Ask a Mexican

What's the Right Way to Translate Day of the Dead?

Dear Mexican: I was surprised, on a trip to Mexico earlier this month, that I only ever found the holiday referred to as "Día de Muertos," whereas in the States, I've only ever heard it referred to as "Día de los Muertos." I'm really curious as to WHY there's a difference north/south of the border. Do Chicanos include the "los" so that it better matches up with the English translation? Do Mexicans use the phrase so often that the "los" has just fallen by the wayside? In Spanish, do you actually NEED the "los?" La Catrina

Dear Gabacha: Both "Día de los Muertos" and "Día de Muertos" have been used in Mexico since the 16th century, although I'm noticing Chicano yaktivists and their fresa cousins are preferring the latter, most likely because they feel too many gabachos now know about the holiday and prefer to use something they won't understand. Both are technically right: "Día de Muertos" is the literal translation of All Souls' Day (notice how it's not called "All of the Souls' Day"). On the other hand, the day before Día de los Muertos, All Saints' Day, is almost universally known in Mexico as Día de Todos los Santos instead of Día de Todos Santos. Confused yet? Don't be: The Mexican propensity for elision is as notorious as our love for agave-based spirits.

The other day, I went to Taco Bell. At the window, I ordered something with jalapeños. When I spoke the sacred "jalapeño" word with my gawky gringo accent, the illegal Mexican at the cash register corrected my pronunciation by repeating the word slowly and condescendingly — "hah-lah-pen-yo." True, I only suspect he's Mexican, and I suspect he's illegal as well. But I find his almost complete inability to speak English offers some kind of clue.

I wonder: Is this dude so ignorant he doesn't understand that people pronounce words differently depending on where they're from? Or was he intentionally getting rude 'cause he just hates gabachos? Or maybe, he was kindly instructing me as to how words will be expected to be pronounced once the Reconquista fulfills its promise. Home Fry

Dear Gabacho: Let's just set aside your preposterous assumption that the guy taking your order is undocumented — Taco Bell uses E-Verify. Guy took your order, right? Which means he knows English. If anything, the Mexican was being charitable — you're obviously the last gabacho left who doesn't know how to pronounce jalapeño.

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Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano