include the if clause. The -ra can be used with other verbs, but nowadays this sounds quite archaic and bookish in most areas. ¡Nadie lo creyera! [si no lo hubieses contado tú] 

So, it all makes sense now. Silvio/Mercedes is asking, What would the hammer be without the quarry? What would I be? What would the artist with his guitar be without inspiration? You just have to understand ¿Qué cosa fuera? as ¿Qué cosa sería? Of course, liberties are taken in art because lyrics have to fit into a fixed rhyme and meter scheme. Some people have speculated that the use of the imperfect subjunctive instead of conditional is more common in Cuba and perhaps the Caribbean region, but to be honest no supiera decirte.

Estoy buscando melodía
para tener cómo llamarte.
Quién fuera ruiseñor,
quién fuera Lennon y McCartney,
Sindo Garay, Violeta, Chico Buarque,
quién fuera tu trovador. 

I’m looking for a melody
to know just how to call you.
Quién fuera nightingale,
quién fuera Lennon and McCartney,
Sindo Garay, Violeta, Chico Buarque,
quién fuera your troubadour.

And now to a Silvio Rodríguez song that he both wrote and is singing. For the longest time, I took it for granted that quién fuera must have been asking a question about the past. Either quién fue or quién era or some fuzzy space in the middle. I was dead wrong, though. Actually, quién + imperfect subjunctive is a set phrase that is an equivalent of ojalá + imperfect subjunctive. One of the most classic settings for this construction is in piropos. ¡Quién fuera el patito de goma de tu bañera! Oh, to be the rubber ducky in your bathtub! ¡Quién fuera bizco para mirarte doble, hermosa! If only I were cross-eyed so I could see you in double, gorgeous! ¡Quién fuera noche para caerte encima! What I wouldn’t give to be the night to descend on you! This expression usually refers to oneself, and you use it for things that are either impossible or at least not currently true. It’s not very common in everyday speech.

So, the song expresses Silvio Rodriguez’ wish to be different people to be able to access the depths of a woman’s dark, guarded heart: an enchanter like Ali Baba, an explorer like Jacques Cousteau, a songbird to know just the right words to say. But in the end, all he has is his song. In essence, I suppose this song’s title is just like that of his most famous song, Ojalá. If only . . .

I think it’s often best when music doesn’t make sense or has some distinct, personal (but completely mistaken) meaning for you. Sometimes, though, it pays to seek to understand the syntax and vocabulary of songs in Spanish because you never know where you might run into them again. Now, I’ve shared three favorite songs with you to alegrar your day; share one of your own favorites with all of us in the comments. In the meantime, there are some excellent suggestions in the stanza from Silvio Rodríguez: Lennon and McCartney (The Beatles), Sindo Garay, Violeta Parra, and Chico Buarque. Such good music to listen to; such a good life to be enjoyed and shared.


Denuncian que niños autistas están expuestos a ladrones, prostitutas y jíbaros

Parents file complaint, say children with autism are exposed to thieves, prostitutes and jíbaros

I was totally thrown off by that last word when I read it in a newspaper article a few weeks ago. Jíbaros? Don’t ask me why, but for some reason that sounds like an animal to me. Maybe a warthog. It immediately fascinated me, though, a new shiny word for this magpie.

I’ve since learned that a jíbaro in Colombia and Venezuela is a person who distributes drugs in small amounts. He or she is a small-time dealer with no real power or influence, and is likely a consumer themselves. Apparently jíbaro was originally used to indicate someone who sold marijuana, but now it can refer to someone who sells any drug or hallucinogen. The M.O. of the jíbaro is to be a part of or to pass as part of the environment where he distributes: i.e., a student in a high school, a waiter in a dance club, etc. At a school, the jíbaro could be students, alumni, or outsiders who wait outside the school gate and surreptitiously slip small bags of drugs to students passing by. One jíbaro I read about hid his stash in a piggy bank while working; others stuffed it in their underwear.

Related words include jibariadero for a place where drugs are sold and jibariato, small-time drug dealing.

In Puerto Rico, a jíbaro is a person from the mountainous countryside, and the idea has become iconic in Puerto Rican culture. As jíbaros have traditionally lacked formal education and are unsophisticated, the term came to be interchangeable with hillbilly and hick. Many people have reclaimed and co-opted the term, though, and wear it as a label of pride. After all, the jíbaro is the ancestor and the backbone of Puerto Rican culture, and people are increasingly proud of these rural, simple, hardworking people who represent their roots. There’s even a Monumento al jíbaro statue in Puerto Rico to pay tribute to these country folk. Jíbaros also made their own music, the música típica of Puerto Rico.


Cubans use the term guajiro to mean the same thing, and ranchero is used in Mexico. I don’t know any equivalent word in Colombia besides campesino.

Here are some lyrics from beloved jíbaro music from Puerto Rico. If the only meaning for jíbaro you knew was drug dealer, you’d take away quite a different message from these songs than the intended one.

Y alegre, el jibarito va pensando así,
diciendo así, cantando así por el camino:
“Si yo vendo la carga,
mi Dios querido,
un traje a mi viejita voy a comprar.”

Soy de Puerto Rico y le canto a Colombia entera, soy jibarito y le canto a Colombia entera.

No sé por qué me atropella el recuerdo de mi amada, no sé si estará casada o qué rumbo habrá tomado la que fue ya en el pasado mi jibarita mimada.

Jíbaros are also an indigenous tribe in the Amazon jungle of Ecuador and Peru most famous for their art of shrinking the heads of their dead enemies to the size of a fist. The ritual is supposed to avoid any later revenge taken by the victims in the next life.

Jíbaro marriage

Wikipedia clues us in on a few more uses of jíbaro.

  • In Cuba, a jíbaro is a runaway dog.
  • In Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, Xivaro, or Gibaro, which is pronounced similar to jíbaro, was a name given to the natives of these countries by the Spaniards and Portuguese.
  • In Ecuador, givaro is the indomitable indigenous person that is endlessly elusive to the white man.
  • In 18th-century Mexico, a jíbaro was the child of a lobo and a china, that is the child of a mixed-race father (the son of an indigenous man and a black woman) and a mixed-race mother (the daughter of a white man and an Indigenous woman).

The only other word I knew for drug dealer was expendedor, but it doesn’t look like that term is universal. Other words I see are traficante, narcotraficante, narcotirador (Mex.), camello (Esp.), and bichote (PR). Know any others?

Finally, I discovered that Chicago has a famous sandwich called the jibarito. The specialty is a steak sandwich between two fried plantains, and, yep, it was invented by a Puerto Rican restaurant owner in Chicago. Wikipedia translates jibarito as “little yokel.”

Here’s a line I ran into yesterday while reading about Uruguay’s recent decision to legalize marijuana. This time, of course, jíbaro didn’t give me any problems.

En los años treinta le dio la vuelta a Estados Unidos Reefer madness (La locura del porro), una película en la que tres jíbaros corrompen jóvenes a punta de cannabis y jazz.

In the ’30s Reefer Madness came out in the United States, a movie in which three drug dealers corrupt young people with cannabis and jazz.

One thing I noticed on Twitter was Colombians retorting with the phrase cambia de jíbaro, as in, change dealers (to get a better one). I guess the implication is that someone’s low-quality marijuana (or what have you) is making them say crazy things.

Finally, when the Spanish version of Breaking Bad comes out this fall, I’d bet (and hope) the word jíbaro will appear, as it’s being made in Colombia. If I can step out of my pseudo-scholarly persona for a minute, let me just say that I can’t wait for this series to start! In case you didn’t know, it’s going to be called Metástasis. And if it’s even half as good as the English-language original, it will be excellent.

A peasant, a drug dealer, a head shrinker, a sandwich- Latin America has really gotten a lot of mileage out of the word jíbaro. I’d love to know how in the world it started being used to mean drug dealer in Colombia and Venezuela. Any guesses? I don’t have the foggiest idea over here.