This morning I read a scholarly article in Spanish on how videos used in standard Spanish teaching curricula promote the idea that Latin Americans are, as Elaine Benes once put it in a Seinfeld episode, “a very festive people” to the exclusion of other more nuanced, sophisticated analyses and the ideological implications of such patronizing, superficial caricaturizations. It was fascinating.
I learned a lot from the article, and it definitely gave me a lot to mull over; I also learned some Spanish from it, as I’m wont to do almost every time I read in Spanish. Most of the words I jotted down were ones I’ve learned but don’t have much familiarity with; however, there were a few that I didn’t know at all– ramplón, en sordina, and gradas. The first two were, meh, medianamente interesting, but gradas, now there was a blog post just waiting to be written. It had Vocabat written all over it. Who was I not to heed that call?
So, gradas! They mean bleachers (or terraces–I never knew that bleachers was an Americanism) or stands, and I’d never heard the word until today. It seems like such a basic word–how had I gone so long without it? I couldn’t tell ya. But now that it’s in my brain, I’m certain that it won’t be leaving. In my defense, I had an incredibly diverse wealth of experiences while I was in Colombia, and these were very intimate experiences where I basically got to be part of various families. One thing I never did, though, was go to any athletic events. So it’s no wonder I didn’t know gradas, though you would think I would have picked it up somewhere. Oh well. No need to feel degraded.
Gradas are the stands or bleachers at a sporting event or the kind of seating you’ll find in a TV studio audience. (Gradería and graderío are other ways to say this in some places, though much less common) La grada encompasses the idea of the entire area of the stands and the people in them. In some countries, gradas can mean stairs or even individual steps. Good to know.
You do know how to say stairs and steps in Spanish, don’t you? I’m sure you do, and I certainly don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but let’s go over it anyway just in case there’s one shy person in the lot who’s afraid to speak up. The review will do us all some good.
Stairs can be escalera or escaleras. I would say that escaleras is much more common, but they are basically interchangeable. It probably depends on regional use and personal preference. For some reason, escalera sounds more elegant to me, but I might be imagining that. I also wonder if perhaps escalera was originally the correct way to say it, but the influence of English and “stairs” crept in. I don’t know, though. In any case, they’re synonyms, and you’ll probably hear escaleras more.
Cortázar once wrote a great short essay titled Instrucciones para subir una escalera. I love it. I once translated a beautiful essay that referenced this piece. It happens often that we grow so accustomed to the ordinariness of day to day life that we no longer need instructions on how to go up a flight of stairs . . . Here’s a witty response to Cortázar’s witty but sincere and moving piece, Instrucciones para bajar una escalera by the Antioqueño writer Héctor Abad Faciolince.
To go up stairs is subir las escaleras; you can also say subir por las escaleras, which often suggests that there was another option. That is, you could have taken the elevator or levitated yourself to the third floor, but you either chose to take the stairs or had to. To go down stairs is bajar las escaleras or bajar por las escaleras.
What about an individual step? Escalón or peldaño
What if you miss a step and fall down? You can say caerse de las escaleras, caerse por las escaleras, rodar/se por las escaleras, rodar escaleras abajo, or caer/se escaleras abajo. Knock yourself out.
An escalator is escalera eléctrica or escalera mecánica.
An elevator is ascensor or elevador— a word I only learned once I moved back to the Spanglish-rife U.S.
If we’re talking about a really grand or wide staircase, escalinata is the more proper word. I remember learning this in a book and then hearing the gym teacher at the school where I used to work use this one time. As you can see, names eventually escape me, the topics of conversations fade over time, but the words used? Never! Well, almost never.
Don’t forget that escalera is also ladder. Context should always make things obvious, but I can still easily imagine some mistranslated sign somewhere: ELEVATOR BROKEN, USE LADDER. You can also say escalera de mano if you’re talking about a ladder. It’s funny, there’s a ladder store down the street from where I live, and I’ve always found it so charming and Latin American in its single-mindedness. I guess it would be an escalería? Just imagine, selling only ladders! You don’t see many specialty stores like that around anymore.
Led Zeppelin’s much beloved Stairway to Heaven? Escalera al cielo
Were you blown away by any of this new knowledge? Can you think of anything I missed? Catch you on the stairs somewhere.