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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 word for this episode is cantar. In proper Spanish, it means to sing. In Caló, it means to either speak truth to power, declare a deep feeling, or denounce someone in public. Depending on the circumstances, however, it can also mean to snitch or rat somebody out, as in the English slang expression, sing like a bird. Clearly in the first nuance, to cantar is an act of power or defiance. In the second, it is an act of weakness or fear. Either way, what’s invoked is a cut from an opera, where the hero le canta to the villain and the villain le canta to the hero’s enemies.
  • Órale, the word for this episode is órale. It’s a catch-all word that spans a wide spectrum of expressions, from ‘Ok then’ to ‘let’s get it on’ to “hello” or “goodbye.” It’s origins are uncertain, as it can come from the contraction of the Spanish expression, “ahora-le,” which means now-like, and from the Romaní interjection, “orí,” which means hello. Because of its many nuances, Órale is a very forgiving expression, allowing sarcasm to pass for corroboration and yes for no. What’s critical is not just the context, but also what the listener wants to hear. Sometimes the person saying órale gets lucky.
  • Órale, the word for this episode is chiple. It means someone who is spoiled or excessively coddled or pampered. Caló speakers sometimes abbreviated it, chipi. Although it’s usually used to refer to children—or people acting like children, proper adults can also be chiple, as in the vato is all chiple because he believes everybody thinks he’s a mazote or the vato got all chipi when everybody started deferring to him at the big meeting. There’s also a romantic side to this word. If you’re the one chipleando somebody, then the object of your coddling is your chiple, you know, the person you want to keep happy and thinking only good thoughts about you. But it isn’t a substitute for your lollipop. A chiple is that person you want to be your lollipop, that is, during the prospective stage in the relationship. Unless you’re talking about a child, you want to chiplear somebody so they become your vato or ruca. Simón, it’s a little complicated, but a good analogy is that of a caterpillar. The flowers chiplean the worm, hoping it grows up and becomes a butterfly and eats their nectar and spreads their pollen. Watchas?
  • Órale, the word for this episode is masote. It means a physically attractive male. It comes from the English word, muscle, but it doesn’t necessarily refer to muscles themselves but whatever physical attribute you think makes a male attractive, like thick hair, eagle eyes, or a strong voice or energetic personality. The term can also be used in reference to a female, but given it invokes male attributes, know that masota won’t work as a compliment in all circumstances.
  • Órale, to demonstrate how effective of a communication platform Caló can be, we’re going to start using it to navigate that delicate, complex, and very nuanced world of romance. Es gonna be puro romance from the eyes of a vato– just a vato. You tell us if it works or not. This episode is about the word, quehubole, It’s a greeting made up of the contraction of the Spanish words, qué, which means what, and hubo, the past tense of haber, which means is or have. It also has the suffix le, which indicates the acceptability of or preference for a given action or thing. Quehubole asks, what did you want to have happened? It can be abbreviated further as a more impersonal quehubo, which mean what’s up. Quehubole can also be used in a more existential greeting, as in ‘what do you think,’ in the same fashion that hello is used when it’s presented as a question. Quehubole? Hello?
  • Órale, in this episode, we’re going to explore how the world of Caló assimilates new theoretical concepts. The path to understanding is not always direct or brief. Sometimes it meanders, loops around several times, and rarely hits the target right on the bull’s eye. But it gets there eventually, usually by building on what’s tangible— what people can grasp and explain. Complex, multivariate concepts like the limits of authority often prove to be an endless process of continuous improvement in Caló.
  • Órale, in this episode of Caló, we’re going to retell the story of how the local folks came to adopt a new landmark; namely, the profile of Lincoln, which you can see announced on a road sign on the way to OJ. The sign indicating it was there seemed to pop up one day. People passing by noticed it right away, but it took some time for it to sink in. It was as if the mountain changed overnight, one day just another mountain indistinguishable from the others surrounding it and the next day a new remarkable look. Qué onda?
  • Órale, the featured word of this episode is an innocuous cultural meme that makes sense only if you’re of the culture that uses it, but makes no sense at all if you’re on the outside looking in. White elephant, in the mainstream means a gag gift to be given away at a party, not the literal translation of the term. But if you’ve only lived in the world of Caló, it only means an elephant that happens to be white, maybe not a live one but at least something that can be called a white elephant.
  • Órale, the featured word of this episode is mento. It comes from the Latin word, mentis, which means mind or intellect. Caló stays close to the Latin meaning and uses the word to denote somebody who thinks they’re smart. It’s also used for people who are showing off that they know more or have higher privilege. The world of Caló is littered with wrecks of people who fell from heaven after acting all mento.
  • Órale, this episode is about the word güirigüiri. It means gossip, the act of spreading it, and the mob or network behind it — as in people engaging in guiriguiri to spread guiriguiri.