Tongue-tied in the Southwest

  • Lowrider at the Santuario de Chimayo, Chimayo, New Mexico, 1997

    CRAIG VARJABEDIAN
  There’s no denying that some Spanish speakers get frustrated with the dialect that’s spoken in New Mexico and southern Colorado. Take, for instance, the Jemez Mountains. Anyone who’s sat through a high school Spanish class would say "HEM-es." Don’t try that in New Mexico: Those are the "hay-mez" Mountains.

Luckily, Rubén Cobos, a professor for 30 years at the University of New Mexico, is here to disentangle tongues and set the linguistic record straight. With the help of his students, Cobos has recorded the family histories, jokes, ballads and riddles of rural New Mexicans and southern Coloradoans for more than 60 years. Now, he’s sharing what he’s learned about the language in A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish.

Spanish spoken in this region is a hodgepodge, writes Cobos, made up of Archaic Spanish, the Indian dialects of Mexico and the Rio Grande pueblos, Mexican Spanish, English and "regional vocabulary." That’s what makes the dialect unique — and confusing. You might know that cola refers to the devil. You might not know that it also refers to a person who leaves the door open when she enters or leaves a room. Same with calabaza: Regulars to the market know that’s a pumpkin; only the keen know it also means to turn down a marriage proposal.

Even if you’re not prone to thumbing through dictionaries, it’s fun to flip through Cobos’ book, looking for the familiar or the foreign, such as bequenpaura (baking powder), uniones (long underwear), mujerero (woman chaser), and lengua larga (gossipmonger or tattletale). Whether you’re a native New Mexican, or a visitor to the area, you’ll have a good time — or fon — learning something new from Cobos.

A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish
by Rubén Cobos, 258 pages, softcover $19.95.
Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003