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Pichirilo comes to the Southside


Órale, we’re going to dedicate the next four episodes to a storied car known as El Pichirilo. There are many more stories about it than four, but we’re gonna tell just the most talked-about ones in terms of a few common and, given it’s about a ramfla, appropriate Caló words.

Pichirilo is, then, the featured word for this first episode. It means a man-made object with a personality, unpredictable and, for that reason, troublesome, but ultimately worthy of another chance. A great electronic speaker that seems to struggle through certain genre of music—maybe also talk shows—is a pichirilo. A car that unpredictably has bad days is a pichirilo. 

There’s neither a similar-sounding nor similar-meaning word in Spanish or English. The closest word in meaning is the slang term, hooptie, which means raggedy car, a vehicle who’s only virtue is that it still runs. There’s a close-sounding word in Romaní, pichirichí, which means joy or pleasure, but there’s no certain proof that it’s the root. The term pichirilo does not apply to human beings. Why? The word in Caló for people who act that way is sonsos, which as we discussed in a past episode, comes from the verb sonsear, which means to wander off.

He was born on a Monday in Pontiac, Michigan on May 2, 1949. A Buick Chieftain ramfla. Marked for life, even as its life began.

Of course, a car isn’t born the same way as a human being. Birth for a car means that the receiving chief marked as “finished product” the bill of lading attached to the “work-in-progress” coming down the line.” This is a perfectly timed event that occurs ahead of the paint shop, tire shop, and shipping parking lot.

Pos this ramfla was born and came out exactly as all the Chieftains that shipped out every day of the month before and after that Monday. One of hundreds of sky-blue Chieftains with white walls born that spring. But the fact that its first day of being marked as “finished product” came on a Monday after May Day Weekend meant it was destined for a life of longer sales turnover. Taking for granted that work quality slagged on Mondays, many buyers asked about and passed up ramflas built on that day of the week. This in turn damned Monday ramflas to a certain life cycle.

The dealers who could avoid these ramflas won’t even receive them. And the bottom of that downward spiral are the dealerships in economically marginalized places like the Southside. Heavily discounted though new. Last resort if you wanted a new car at low cost. The pichirilo market, in both price and location.

The vato who bought it knew the risks. Then even as he was driving off the car lot, the ramfla’s motor hesitated almost to the point of seizing, as if it was afraid to leave its place of birth and take its first step.

“Eeee! No jala,” he said to himself.

Then he froze and let the ramfla settle itself. After trembling a few seconds, it got in tune and zipped out onto the highway.

“A la madre, I got a pichirilo,”the vato thought, shaking his head.

Oscar Rodriguez is the creator and host of Caló.