Ramadas, Cunques & Coi: Dialects of the Southwest Borderlands

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Nasario Garcia’s new poetry volume, Lágrimas, invites a reclamation of language in New Mexico and beyond.

by Mele Martinez

Some years ago, a group of newspaper writers representing twenty-one different countries was asked to choose one word that would help illustrate the variety of Spanish dialects from their respective regions. The results demonstrated a “sonorous atlas” of the Spanish language. A Mexican writer chose the word pinche, a strong, derogatory word for “damn” or worse; a Chilean writer chose patiperro, literally “dog feet,” a descriptor for someone itching to travel out of the country; Spain’s representative chose contradios, a colloquialism for “absurd;” and Uruguay’s chose celeste, a word for the light blue color on the country’s flag and soccer team jersey symbolizing national identity and pride. 

I was most interested in the U.S. selection—a term that could encapsulate the various Spanish dialects of “El Norte.” For this, Colombian-American novelist Sergio de la Pava chose the word parqueadero. It means parking lot. 

Like many of the words in the atlas, parqueadero communicates much more than its denotative meaning. Parqueadero derives from the English verb “to park,” meshed with the Spanish -dero, a suffix to indicate a place where an activity occurs. “To park” becomes parquear and is adapted for other conjugations too, like parqueando for parking. From there, it isn’t much of a leap to parqueadero

These unique terms that wring Spanish from English were probably invented by immigrants or children of immigrants, and represent the lingual craft needed in hasty communications—those real and practical situations where we find ourselves in the middle of multiple cultures, swirling in translingualism, but also just trying to find a parking place. 

Spanglish and Espingles

When I imagine a “sonorous atlas” of Spanish dialect specifically in the Southwest, I think of words that may stretch outside of formal or standardized diction, words like ahorita (right now), chante (house), troque (truck), lonchi (lunch), and queque (cake). I tried to use the word queque in a bakery in Mexico City once and was admonished for it. I knew very little Spanish and didn’t know the term el pastel was more appropriate in Mexico. Growing up in Tucson, I don’t remember hearing the term el pastel at birthday parties, but I had no idea queque might be improper in another Spanish-speaking country, even shameful to use in the hierarchy of Spanish dialects. 

Then again, I wonder sometimes if English isn’t my first language either. In college I studied writing but found it hard to write in Standard American English much of the time. My tongue spoke a version of English not used in higher education. It was different. I remember feeling frustrated with requests from my fellow students and teachers to translate my English into “English.” For example, writers from elsewhere who reviewed one of my manuscripts insisted that I translate the word ramada—a term for a shaded patio structure usually made of mesquite wood and saguaro ribs, in the Sonoran Desert at least. In Arizona the word is so common that in the 1950s a group of investors used it for a Route 66 hotel chain. I told my reviewers I didn’t know an equivalent English word, because in Tucson a ramada is not exactly the same as an “arbor” or a “pergola.” It is different. 

If I was ever asked to contribute a word to the ”sonorous atlas” of Spanglish (or maybe Espingles) dialect in the Southwest, I’d probably choose ramada, not just because it may be uniquely used in the United States compared to other Spanish-speaking countries, but because it may not be fully understood here either. A few hundred miles away from where I live in Tucson, a friend in New Mexico might use jacal or techao instead, demonstrating that dialects from region to region, even within the Southwest Borderlands, create a mosaic of Spanish, Spanglish, Espingles vocabularies and beyond. 

Lágrimas

A black and white book cover of Nasario Garcia's book, Lágrimas, featuring a view of mountains and forest.

Folklorist Nasario Garcia was raised in New Mexico’s Rio Puerco valley and writes prolifically (with more than a dozen published books) about his home, Ojo del Padre (Guadalupe), a now deserted Village surrounded by canyons and wilderness. His latest bilingual book of poetry, Lágrimas, is written in New Mexican dialect, also referred to as Manito. He writes “to preserve the linguistic richness” he was immersed in as a child. In vivid imagery describing Rio Puerco valley culture, Garcia demonstrates how the New Mexican dialect is enriched by contributions from Mexican Spanish and Náhuatl as well as New Mexico’s own indigenous cultures and Anglicisms. 

I am a regular visitor and one-time resident of New Mexico, and the state’s dialects have been “in my ear” most of my life, so when I read Garcia’s poetry (each poem translated from New Mexican dialect to English), both the familiar and unfamiliar terms fascinated me. Words like criatura (literally translated “creature” but used here for “child”) and túnica (vestido/dress) are applied in perhaps uniquely New Mexican ways, but words like medias (calcetines / socks) and todito (todo/every bit of) feel like home to me. 

The speaker in Garcia’s poems is a child with an extensive vocabulary who is still adapting and discovering, allowing the reader to adapt and learn language alongside the narrator. And, along with this sense of discovery, there is also melody. By which I mean these poems resonate recognizably in my ear even when the words are not all part of my vocabulary. Manito, this New Mexican dialect, is distinct in more than its diction; it is also distinct in its musicality. 

In one poem, “Los dientes postizos (False Teeth),” Garcia captures the sound of three additional voices (an uncle, aunt, and cousin) in just a few stanzas: 

--¿Qué hicites / con mis dientes?-- 
le preguntó mi tío
a mi tía Rocío.
 --Ahi los alcé 
arriba de la cómoda
 en un vaso con agua
y salpática
que compré
en la botica
la semana pasada. . .

Entró mi primo
en el cuarto
de dormir
y
vio los dientes
que se sonreían. . .

--¡Hijo ‘e la patada!
Lo que yo vide
no son dientes postizos
sino cormillos
del diablo.

In this example, we see Spanish archaisms like the word vide, a Spanish spelling and pronunciation of the more standardized vi (I saw).  

A black and white headshot of Nasario Garcia
Nasario Garcia

With this diversity of Spanish expression throughout the poems, Nasario Garcia’s online glossary becomes a useful resource for understanding New Mexican dialect and helps preserve the language he says is “slowly but sadly disappearing” with the ghost town villages in his Río Puerco Valley. 

Linguistic researchers debate the “romantic myth” that New Mexican Spanish dialects (especially those of Northern New Mexico reaching into parts of Southern Colorado) were isolated enough from the rest of Spanish and Mexican influences to preserve the dialect of Spain’s 16th century Golden Age into regular use for New Mexicans in the 20th century and beyond.

Still, the continued use of some archaic terms instead of modern and standardized Spanish show us that language may be changing more slowly in New Mexico. It may still be possible to hear words from hundreds of years ago, like asina (así / like this), muncho (mucho / many or much), and mesmo (mismo / same), which have uniquely endured in New Mexico. 

Cunques, guayabes y coi

Of course, Spanish and English are not the only languages contributing to Borderlands tongues. Many Spanish words originating from Indigenous languages—especially Nahuatl, the Aztecan language most associated with regions of Mexico and Central America—describe plants, animals, objects, and foods that colonizers encountered in the so-called “New World.” These include familiar Spanish diction like cacao, coyote, mesquite, mole, mezcal, and nopal. But Nahuatl is also not the only indigenous language contributing to Manito dialects. 

In the early 1990s, New Mexican linguists Garland Bills and Neddy Vigil conducted a survey of New Mexican dialects to map traditional language colloquialisms. They hypothesized that Spanish colonizers rarely learned local indigenous dialects. They argue that generally, Spanish colonizers in New Mexico, much like English-speaking colonizers, saw their own language and culture supreme and rejected Indigenous language integrations to preserve racial class distinctions. Still, these linguists found that New Mexican Spanish speakers used a handful of Indigenous terms or “loanwords”—words not from Nahuatl but from the local languages of the Pueblo Indians. 

Many of these unique terms describe types of food. The Zuni cunques means bits of ground corn or cornmeal. For the Rio Grande Tewa, the same term is actually two words: kun (corn plant) and ke (grain) combined to describe “grains of corn.” Bills and Vigil found that Northern Spanish-speaking New Mexicans still use the borrowed term cunques. At times it simply meant “crumbs,” but eventually the loanword became the term for asientos or coffee grounds, widely used throughout the state of New Mexico. Bills and Vigil believe this term might have even migrated into northern Mexico, where researchers have recorded the use of cunques or cunquis to describe either coffee grounds or chicken feed.  

Plenty of Americans celebrate their morning with a stack of flat fried cakes covered in syrup, but while U.S. Spanish speakers might use the anglicism or English loanword of panqueques, Bills and Vigil recorded more than a dozen New Mexicans who called them guayabes (or guallabes), a word they believe derives from a Tewa word for a paper-like kind of bread or wafer made from blue cornmeal. 

Though these Puebloan words may still be spoken today, albeit by only a few New Mexican Spanish-speakers, other terms, as Garcia suggests, seemed to have disappeared completely. The loss of a word is usually attributed to its irrelevance in contemporary culture, but the story of why a word dies can be incredibly relevant to us today.

Writing in the Santa Fe New Mexican, “Trail Dust: Old New Mexico Spanish words fading away,” Marc Simmons mourns the loss of several terms, including the Tewa word coi.

“In the 18th century, it was part of everyday speech here,” Simmons writes. “Coi was the name Spanish-speakers used for the first story, or floor, of multilevel Indian pueblos.” 

A coi floor had no windows or doors and could only be accessed by a ladder to a door in the roof. The word may have been interchangeable with the term kiva, a round subterranean space used for political and ceremonial gatherings. Simmons claims, “By 1870 or so, the pueblos were no longer subject to attack, so doors and windows were opened in their first floors, and the interior space converted to apartments, like those above. The word coi dropped from use and within a generation was forgotten.” 

But perhaps the word wasn’t simply forgotten. Maybe, like other “lost” languages, it was pushed out. 

After the Pueblo Revolt, Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón remained one of the last Governors of “New Spain” in the New Mexico region. In 1714 he ordered the destruction and demolition of the village coi, the spaces that Pueblo Indians used for community gatherings of all sorts. Mogollón charged that these spaces without doors and windows were hidden from street view and entrance, and so must be secretly hiding “superstitious and idolatrous abuses.” The systematic eradication of these structures was just one of many paths towards the loss of culture, and thus dialect, for New Mexicans.

Words endure

What happens when words are lost or pushed out? It may seem small, a word like coi, such a tiny three-letter spec in the universe of language. But when it hits close to home, the loss of a single word can feel as big as a crater. Perhaps this is why poets like Nasario Garcia continue to write the words again and again, pulling them back from the abyss, holding dialects like Manito tight to the chest.  

I know the feeling. I want to find words buried in my DNA, words still floating around in the desert and passing back and forth over borders. I want to hear how they sound in this accent and that register, how they are improvised and personalized. I hope for voices that continue to chant these lost and found words, like a steady pulse: ramada, ramada, ramada.

Melani “Mele” Martinez is a writer, mother, and flamenco dancer from Tucson. She is currently at work on a memoir entitled The Molino and works as a lecturer at the University of Arizona teaching first year writing and food writing courses.

Cover photo: Colin J. McMechan

Sources

Bills, Garland D, and Vigil, Neddy A. “The Spanish Language of New Mexico and Southern Colorado.” The Spanish Language of New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 2008. The Spanish Language of New Mexico and Southern Colorado, 2008-12-16. Web.

Kessell, J. L., & United States. National Park Service. (1979). Kiva, cross, and crown : the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service : for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off.

3 thoughts on “Ramadas, Cunques & Coi: Dialects of the Southwest Borderlands”

  1. Wonderful article, Mele, thank you. The author John Nichols (Milagro Beanfield War) grew up as a fluent Spanish speaker from a very young age, living with his grandmother in Barcelona. He said that it was wonderful when he first came to live in the mountains of northern NM, to hear some people still speaking Castillian Spanish. Here in Taos, some of the borrowed words for food are still shared in both directions: Tiwa (as opposed to Tewa) has borrowed “queso” with a different pronunciation, and I had never heard or used the word “atole” because we always used the Tiwa word for this when I was growing up. A few others I can think of. I look forward to reading Nassario’s poetry for the first time, as I’ve only read his prose.

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  2. years ago my hispanic hiking buddy told me a funny story. in order to marry his wife his father in law stipulated he must convert to mormonism. he agreed, converted, and was sent to argentina, for his church mission, as he was bilingual. he was granted lodging with an argentine family. after the first meal was eaten, he asked the lady of the house, “puedo lavar sus trastes?” big mistake, in southern argentina “trastes” has been corrupted to a word for buttocks…. i suppose a good laugh was in store for all? my thought, spanish is spanish, but sometimes you may encounter a corrupted usage…..

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  3. Awesome article!
    Thank you for reflecting on the great history of our accumulated cultures, languages and dialects that connects us all as a people.
    I love New Mexico and our rich and fascinating history!

    Reply

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