When I traveled to Mexico for the first time ever years ago, I went to some state called Chiapas.
I went there with a group of other Americans and almost none of them spoke Spanish either outside of like two people.
They weren’t Latino either.
Just two folks who were studying Spanish that came along for the trip.
Anyway, we visited some group called the Zapatistas in a rural village area of Chiapas and spent maybe around a week or so in the area.
While there, I remember my Spanish wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now.
Which isn’t saying it’s perfect these days either to be fair.
But, back then, my Spanish was non-existent for practical purposes but something to mention academically.
Where I had studied Spanish formally for like 5 years by that point more or less but didn’t have any real practical experience speaking it.
Therefore, despite studying and doing well in my Spanish classes for 5 years, I couldn’t really speak it.
Not unless you spoke very slowly and gave me time to think about how to say things before saying them.
Which is in contrast to how I am now where I can just say whatever in Spanish without trying to form the sentences in my head first.
All of which goes to show anyhow that practical experience beats academic studying, doesn’t it?
At least for me it was the case.
Though both have their purpose, actually living in Latin America has propelled my Spanish to greater levels in a much quicker time than any classroom ever did.
And, as I said, there were two students in the group who were studying Spanish formally also.
Their Spanish was a little better than mine but also relatively basic given the lack of experience abroad.
One of the students, a guy named Michael, would be insistent on speaking Spanish 110% of the time in the group.
Even with those in the group who didn’t study Spanish formally or speak it at all anyhow.
It was weird.
Why speak Spanish to people who you know don’t know any bit of it?
Michael: “Hola Paul, como estas? Sabes donde esta el baño? Claro que si!”
Paul: “Bro, just speak English. I don’t know what you’re saying.”
I guess, in a way, Michael just wanted to exploit the opportunity as much as possible to always be speaking Spanish in a Spanish speaking country.
To get that real world experience no matter what nor the social context that he is speaking in.
Nor did he care for how he would come across either.
At least not with any gringos who didn’t speak Spanish in the group.
Nor with the locals when trying to include Mexican slang into his speaking.
He put off a vibe of trying to be overly nice with any local he was caught speaking with.
Some weird over-the-top fakeness that came with the niceness.
And would say things consistently, no matter the context, that included Mexican slang like “que onda” or “no mames.”
Among whatever else he said.
I particularly remember the “no mames” being used VERY liberally but not much else when it comes to the slang.
He used some other words but I can’t recall what they were.
A lot of “NO MAMES” though.
Almost like he had a string on his back that someone was pulling that would make him yell out “NO MAMES” on command.
I guess that was his way of trying to fit in while also being, as I said, overly nice with the locals?
And, in a way, try to “improve his Spanish” perhaps by using these words.
Anyway, the trip wasn’t really defined by Michael’s behavior as it was focused on something more important that you can read about here.
But it does remind me of a brief topic to discuss.
Which is the topic of “is it OK for gringos to use Spanish slang in any Latin American country?”
And, if it is OK, in what context?
Here’s my thoughts on the matter.
Trying to be the Latino
Right away, let’s address the elephant in the room.
The gringo who wants to come across as Latino or “fit in” with the locals as a Latino.
You have some gringos who come down here with that strong mentality of trying to fit in like a local.
Honestly, it’s been years since that time in Chiapas and I can’t say for certain from my memory if Michael was trying to “fit in” with the locals.
That’s my impression looking back at it but I can’t say it’s a 110% guarantee.
You can be the judge there based on the limited information above.
Still, I have met this type of gringo who wants to fit in and they sometimes go to weird lengths to do so.
I wrote an article here on the subject.
Well, I can get where the desire comes from if you happen to be a gringo living down here for years who has to deal with the feelings of “being an outsider.”
However, I think it’s stupid to try to be like a local.
You can adjust to some of the cultural norms of the country (like trying certain foods, learning Spanish, etc) but you need to know that almost nobody down here will ever see you are a local.
As one of them.
It comes across as weird and people will probably make fun of you.
You should be proudful of where you are from but not an arrogant jackass that rubs his belief that his nationality is superior in the faces of the locals constantly and unironically.
There’s a line to walk between both of them where you are comfortable with your roots without so socially retarded that you constantly disrespect the local culture in every situation you are in.
Spanish Slang Used Wrongly
In the case of Michael, I think this applies much more strongly.
He was using the words “no mames” in contexts that made no sense.
For example, I remember we were sitting down at a restaurant of some hotel in Villahermosa before we got to Chiapas if I remember right.
While sitting down, I order some eggs in Spanish.
Funny enough, Michael broke away from Spanish for a second and muttered under his breath “…nice…” when he heard me order in Spanish.
Funny to think about now.
Anyway, it was Michael’s turn to order breakfa
I forgot what he ordered but the first thing he asked off the menu wasn’t available.
It was something to drink and the waiter informed him of what drinks were available that morning.
Now that I look back on it, I think it was tea that they didn’t have available?
Anyway, Michael gave his usual “no mames” after being told about the lack of tea or whatever it was.
I remember seeing the waiter’s face change for a second like he was confused.
Not offended necessarily but just confused.
Especially as Michael’s tone of voice and what he said after wasn’t indicate of someone trying to be a condescending ass.
In my opinion, I feel that he just didn’t know that it would be weird to say “no mames” after being told that there’s no tea.
It was just some slang he probably read online after googling “top 10 Mexican slang words to learn” before the trip.
In this case, you have an example of a gringo who just doesn’t know the appropriate context to say something.
Or at least I think he used it wrongly here.
And it does happen more often than you think.
Some new gringo in town who is just trying his best to engage with the Spanish language and happens to say something in an incorrect social context.
Being honest, this is what I’ve probably been most guilty of.
Back when I first started living in Mexico City about 4 and a half years ago, I remember hanging out with a Mexican chick named Angie where I’d also say shit like “NO MAMES WEY” or other dumb shit.
All in an exaggerated accent.
In this case, I think it can work.
If the chick you are seeing finds it funny, then it works!
Just don’t overuse it obviously.
I haven’t used “Spanish slang ironically” in quite a while but it can sometimes work depending on the context.
Next, this is a hypothetical for me that has come to mind.
In my years living in Latin America, I have met the occasional gringo with Latino roots.
Some of whom wish to reconnect with their roots and maybe don’t speak Spanish perfectly!
Honestly, I say this is a “hypothetical” because almost all of the gringos I’ve met with Latino heritage haven’t overused local slang in any weird way.
The only one who might’ve ever done so, as I think about this, was one gringo with Guatemalan heritage.
Back when I was in college, there was some dude who was, if I remember right, born in the US but had Guatemalan parents.
He didn’t speak Spanish perfectly at all.
Much more limited understanding of the words.
In class though, there were times where group assignments or presentations were done.
And I remember him occasionally incorporating “slang words” into some of his work.
I don’t remember the words though because I never heard them before or after that class.
But it does make me think if, maybe for some gringos with Latino heritage, they might feel the need to use slang to feel “closer” to their heritage?
Is that a thing for some of them?
I have no idea.
But, as I’ve pondered some ideas for this article, that memory came to mind and it made me wonder.
In a way, it makes sense.
Some of these folks I have met really do have a STRONG desire to “reconnect” with their roots.
So I could see it.
But, given this dude had Guatemalan parents, I could also see him not as likely to fuck up the use of any Guatemalan slang.
He’d have parents at home to help him with his Spanish learning and how to use words appropriately.
Still, it’s something to ponder.
Any Latino who wasn’t born in Latin America chime in if they want on this one since it’d be interesting to hear about this.
Coming Across as Lower Class? Lower Class Ain’t Cool!
When Michael said “no mames” to the lack of tea, the waiter might’ve thought that the gringo is coming across as “lower class.”
However, I have no idea what he thought.
But it has been my observation that some Latinos see the use of Spanish slang as being a bit “lower class” in a way.
Which might even be confusing for said Latino if he associates all gringos with being upper class or having a bit of money.
For being well-travelled, educated or whatever else.
I’ve met Latinos who carry those ideas about us.
Of course, you have those who think oppositely.
And, for the Latinos who have seen the smelly backpackers with unfavorable habits, those stereotypes might’ve been broken.
Or whatever other gringo of less preferable behavior that said Latino might judge.
Still, when said Latino thinks that the gringo is more upper-class or financially better off…
Then he sees him using slang that said Latino considers “lower class,” then how does that impact said Latino?
I imagine it does confuse them if they see one but imagine the other.
On top of that, I think there’s a cultural difference here too.
It’s more common for some people in the US to associate “lower class” ideas like gangs or whatever else as being “cool.”
However, while you do have some people who idealize criminals like narco leaders such as El Chapo in some parts of Mexico, I feel people in Latin America as a whole are less likely to think it’s “cool” to be lower class or anything similar.
Not sure how else to phrase it but I feel that there is a cultural difference there.
As a result, while said gringo might not even know that overusing slang might make him look bad, he also would be more likely to think it’s “cool” if he even knew.
That’s just how I see it anyway.
Final Verdict: Is it OK to Use Spanish Slang?
Honestly, it depends on the context.
I don’t think it’s wrong or even “lower class” in my eyes for a gringo or a local to use slang.
If some gringo called a Latino his “carnal” or “wey,” then cool.
But it depends on the context.
If said gringo doesn’t know said Latino and calls him either of the above, that’d be weird to me.
And if he overuses slang unironically, that’d be weirder.
But there’s nothing more to say.
It just depends on the context for when and with who to use it and to not overuse it.
Anyway, if you have anything to add, drop a comment below in the comment section.
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Thanks for reading.