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The Word

Larry Landwehr

This morning Mary and I set out to do some shopping.

We were approaching a glorieta, the one we affectionately call the “Glorieta From Hell”. This glorieta is a circle, of course, but in addition, it is bisected by two major streets that cross each other in an “X” inside the circle. Throw in a retorno or two within the glorieta, and you have a maze of paths with cars going in every direction. It’s very confusing the first few times one tackles it.

As we were nearing this glorieta, I drove through an intersection as the traffic light turned yellow. The next intersection had a red light, so we stopped behind another car. Up ahead, a cop was talking to someone in a car he had pulled over. He waved to the driver, and the car took off. The cop turned around, spotted us as the last car in our lane, and waved us over to the side of the road.

He used some fractured English to tell us that we had just run a red light. We used our standard defense of pretending not to understand Spanish (which in my case is mostly still true), but the cop wasn’t having any of that. He demanded to see my driver’s license. Mary, knowing that if I handed over my license we’d have to pay to get it back, swung into action. Mixing in just a Spanish word or two, she insisted that the light had been green. The cop started getting agitated at being challenged by a woman, and smacked his hand on the steering wheel a couple of times, asking her in Spanish, why, if she knew so much, wasn’t she driving the car. Mary pretended not to understand him. Instead she kept on insisting that the light had been green.

Then she made an almost fatal mistake.

In her vigorous defense, she referred to the traffic light as “the stupid light” using a mixture of English and Spanish. The cop didn’t understand the English part, but he sure understood the Spanish word “Estupido” that Mary used.

If you had stuck a red-hot poker up his ass, the effect would have been pretty much the same. His face changed to a mask of anger. “Estupido!” he yelled in a high-pitched voice ringing with anger and amazement. “You call me Estupido?” he yelled.

Mary had told me earlier that to call someone “estupido” is much more insulting in Spanish than it sounds in English. It is a major, degrading insult in Spanish.

The cop sputtered words out as fast as he could, demanding to know if Mary had called him “estupido”. Mary back-peddled as fast as he could, trying to explain that she had been referring to the light, not to him. In her haste, she used more and more Spanish. I could see the cop starting to smell a rat. Mary was using just a little too much Spanish.

Finally, he started calming down, going back to accusing us of having run a red light. Mary knew we hadn’t done so - the cop has his back to us when we had passed the light. Mary kept on insisting that the “luz” (light) had been “verde” (green). Finally, the cop gave up and told us to get going.

Mary and I talked about the incident as we drove along. She was shaken by the encounter, but still managed to remark that if she had really meant to insult the cop, she would have told him “No tienes madre” (You have no mother). It doesn’t sound like much in English, but it is the strongest insult there is in Spanish. Be prepared to fight to the death if you ever use it against Spanish person.

Speaking of insults, do not ever form your thumb and forefinger into a circle as English speakers do to indicate that something is “ok”. That gesture has a sexual meaning to a Spanish speaker.

Another thing is not to tap out the old “shave-and-a-haircut, two-bits” tune on your car horn. To Spanish speakers, it means “ Ching-a tu puta, Madre” or “Screw your whore mother” ­ another fight-to-the-death situation.

After shopping at the mall, we had to pass back through the intersection where the cop had been. We looked, but he was gone. Apparently the encounter had been as draining on him as it had been on us.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Larry Landwehr © 2008
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