Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part Two)

by Joseph P. Mazza

This post is part two of a two-part series by Joe Mazza. Read last week’s post here (you won’t regret it): Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part One).

Having survived the surly eviction from a Latino grocery store, I decided long ago to pursue the vocabulary of national life on less dangerous turf—namely around the dining room table, followed up by copious online research. Then I check my research after the next meal, just to keep things real.

In some cultures, it is not uncommon to spend a good hour or more chatting around the table after any meal, and there have been times in my life when these talks have lasted far longer, with one meal simply blending in with the next. In Peru, they call this post-prandial prattle la sobremesa, which in itself is one of those hard-to-translate cultural bywords. Naturally, after countless sobremesas in Lima and DC, spread out over two decades, my storehouse of Peruvian expressions is enormous. And my information extraction techniques have become more refined with the passage of time!

At last year’s ATA Annual Conference (2018), I delivered a session focused on eight words that stood out in this 20-year campaign to master the Spanish of Peruvian life. Each word had been a challenge for me, and each challenge had a story. The input from the Peruvians and non-Peruvians who attended my session was invaluable. The hardest part of preparing the talk was deciding which eight expressions to pick.

Criollo and cholo

Two words were ethnographic labels—criollo and cholo—that have proven supremely difficult to translate. The first term is a cousin of “creole” in English, so an ATA Annual Conference in New Orleans was the perfect venue to discuss it. You have to take on a word like “criollo” in a single-country context, so “creole” is of little use as a translation.

In Peru the word suggests a mixture of cultures, particularly along the coast, where European blended with African and Native American. Yet the focus is on the sum of the parts, not the parts themselves, and when a Peruvian says something is “criollazo,” (super-criollo), you think of how some in the United States say “all-American.”

Peruvians are fond of citing examples of their innate ingenuity, using the phrase “la chispa criolla” (the spark of criollo genius). I have been called “el gringo criollo,” and take that to mean I have earned my merit badge in Peruvian studies!

But so often these are loaded words, ones that can include and exclude, depending on one’s perspective and intent, and ones an outsider such as me had best be careful about using.

Cholo” is perhaps even more fraught, focusing as it does on the Native American contribution to Peruvian life, acknowledging the blending with other cultures, and ranging from the proudest epithet to the vilest insult. Peruvians will call out to their buddies, “Oye, cholo…” (Hey there, cholo), and one of my wife’s cousins refers to me in direct speech as “cholito de mi corazón” (literally “little cholo of my heart”). Here, the word is almost denatured from its original meaning.

There is a comic series called Super Cholo, and a popular YouTuber named El Cholo Mena which tempt one to think the word is safe to use. Yet examples of disparaging uses of cholo are easy to find in print, on the Internet, and in everyday speech. It is a word that invites a translator’s note, which invites even more trouble!

El Señor de los Milagros

Turning to the spiritual side, we looked at the Catholic devotion to el Señor de los Milagros (the Lord of the Miracles), to whom most of October (el mes morado) is dedicated in Peru. The primary miracle occurred when an image of Christ, painted on the wall of a church in Lima frequented by Afro-Peruvians, survived an 18th Century earthquake.

If you are Peruvian, you are expected to know that el Cristo de Pachacamillo, el Cristo negro, and el Cristo morado all refer to el Señor de los Milagros; that you will see hundreds of people each October wearing robes known as la túnica morada, la indumentaria morada, or el hábito morado, and that you will be eating the traditional cake known as el turrón de doña Pepa.

Armed with all this cultural knowledge, we were ready to take on this 2014 headline from El Comercio: “Despide el mes morado con el turrón de los feligreses.While the uninitiated might be tempted to translate this as “Saying goodbye to the purple month with the nougat of the parishioners,” during my presentation, we were able to infuse authenticity into our translation, and came up with “Month-long religious festival concludes as the faithful flock to buy traditional dessert.” I thought “flock” added a nice spiritual touch!

Los conos

Next we turned to the terminology of urban planning in greater Lima, the sprawling metropolis that more than a third of Peru calls home. There, the term “los conos” (the cones) refers to the newly developing triangle-shaped areas (or “Lima emergente”) to the north, south, and east, as contrasted to “Lima tradicional,” which includes the city center (aka Cercado de Lima—because there was a wall around it once) and its outlying districts. Somewhere in the middle is the old port city of Callao.


Most demonyms (gentilicios) in Peru fit predictable patterns. Hence those from Arequipa are arequipeños, and those from Chachapoyas are chachapoyanos. But the proud people of Callao are chalacos, and they consider themselves a breed apart from their neighbors, los limeños. The good-hearted sparring between chalacos and limeños is not unlike the exchanges I have overheard between the denizens of the various boroughs of New York City. One piece of advice learned the hard way: when you land at LIM (Jorge Chávez International Airport), never tell a chalaco cab driver you are glad to be in Lima. You are likely to hear “You mean you are glad to be in Callao—you’ll be in Lima in a few minutes!”


Suyo” is a Quechua word meaning “quarter,” and it is often mistaken for the Castilian possessive pronoun el suyo (which maddeningly translates to his, hers, its, theirs, or yours). This double entendre is rich fodder for clever journalists. The Quechua suyo comes from the four quarters into which the Inca Empire, or Tahuantinsuyo (Land of the Four Quarters), was divided.

The boundaries of the quarters radiated from the capital at Cuzco, the “navel of the world” (qosco in Quechua). One needs this deep history to understand the term’s modern usage. For the contemporary Peruvian, “los cuatro suyos,” means “from all corners of the country.”

The famous “Marcha de los Cuatro Suyos” (March of the Four Quarters) in July 2000 was a nationwide protest march converging on Lima. The Peruvian diaspora in the United States is sometimes referred to as “el quinto suyo,” (the fifth quarter), which should be an oxymoron.

La U/Alianza

As a nod to the soccer fans in my audience, I included the Janus-faced pair La U/Alianza—two rival crosstown soccer teams in Lima. Loyalty to one team or the other is a point of honor among many Peruvians, and the outsider must tread with a good set of chimpunes (cleats) on this dangerous playing field!

The Club Alianza Lima, aka los aliancistas, los blanquiazules, or los íntimos, was established in 1901, and plays in a neighborhood known as Matute, which also serves as a byname for the team in sports commentary. Their archrivals are the Club Universitaria de Deportes, aka los cremas, los merengues, or la U, established in 1924, and playing at a stadium in the Ate neighborhood.

Each year, the teams face off at a grudge match called the “superclásico,” and the country goes wild.

Incidentally, despite their rivalry, the two teams have been known to help one another in times of trouble, and this show of unity is commemorated in the popular dessert known as the combinación clásica, a dollop of rice pudding (for La U—perhaps emphasizing the Castilian), next to a dollop of purple corn pudding (for La Alianza—perhaps emphasizing the African and the indigenous). Five millennia of cultural movement and a century of athletic brinksmanship, served in a glass dish!


We ran out of time before getting to the last word—las yungas. This is another Quechua loanword, and often refers to the warm valleys high up in the Andes.

When we study Spanish in the US, we learn that several Andean countries have three regions—coast, mountains, and rain forest (costa/sierra/selva). And many of our fellow students in these very countries learn the same three subdivisions.

But a noted Peruvian geographer named Javier Pulgar Vidal (1911–2003) delivered a paper in 1940 called Las ocho regiones naturales del Perú, in which he posited that there were not three, but eight natural regions to his country, to which he attached indigenous names. One of these was la yunga, in the singular.

Such words inspire us to reclassify our world, to question convention, to reach back into the past, and to mine it for the future. Which is, in essence, our overall mission as language learners, as we stumble on the vocabulary of national life . . . in all its glorious varieties.

Image source: Pixabay

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  1. Pingback: Stumbling on the Vocabulary of National Life (Part One) | The Savvy Newcomer

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