Spanish slang connoisseur Roxana Fitch grew up in Tijuana, birthplace of some of the most distinctive slang words — or jergas — in the entire Spanish-speaking world. The proximity of Tijuana, and of Mexico's entire border region, to the United States has spawned such English-influenced expressions as llamar pa' tras. "It's a literal translation of the English 'to call back,' which in Spanish makes absolutely no sense, but people say it anyway," Fitch says. "We borrow those words from English and adapt them, make them sound more Spanish."
Other examples of Tijuana/border slang: chiroquear, a verb meaning to install drywall, derived from Sheetrock, the leading brand of drywall. Lonche means lunch. Raite means ride.
Fitch continues, "Some people from Mexico City turn their nose up at border slang because they think it is so contaminated with English. But if you go to Mexico City, they have their own set of slang, which is very extensive, rich, and varied. And if you go to another place, like Michoacán or Culiacán, they have their own vocabularies. Every single state has their own set of slang."
Fitch ought to know. She makes her living with language as a translator and Spanish teacher in Bologna, a university town an hour's drive north of Florence, Italy. But her passion is collecting slang and colloquialisms from all over the Spanish-speaking world and documenting them on a website she started in 1997, jergasdehablahispana.org.
Since she was a child growing up near Avenida Revolución, Fitch, 47, has loved language. "Like many Tijuana people," she says, "I crossed the border to go to school and came back home for the rest of the day." While a student at Chula Vista's Hilltop High School, Fitch says, "I saw all the possibilities for studying languages, so I took some French and German. Then I went to Southwestern College, and then I went to UCLA, where I did some Japanese and Portuguese as well. But Italian has always been my favorite."
It was with a degree in Italian that Fitch graduated from UCLA in 1982. After graduation, she moved back to Tijuana and "worked a little bit on both sides of the border. I taught languages and did translations."
At the age of 29, Fitch moved to Bologna, a town she'd become enamored of six years earlier. "When I was 23, I came for the first time to Europe with my backpack. I was traveling and trying to see if I wanted to do some graduate studies over here. So I visited a lot of university cities. And I fell in love with Bologna. It's a small town, but it has everything. It's very lively because the university community is very strong. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe."
The idea of a Spanish slang dictionary first came to Fitch when she was having trouble communicating with Spanish speakers from other countries whom she met in Italy. "If I was speaking with a Peruvian," she says, "or an Argentinean, we had a hard time understanding each other and talking to each other when we got down to a more familiar conversational level. When it was formal, it was fine. We could understand each other perfectly. But when we started being friends and hanging out, that's when we had a hard time understanding each other. A lot of misunderstandings arose. Sometimes the same word has different meanings, and sometimes it's offensive. Let me just give you an example. The word bicho is generally understood in most countries as a critter, a small animal or a bug. But in Puerto Rico, bicho is the male sexual organ. You can see how misunderstandings could arise from there."
When the Internet revolution took off in the mid-1990s, Fitch indulged her interest in languages online. "I started chatting in chat rooms, and I was focusing on the Spanish. I encountered the same problems as usual of misunderstandings and people fighting over stupid things because they didn't understand what the other person had meant to say. At the same time, I had started compiling a dictionary of Mexican terms for a friend of mine, a Spaniard, who was really hooked on Mexican soap operas but didn't understand half of the things they were saying. So she used to write and ask me what does this mean and what does this other thing mean? So I started writing a glossary for her. It was very small, only about 200 terms. But I already had something. So I decided to open the website and start convincing people who are interested in the subject to help me get vocabulary from other countries as well. So I've divided everything by the 20 countries that speak Spanish, plus the U.S. because of the Spanglish. And it all started developing that way online. I still have some helpers who have been helping me for more than ten years and occasional helpers who come into the website and see that a word or two is missing so they write me and ask me to include the new vocabulary. So it's still growing. Every month I add new material to it."
Fitch estimates that she spends 20 hours a week on the website. "Every chance I get, I'm working on it," she says. When she was developing the site before it opened, she worked even more hours on it. "I did everything. I had no funding or anything, so I had to learn how to create a webpage. And that was way before they had programs that let you design websites at a click. I had to learn all the HTML codes and everything. It took me I don't know how many hours to write a few sentences because of all the codes I had to include. But it was fun, and I'm really passionate about it, so I kept on even though it didn't make me any money. It was just the satisfaction of having people go in there and say, 'Hey, I really enjoy reading your dictionary and all the stuff you have in there. It's been really useful.' "