Cultural anthropologist Guillermo Nuñez reflects on the beauty and resiliency of Sonoran Spanish.
Interview by Kimi Eisele
What is vernacular Sonoran Spanish? And how does it differ from Chihuahuan Spanish or Spanish of central Mexico?
I am not a linguist, but I can answer this based on my fieldwork experiences and trips around the country as an anthropologist. I have been in all 32 states of Mexico and have always been attentive to linguistic and cultural differences. My mom likes to tell the story about when we moved from the state of Sonora in Northern Mexico to the state of Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico when I was six years old. I started a list of words and expressions I found in Veracruz and translated to Sonoran Spanish. I remember for example the phrase “anda a pie pelao” to mean going barefoot. The Sonoran vernacular counterpart would be “anda a raiz” or the more Mexican standard “anda descalzo.”
However, two words had greater consequence at school, especially when I had to ask permission to go to the restroom. As a good Sonoran child, I said, “Profe me deja ir al privado?” To call the teacher “profe” and not “maestro” was completely strange to other kids and to the teacher. But the most confusing thing was to call the restroom “privado,” private room, and not “baño,” from the word “bañarse,” to take a shower, as they say in other parts of Mexico. Later, when we moved back to Sonora I asked permission to go to the “baño,” and the teacher teased me saying that there was no shower available at school. By the way, to call the teacher “profesor” or “maestro” is the respectful and adequate way to address a teacher in Mexico. We never call a teacher just by his or her name, as in the United States, which would be inappropriate by Mexican standards. I mention this because in Tucson, I had to explain to an American teacher that a newly arrived Sonoran child meant no disrespect in addressing her as “Teacher” and not Ms. Smith. Just the opposite. The child was just translating from her Sonoran-Mexican culture.
For those who speak it, Spanish Sonoran seems closer to Spanish spoken in other northern Mexican states than elsewhere in Mexico. Chihuahuan Spanish and Sonoran Spanish share many words used only in those states. For example, the word “taniche,” for store or tienda. Other very Sonoran words like “bichi,” meaning “naked,” are only used in Chihuahuan towns close to Sonora and are practically unknown in the rest of the state. Accent, intonation, and especially a certain conversational culture, are quite similar. Words identifying a person from Chihuahua, a Sonoran would barely use, like “un lepe” to mean “a child.” In Sonora you would say “buqui,” “morro,” “chavalito,” or the standard Mexican “chamaco.” And in southern Sonora, you’ll likely hear the more Sinaloan word, “plebe.” These words are so vernacular to these three states that if I hear casually someone in Tucson using them I can be almost 100 percent sure where is he or she from. By the way, the word “morro “and the feminine “morra,” used in Arizona Spanish to refer to children or teenagers, seem to come from the word for boiled sugar cane juice, which was spread like syrup or jam in a flour tortilla for a special dessert. Thus, “morro” was a tender way of addressing a child, like calling someone “sweet.”
Many Spanish speakers in Tucson or throughout the Southwest or even in Hermosillo many may not be aware of this semantic history, thinking such language is merely “street Spanish,” or an informal way to speak. Instead, it is vernacular Sonoran Spanish with a “sweet history”.
People from Northern Mexico are considered to speak in a strong, loud, and direct tone sometimes seen as rude or aggressive, especially in cities like Guadalajara, Guanajuato, or Puebla, with a long tradition of courtesy related to Colonial times. For example, in Hermosillo people might ask a stranger what time it is by saying “¿Qué hora traes?” But in Guadalajara people might say, “Disculpe, buenos días. Me regala su hora por favor?” Excuse me, good morning. Can you, please, gift me your time? In Hermosillo it is quite common for a customer who thinks something is too expensive, to say, “Uy qué caro,”—Wow, it’s so expensive!—right in front of the clerk. But in central or southern Mexico, that would be considered very rude. In Mexico City to express a similar opinion you might say, “Ok, thank you, maybe I will come back later,” but of course they wouldn’t come back. Nobody gets offended, it’s just the appropriate behavior.
To what extent does Sonoran Spanish reflect the influence of proximity (and traffic / porousness) with Arizona and the U.S.?
There are many words that come clearly from English. In Sonora, people say things like “parquearse” to say to park the car, instead of the more Castilian, “estacionarse.” Or we say “puchar” from to push instead of the Spanish “empujar,” or “las brecas” for the brakes instead of the “los frenos.” In many small towns of Sonora, people used to say “la suera” for sweater instead of the most common in Spanish, “suéter.” There is even an old Sonoran expression used when I was a child in Sonora that has somehow lost ground nowadays, another loan from the English language. When someone wanted to say, “Do you agree with me?” they said, “Entén?” from the English, “Do you understand?” But now when someone in Sonora uses the word “entén,” especially in Hermosillo or in a small town in the sierra, they are trying to connect affectionately with people from a shared regional history.
The use of English is even more prevalent among people who have worked and lived in the United States, an experience familiar to many Sonorans, as our family ties to southern Arizona go back to before the 19th century when the region territory was part of Mexico and New Spain. Some might say “las tuls” for tools instead of “las herramientas,” or “las pipas” for pipes or “la aplicación” for application, instead of “la solicitud.” Sometimes these translations end up being funny when they may not intend to be. To say “soportar a la familiar” to mean supporting the family is one example. In standard Spanish, “soportar” means to endure or to tolerate. But if you live in Sonora, especially along the US- Mexico border, you learn to understand what people really mean, as we share a vernacular way of speaking Spanish with certain English influence.
In what way does this “language” or dialect construct identity?
Language serves purposes of connotation, not only denotation, that is, we use language not only to communicate in an objective and straightforward way, but also to express emotions like nostalgia, sadness, affection, repulsion, happiness, as well as values, attitudes, intentions. Language also encompasses pitch, intonation, pronunciation, and syntax. All of these are symbols that communicate beyond their literal meaning, in a conscious or unconscious way.
These symbols make sense, in part, based on occupation, generation, gender, sexual identity, hometown, region, and nationality. When we speak, we make a symbolic presentation of ourselves, and others interpret these symbols with the help of their own cultural background. If we share a vernacular code or a way of speaking, we share a way of understanding the world—we might find a sense of deep connection, of being “ourselves” and being more fully understood.
So, yes, speaking is a way of being in the world, and the language we have learned is the medium through which we construct a sense of who we are, and the way we communicate that identity to others. For example, when I came to live in Tucson, and moved into Barrio Hollywood, a neighborhood on the west side, my neighbor was an 85-year-old man born in Sonora. He had lived in Tucson for 60 years. I remember how happy he was when I shared with him, through regular conversation, words and expressions from my Sonoran vernacular Spanish—“apapuchi” (to ride on someone’s shoulders) and “apearse del camion” (to get out of the truck). These exchanges created an instant connection that allowed for understanding, empathy, confidence and, in a short period of time, a deep friendship.
Language is like a house made out of words, expressions, intonation, pronunciation, and syntax. When we speak with these vernacular elements or hear someone else speak with them, we feel at home.
What are some examples of Indigenous influences on speech in Sonora?
Sonoran vernacular Spanish has a lot of Indigenous words, especially from the Yaqui, Mayo, and Opata. The Opata of the Sonoran sierra intermarried with the Spaniards; today many people in the highlands, but also in urban centers like Hermosillo and along the border, have Opata ancestry. Many towns and natural places preserve their original Opata names: Banámichi, Baviácora, Bacadéhuachi, Bacerac, Bavispe, to name just a few . Other regions of the state are influenced by Pima, Yaqui, Mayo, Seri or O’odham languages too.
Perhaps the most famous Indigenous word is “bato” meaning “guy,” which is now is part of not only Sonoran vernacular Spanish, but also the Spanish of both the U.S. Southwest Spanish and Northern Mexico. While many might assume the word has street or gang origins, according to some linguists, “bato” comes from the Yoeme-Yaqui, “batoi” or “baptized,” one who has become Christian.
In what ways has Sonoran Spanish evolved around questions of gender, sexuality, and class?
This is a complex question, one that would benefit from more formal research. Certainly, Sonoran Spanish has always had words used to connote aspects of gender, sexuality and class. I’m thinking of “fresco”—pronounced “frejco” in good Sonoran traditional accent—to mean homosexual. This word is particularly interesting because it originates from the Indigenous Sonoran Tara-Cahita linguistic family of the Opata, Yaqui, and Mayo languages. In these languages the cosmos is organized by gendered terms—the sun (hot) is masculine, the moon (cold) is feminine. In Yaqui language the word “seve” means cool or fresh and can refer to someone who is not hot nor cold, but somewhere in the middle. Like “fresco” it is also an adjective meaning homosexual. Nowadays “gay” is more commonly used in daily conversation in Sonora, but elderly people or those living in the sierra may still use it, and in so doing, reveal their origins.
Other words like “morra” and “ruca” are used to mean woman, and sometimes an old woman, in particular. There is also “culón” (big ass) or “bizcocho” (a cookie in the form of a donut), used to signify a man who is cowardly, non-committal, or wishy-washy, among other meanings. “Bichola” is commonly used in a non-vulgar way for penis. This word is so vernacular to Sonora that if someone uses it, they are most certainly Sonoran or have Sonoran family.
To me the most interesting link between language and gender in Sonoran Spanish has to do with words and expressions that work to regulate moral behavior usually along gendered lines. A word like “baquetón,” for example, refers to a man who commits small, immoral acts, and an expressions like “ser muy raspa,” which translates as “to be too rough,” suggests a person who uses vulgar or crude vocabulary.
I should add that feminist and LGBTQI movements as well legislation related to same-sex marriage, discrimination, and gender equality are allowing for more diversity and acceptance beyond traditional gender roles and identities in Mexico. This, in turn, is changing the way people use language, whether to conform to political correctness or to express a deep cultural change toward inclusion and respect.
Can you share a story or two about times in the field when Sonoran dialect surprised, mystified, or intrigued you?
I was doing research in the highlands of Sonora on issues related to culture and power, using a sophisticated theoretical framework, specifically the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s work on the use of modern technologies to discipline and control and self-control of subjects. I met an old man, a rancher, who explained to me how men “should be.” He spoke about the importance of work and being responsible, respectful, and serious versus behaving like a “clown.” We were interrupted when his teenage grandchild began to complain to the grandmother about having to do a chore, as he already had a plan to play baseball. The old man admonished the child, saying, “Tienes que ser más sujeto, así es la vida a veces, sujétate, haz lo que tienes que hacer.” Meaning, “You have to be more of a subject, life is this way sometimes, subject yourself and do what you have to do.” Later, in Bacadéhuachi, I heard one man praising another with the words, “Es muy sujeto,” translated as “He is such a subject” or “He subjects himself.” To me, that expression revealed how language contains within it both a moral code and cultural ideals of personhood. That phrase contained a philosophical perspective about self-discipline. In other words, within the language was a perspective on power and culture. At that moment, via a conversation with this old man rancher, I made sense not only of Foucault, who never set foot in Sonora, but also of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, who considered everyone—peasant, worker, teacher, homemaker—to be a philosopher, as language conveys a world vision. Through these examples, I have been able to show through my academic work, how the important notion of being a hardworking and disciplined person—and, for a man, how maintaining a certain control over one’s body and emotions—can be communicated in in Sonoran vernacular.
What kind of scholarship has been done on Sonoran speech, by whom, from what disciplines?
There are some important researchers on Sonoran speech in the school of linguistics at the University of Sonora, like Dr. Andrés Acosta, who is an expert on dictionaries. He created a fabulous glossary called Lenguas en contacto (Languages in Contact), about terms used within the gay community in Sonora. Carmen Morúa, also a linguist, wrote an important thesis on the uses of regional expression in daily communications in Hermosillo. There are relevant works on Indigenous languages of Sonora by scholars and students within the master’s program of Indigenous Languages at the University of Sonora, led by Doctor Zarina Estrada. Another researcher, Dr. José Luis Moctezuma, from the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Hermosillo, has done an extensive work on the demographic and political situation of the Mayo language in southern Sonora. Others like myself, not formally linguists but anthropologists, have pointed to vernacular Sonoran Spanish as part of the task of understanding Sonoran culture. I should add that all of the scholars I have just mentioned except Andrés Acosta, studied at the University of Arizona at some point, including me. So we have continued a long tradition of contact, learning, and exchange that exists between Sonora and southern Arizona.
Why is it important to pay attention to language if one wants to understand the dynamics of culture?
As I said earlier, language is not a collection of words to tag onto things, it is a way of understanding the world, the natural and social worlds, and the worlds of emotions, the body, gender and sexuality, morality. It speaks to appropriate or inappropriate social relations, and also to our memory and our identity. Paying attention to language in context provides us with important insights about an other’s world view and identity, allowing us to understand their behavior and how they make sense of their life and their place.
Once, when I was in Tucson, a young man from the Rio Sonora region told me that although he liked living in Tucson, he missed his hometown in Sonora. “How can I explain it?” he said. “If I put on a sombrero here in Tucson it doesn’t mean the same thing. I don’t feel the same. Even the word hat is not the same as ‘sombrero.’ You know what I mean?” Indeed. The word “sombrero” used in a specific context conveys much more that its denotative or objective meanings. It doesn’t just sit atop the head—it carries values, emotions, attitudes, promises, expectations, and a sense of identity.
One of the most fascinating things to me about Mexicano or Chicano people in Tucson, many of whom have Sonoran roots, is how they are masters at code-switching. They can change from English to Sonoran Spanish and vice versa with fluency and proficiency, adding words and expressions to convey exactly what they mean in either language. “So, I told my nana, dame las tijeras cause I am gonna cut mi pelito,” which is “Spanglish” for “I told my grandmother, give me the scissors because I’m going to cut my hair.” Speaking this way—in both languages with such fluency and melody—brings to life a history in which words that signify family ties, domestic objects, or parts of the body learned in Spanish at childhood still communicate a way of being American and Sonoran (or Hispanic or Latino) in Tucson.
That is the power of language, and that is the insight one can get from being attentive to vernacular language.
Guillermo Núñez Noriega, born in Guaymas, Sonora, México, holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from The University of Arizona. He is a full professor and researcher at the Centro de Investigación en Alimentación y Desarrollo in Hermosillo, Sonora and the author of seven books on gender and sexual culture in Mexico. His most recent book is Fariseos: Moral, control de los impulsos y masculinidad en la tradición folclórica de San Pedro de la Cueva, Sonora, published by the Universidad de Sonora, the CIAD A.C., and the Southwest Folklife Alliance.