Something sad happened a few days ago that has all of Latin America mourning: Roberto Gómez Bolaños passed away, famously known as Chespirito (little Shakespeare, a reference to his prolificness, talent, and short stature). Chespirito had a variety show where he played several different characters, but he’s most fondly remembered for the show El chavo del ocho, as well as El chapulín colorado. El chavo del ocho was and still is an absolute phenomenon throughout the region: though the show’s heyday was in the 70s, tens of millions still tune in daily to watch reruns.
If you spend time in Latin America and even halfway embed yourself into the culture, it’s inevitable that you’ll come across references to El chavo del ocho, whether you realize it or not. I remember that my first year here in 2009, I went to a Halloween party (dressed as a gypsy) whose costume contest was won by a guy dressed as El chavo del ocho. I had no idea who he was supposed to be: he just looked like a hobo to me. I was so confused, as well as a little indignant that such a shabby costume could take top prize. Saying that he was el chavo del ocho made no sense to me! What the heck was a chavo, and from the eighth what? Here are a few general pointers to know about the show, with no need to actually watch it. If you ever have an hour to spare, though, I definitely recommend catching an episode or two. Think of it as an infusion of culture.
The show was Mexican, and chavo in Mexico means boy. Ocho refers to the apartment number of where he supposedly lives, though I’m told you never actually see the apartment. El chavo is an orphan, and we mostly see him on the patio of an apartment complex. He spends a lot of time in a barrel on the patio.
Main characters: El chavo (orphan), La Chilindrina (friend), Quico (friend), plus several adults.
I think that most of the current love for the show is based on nostalgia. It gets a few laughs out of me, but El chavo is just too woebegone and pitiful for me to really enjoy myself. When it was being shown during the seventies and eighties, many countries only had one or two channels, and much of Latin America was under dictatorships. Something about the perpetual down-on-his-luckness of the beloved underdog and the working-class cast really spoke to people. Trying to describe its almost inexplicable success and appeal to Americans, one Internet commenter described it as The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, and Charlie Brown all in one show.
In El chavo, the kids all speak in these very whiny voices (and I think the Mexican accent can be a little chillón to begin with), so I sometimes find it a little hard to make out what they’re saying. If you ever catch an episode on TV, though, watch it a for a few minutes at least–it’s good language practice, and you’ll get a healthy dose of Latin American culture in you. Actually, a fair amount of the humor revolves around language: misunderstandings and double entendres, and then the meanings will be spelled out with plastilina for the slow-witted characters who didn’t get them. Great for a Spanish learner to eavesdrop on.
I watched part of the first episode of El chavo del ocho that came up on Youtube and loosely transcribed an interaction centered on language.
¿Quieres por favor poner las petacas en la escalera? [El chavo then goes and sits on the stairs.] (petaca = suitcase in Mexico; petacas = buttocks in Mexico and the Caribbean) (Could you please place the suitcases/buttocks on the stairs?)
¡Estoy hablando de mis petacas! (No, my suitcases/buttocks!)
¿Qué quiere, que le empuje pa’ que dé un sentón o qué? (What, do you want me to push you so you fall on your butt or what?)
Estoy hablando de las maletas, ¿no sabes lo que son maletas? (maleta = suitcase; idiot, good-for-nothing) (I’m talking about the suitcases/idiots–don’t you know what suitcases/idiots are?)
Ah, sí, los árbitros de futbol, dice Don Ramón. (Oh, right, soccer refs, according to Don Ramón.)
Mira, estas son maletas, [points at his two suitcases on the ground] o petacas, son sinónimos. (Look, these are suitcases, or luggage: they’re synonyms.)
¿Son sinónimos? (They’re synonyms?)
Claro. (Of course.)
Ah, o sea que [walks over to the suitcases] este es un sinónimo chiquito y este es un sinónimo grande. (Oh, OK, so this is a small synonym, and this is a big synonym.)
Voy de nuevo, eh. Esta es una maleta. (Let’s try this again, OK? This is a suitcase.)
Ah bueno, sí, también. (Oh, OK, that, too.)
¿Tú sabes si Doña Florinda ya hizo su maleta? (Do you know if Doña Florinda already packed/made her suitcase?)
No, las compró ya hechas. (No, she bought them pre-made.)
Me refiero a si ya preparó su maleta. (I mean whether she packed her suitcase.)
Ah, pues no sé. (Oh, I don’t know.)
¿Quieres echar un ojo a las maletas? (Could you keep an eye on/throw an eye into the suitcases?)
Ay no, quedo tuerto! (No, then I’d be a one-eyed man!)
Pues, por favor si quieres vigilar mis maletas mientras yo voy a hablar con Doña Florinda. (Look, just watch my suitcases while I go talk to Doña Florinda.)
Ridiculous? Absolutely. All of the humor here centers on words with more than one meaning, as well as expressions taken literally. Great practice for learners, though, and de paso you can learn some very colloquial and Mexican Spanish.
El chavo and Chespirito in general also have left a great legacy on the Spanish language. Here are some phrases you’re very liable to hear in day-to-day life.
From El chavo del ocho
Fue sin querer queriendo. (It was accidentally on purpose.)
¡Se me chispoteó! (Whoops, it just slipped out!)
Es que no me tienen paciencia. (I just can’t get a break.)
From El chapulín colorado (The Crimson Grasshopper)
¡No contaban con mi astucia! (They never saw it coming!)
Calma, calma, que no panda el cúnico (Pobody nanic.)
Lo sospeché desde un principio. (I smelled a rat from the beginning.)
These shows are really near and dear to most Latin Americans’ hearts, so I recommend that you at least have a cursory knowledge about who their beloved Chespirito was! The comedian made generation after generation laugh, and people will always be grateful for how he brought so much cheer and love to their lives. Que en paz descanse.