3 Mexican expressions that confuse expats

Illustration: Getty
Illustration: Getty

Before I came here, I knew a tiny amount of Spanish grammar and vocabulary. But guess what: I am from Europe, and what I learned was based on how Spanish is spoken in Spain.

Arriving in Mexico, I soon realized that there was a slight difference between what I learned and the reality here.

There are so many words, phrases and sayings in Mexican Spanish that it is impossible to address them all at once. So for now we’ll narrow it down to the following commonly heard expressions: dale el avión, la comida no pica, empalagar.

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It is almost like a game that I used to play with high school kids in my teaching career. Think about it yourself. It is actually quite fun. How would you translate these expressions in English?

Dale el avión

Literal translation: “To give (him/her) the airplane.” What?

When I first heard this expression, I was confused. Why would the person get an airplane? Of course, this wasn’t meant to be taken literally. What they meant to say was: Ignore this person or do not give importance to the matter.

When you are talking in a group and people aren’t listening to you, you could say Por que me dan el avión? or Me estás dando el avión? (“Are you still with me?”)

La comida no pica

Literal translation: The food does not sting. This actually means: The food isn’t spicy.

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Although this isn’t really an idiom, it is definitely one of the most common expressions you will hear in Mexico. I guess this has something to do with the importance of food in Mexican culture, and besides, the importance of spices in Mexican food.

Remember this one as it is probably going to be part of your everyday life in Mexico. When a Mexican person says that the food isn’t spicy, it’s probably a little bit spicy. I say a little bit. which for me is even too much because after all these years here, I am still not used to spicy food.

If you find yourself in the same category, a better question than Pica? would be tiene picante? – does it contain (anything) spicy? If so, it’s up to you to decide to give it a go.

Empalagar

Literal translation: (food) to be too sweet.

Even just typing these words, it sounds strange. This is a typical example of a Mexican Spanish word in which a whole world is described, and for which you would need many words in another language to make sense of it.

When you eat something sweet, such as pan de dulce, this expression is often used to let someone else know that the food is really sweet and that you need another substance to balance the sweetness. Often, you are being offered a glass of milk. Have you ever experienced this?

So, now at least you know how to react or how to use these expressions and impress your Mexican friends instead of expecting them to give you an airplane.


Debbie Vorachen is an expat from the Netherlands who has been living in Mexico for over five years. She is a cultural anthropologist with a passion for intercultural communication and traveling who founded Ahorita YA. Email ahoritaya@outlook.com with questions about living in Mexico.

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