Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mind if I look up your dress?

I grew up in El Paso, Texas, a city on the border of Mexico, separated from Ciudad Juárez by the Rio Grande. I suppose how grand the Rio Grande is depends on your perspective. Mexicans have a better name for it: Rio Bravo. Even skinny people can be brave.

Outside of irrigation season, you’d have a hard time floating a canoe in the river. In fact, wading across the river used to be the preferred method to enter the United States for maids, gardeners and annoying guys who insist on cleaning your windshield at stoplights for tips. Since September 11, 2001, border security has been beefed up a lot, making illegal entry a bit trickier. This has resulted in an explosion of unkempt yards, dusty houses and car crashes.

In 1989, I was an auditor in Dallas for KPMG. One of my clients had a manufacturing plant in Juárez with a warehouse/shipping facility in El Paso. I accepted a job with the company to be their plant controller and we moved back to El Paso after being away for about eight years.

Although I grew up in El Paso, my experiences in Mexico were limited to occasional trips across the border to take out-of-town visitors to see the open markets, glass blowers and to enjoy Mexican food accompanied by a couple of Tecates, Dos Equix or Coronas. One time we went to a bullfight, but it was such a traumatic experience for my future sister-in-law that the majesty of tormenting a bull to death was lost on us.

My command of the Spanish language was, to put it in a word, pequeño. In spite of having six years of Spanish classes in first through sixth grade, my vocabulary consisted of approximately 30 words, half of which would get me stabbed if I used them in a bar and the other half related to ordering things in a bar.

So the challenge of working in Mexico and learning to speak Spanish appealed to me. I bought a pocket-sized Spanish/English dictionary and showed up to work prepared to order a shot of tequila. Our plant was staffed with a few U.S. citizens—I don’t use the term Americans because we don’t have an exclusive on that title, given that everyone living on these two continents are Americans (North, Central and South)—and several Mexican managers, all of whom spoke English with varying degrees of skill.

One of the first activities I participated in on the manufacturing floor was inventorying parts. With my clipboard in hand and translation dictionary in my back pocket, I headed out armed with a magic, conversation starting phrase: “¿Qué es eso?” (What’s that?)

I walked through the aisles of the raw parts crib, writing down quantities from the inventory tags, and once in a while pointed to a bin and asked the materials supervisor “¿Qué es eso?” He would politely describe what the parts were, who we bought them from, and how they were used in the finished products. At least that’s what I thought he was telling me. He could have been telling me about his cousin’s wedding for all I knew.

Invigorated by my successful conversations about molded plastic parts, I was ready to take my newfound linguistic expertise into the accounting department. Accounting was staffed with a half-dozen wonderful ladies, none of whom spoke English (or wanted me to think that they didn’t). I arrived with the intention of performing a surprise petty cash audit.

Before I could announce my surprise audit, however, one of the clerks asked me how to book a particularly confusing transaction. Although my Spanish was far from fluent, my understanding of where to record debits and credits was impeccable, so I studied the invoice and quickly came up with the answer. Now, how to tell her…

Let’s see. How do you say “debit” in Spanish? It turns out that there’s a reason these pocket dictionaries fit in your pocket. They leave out half the words. I found “debt,” but there was no “debit.” What else do you call a debit? Got it. “Charge.” I’ll tell her to charge the invoice to this particular account.

“Se puede cagarlo aquí,” I said, pointing to the account in the ledger. The look on her face was utter shock. The room fell silent for a moment, followed by a burst of laughter when everyone realized what I meant to say. You see, the word for “to charge it” is “cargarlo.” That pesky missing “r” changes the word’s meaning to (and forgive me for being so literal with my translation) “to sh_t it.” It’s a word that’s normally used to describe the act of crapping oneself.

Undaunted, I pressed forward and flipped my pocket dictionary to find the phrase for petty cash. Damn! Nothing. Okay, how about “funds?” Found it. “Fondos.” And I remembered that they called the petty cash box something chica. I just couldn’t remember what the something was. So, here we go.

I made my announcement: “Yo quiero examinar sus fondos, chicas.” After just instructing this innocent clerk to defecate on the accounting ledger, I didn’t think things could get much worse. I was wrong. Who would’ve guessed that “fondos” also means slips, as in petticoats, and that “chicas” is slang for girls, as in chicks. “I want to examine your slips, girls.”

The accounting manager came over to me and suggested that we might want to have a quick meeting in my office before I say anything else. “¡Qué buena idea!” I said.


  1. "I don’t use the term Americans because we don’t have an exclusive on that title, given that everyone living on these two continents are Americans (North, Central and South"

    Hoo boy Randy. You better hope that the "patriots" that love sharing their thoughts on "American Values" in the Cape Times do not see your statement including all those "undesirable little brown people" in your definition of who is an American. If they do, your blog is about to get very, very entertaining.


  2. Hi, Peter. When I was bumbling through my first few months working in Mexico, learning the traditions and a little about the culture, I made the mistake of referring to U.S. citizens as Americans. Mexicans call us norteamericanos (or North Americans).

    I also learned that there is nothing derogatory about the term Mexican. Somehow, growing up there, but quite insulated from the third world country that was our neighbor, “Mexican” was a word that connoted an underclass person or laborer—not necessarily a nationality. People often referred to Hispanic U.S. citizens as Mexicans, which would be equivalent to calling black U.S. citizens Africans.

    The Mexicans I worked with were very proud of their country and culture and didn't appreciate the word “Mexican” being misused. They also looked down on people who spoke Spanglish, a bastard mix of Spanish and English that flipped from one to the other whenever the speaker forgot a word in either of the languages.

    So you can assume that the term Mexican-American causes a bit of a cringe on my face, knowing what I know about real Mexicans and how they feel about the word American being swiped from them.

    One other thing. They kidded with me that even using the term “United States” is a little arrogant given that the name of their country is Los Estados Unidos de Mexico (The United States of Mexico).

    Who would've thought?


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