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Caló: A Borderland Dialect

Caló is the latest addition to Marfa Public Radio's programming. Created by Oscar Rodriguez, who sometimes goes by the name "El Marfa," the series honors the Texas borderlands patois commonly called Caló.

Oscar Rodriguez

Oscar grew up speaking this language in Ojinaga and Odessa. He remembers the unique dialect filling the barrios and countryside of his childhood in West Texas. Each week on Caló, Oscar will feature words and phrases from Caló then explore their meaning with a personal anecdote.

Oscar was born and raised in Ojinaga, West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. He has lived in and out of Texas since he graduated from Ector High School in Odessa in the late-1970s, including a couple of years in the 1990s when he lived in Marfa and taught at Sul Ross State University. Oscar is also an enrolled member of the Lipan Apache Tribe and an avid researcher of Native history in Texas and New Mexico — specifically in the La Junta region. 

He hopes by sharing his knowledge of this colorful language, he can help keep it alive.

  • Órale, the Caló word for this last episode of the story about a vato who learned to live with his archenemy is hacer. It’s Spanish for to do, as in to do something. In Caló, hacer is a contraction of hacerla, which adds to the generic action of doing the idea of a la or known end or destination. It implies a purposeful, focused, not generic, action aimed at attaining an end. It could be walking home, picking up a dagger to do the evil deed, or even meeting your death. You can’t hacerla if you’re not somehow heading somewhere in particular. Say, you’re tired or finished with what brought you here and now wanna go now? You tell everybody, la voy hacer, and they’ll understand you’re going home.
  • Órale, the Caló word for this week is cuete. It means rocket in Spanish, as in take a rocket to the moon. In Caló, it means handgun or drunken. Of course, both nuances can all be used in a single sentence, as in they were all cuetes on New Year’s Eve cueteando the stars until the jura came over to check out qué fregados was happening.
  • Órale, I’m continuing with the story I started last week about a vato who finds peace with his mortal enemy. If didn’t hear that episode, know that it ended with the vato, who’s very canjijo, backing up a sura bully named Quique.The feature for the continuing episode is the expression tirar ojo. In Spanish, it means to throw a look or stare somebody down, as in the common English expression, “throw darts.” This term should not be confused with the even more folkloric term dar ojo, which means to put a spell on somebody through a bad look. We’ll cover that in the future. Meanwhile, tirar ojo is a belligerent stare meant to intimidate or communicate ill will. It’s almost like the haka dance of some New Zealand ruby teams, where the players stick out their tongues, bulge their eyes, and contort their faces to project revilement toward their foes. In Caló, that hate and revilement is projected solely through the eyes. You throw everything imaginable through your eyes, like darts, daggers, cinder blocks, or rabid monkeys. If you can’t menace, you have to at least be annoying.
  • The featured Caló word of this first episode is canijo. It means dogged, tough, indominable. It comes from the Latin word for dog, canis, which is also the root for the English word for the same, canine. A canijo shouldn’t be confused with an arranque, someone who’s fierce or always ready to fight. A canijo is a reluctant warrior who doesn’t pick fights but will answer the call. And once engaged, a canijo won’t lose. Canijo versus arranque? Bet on the canijo.
  • Órale, this week’s feature is the word, mandado. It means to be cast to hell or, worse yet, to be sent to the one who’s awaiting you there, La Muerte, who goes by many pseudonyms, like the bald one (la pelona), the one who’s flesh has been rubbed off (la fregada), the boney one (la huesuda), or the toothless one (la mocha). Now, having been mandado to la pelona doesn’t mean you’re already in hell. You’re only on the way there. This is what’s emphasized because, while you’re mandado, you languish, your impending arrival in hell ever present and predominating. Puro hangdog life. Nothing that’s good in life will ever happened to you, no love or empathy for you, no joy, nada. Everybody stops counting on you. Why? Cuz you’re mandado to the fregada.
  • Órale, this week’s feature is the word, chiflado. It means to be carried away or assume too much about what somebody else is thinking or intending, usually in romantic situations. It comes from the Spanish verb for whistle, chiflar. The term is often simply stated as a telling whistle.
  • Órale, the Caló word of the week is birria. It means beer. Although likely from the English, it’s lingua franca (common tongue), not Spanglish because the English word and, for that matter, the Italian word for the same, birra, both come from the Germanic word, beir. The Spanish word for birria is cerveza, a very different sounding word and root. And if you’re offered birria in Mexico, what’s meant is barbecue, not beer. So watchale. Don’t order birria in Spanglish if what you want is beer.
  • Órale, the feature of this week is the word pistear. It means to drink inebriant or become inebriated. There are close-sounding words in both Spanish and Nahuatl, pisto and pizoh, which mean a frittata and flooring respectively. But neither come close to the Caló meaning. There’s also the related noun in Caló, pisto, which means a drink or sip of something or hard alcohol itself, as in, he bought of bottle of pisto for himself and a caguama (quart) of beer for his ruca. While pistear usually refers to alcohol, Caló-speakers will understand what you mean if you use it in reference to non-alcoholic drinks, but they’ll take it as an off-handed reference, as if you’re saying the pisto is a substitute for alcohol. "You pisteando, ese? Simón, but just tea."
  • Órale, this week’s feature is the word, güiliado. It means to be enchanted. It comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for dove, huilotl. There’s a near-synonym, chiflado, that’s often expressed as a simple whistle, for it comes from the Spanish verb for whistle, but it means to be presumptuous, carried away, or obsessed. Somebody who’s said to be güiliado, is said to be in love.
  • Órale, this week we’re gonna talk about the word jambar. It means to steal. Unlike another words in Caló that speak to similar acts, trinquetear and remangar, to cheat or trick somebody out of something and to piler or cuff something, Jambar is straight ahead graceless, guileless theft. Jambones are sura. They take other people’s valuables. Don’t expect them to give anything back, only that they eventually get what they deserve.