Dirty words don't translate all that well from English to Spanish
Stories Luis Urrea wrote for the Reader
"Puta Madre" It is a kind of cry against the world. A bellow of astonishment.
- The exact same rhythm of “shave-and-a-haircut” translates in Spanish as chinga tu madre (“fuck your mother”). If we add the pleasant “two-bits,” it’s an even worse Mexican insult. Then you’re saying, “chinga tu madre, cabron.” You’ve called the guy a son of a bitch, for good measure. (Aug. 22, 1991)
“Those crooked cops make it hard for us who want to be honest."
- Here is a man called on to preserve order in the most celebrated bastion of chaos in the Western world. This man is called on to enforce traffic laws in a country whose roads are haphazard at best, where stop signs often appear either 20 yards before an intersection — which is merely a dirt path straggling down to the road — or immediately after. There are no stop-lines. No one minds the speed limits. (Nov. 21, 1991)
When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. My father had warned me about Greaser and Wetback. But these new words were spectacular and vivid.
- I know a Chicana poet who teaches at the University of Colorado, and every semester or so, some genius in a truck calls her a “greaser” or an “Injun.” A verbal drive-by shooting. It’s funny: I never heard an anti-Mexican comment in Shelltown. For whatever bad things I could say about Logan, that is the best. When I moved to Clairemont in the fifth grade, I was suddenly being called the following: Beaner, Taco Bender, Pepper-Belly, Spic. (Sept. 24, 1992)
Six or eight women worked in there all day, sweating and yelling over the sound of a radio.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
- The family house seemed to grow out of a hillside in Colonia Independencia. It’s still there, if you know where to look, though my cousin Hugo might shoot you if you show up unannounced. Hugo has some bullets in his pistols loaded with small buckshot instead of slugs. One time a neighborhood drunk kept disturbing Hugo’s beloved throat-eating herd of Dobermans. Hugo came out of the house and ran down the street shooting the guy. (Oct. 8, 1992)
"Now, they were resolved to make good in death."
- One day, an old man appeared in the dump. He wore a grimy old suit and had no past and no home. His left arm had come out of the socket years before, and he had wandered, half-crippled, from dump to dump, looking for young people to care for him. Chacho struck a bargain with him: if he would look out for the younger boys, then Chacho and Elijio would pick trash for them all. (Nov. 25, 1992)
The newsguys are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers at the Tijuana dump are.
- I’ve been ordering room service for the first time in my life. And I think, lying in my king-sized beds, watching HBO and drinking goodies out of the rooms’ wet bars, I am here to talk about starving people on the border. I watch the doormen snag $5 tips for carrying some lazy bastard’s bag from the cab to the front desk, and I know that if my friends in Tijuana knew about this, they’d all come across the border en masse. (July 22, 1993)
He'd been writing “local color" for the Boston Globe. His editor, was crazy for weirdos and bikers. Fancying himself a New Yorker writer, Dalton called the series “Annals of the Border."
- Colombia was not impressed with the Mexicans. They were less impressed with the Ruiz connection. As soon as the Mexicans had murdered the cardinal in Guadalajara, a bald-faced hit somehow covered up by the absurd claim that the shooters had ambushed the wrong car. (Sept. 8, 1994)
Pepe opened his wallet and whipped out a microfilm square with the entire Bible printed on it
- During the Pamplonada, this bucolic scene would be fractured by an army of gringos from San Diego and Los Angeles and swarms of louts from Tijuana and Mexicali. The prospect of seeing hundreds of drunks pursued by angry bulls appealed to me. The year before, an American had actually died (anticlimactically, from a heart attack), and street legend was full of unimaginably ferocious gorings and tramplings. (Jan. 24, 1991)
There was the family recently arrived from near Guadalajara. They had no clothes except what they were wearing, and the children were so infected with scabies that their skin looked like chewing gum.
- Then there are those who are so far "out” that the mind reels. In the Tijuana dompe where a group of us worked as poverty-relief volunteers, the outcasts were located along the western edge, in the shacks and lean-tos in and around the area called the pig village. This was where the untouchables of the society of untouchables slept. Like the Serrano family, the Cheese Lady, Jose and Pacha, Jesusita. (Nov. 15, 1990)
14 people have died of the cold in Tijuana. Eight babies died of exposure on Christmas Eve alone.
- My favorite resident of the dump, Negra, had been missing for five years, I still felt connected to the place. Negra was a skinny, dark child who ran barefoot through the trash. She taught me how to pick, how to handle the spiked staff they use to move the mounds and rake out goodies; we used to pull an old red wagon full of trash stacked taller than she was. (March 7, 1991)
After we ate lunch, I asked the boys how the monkey was. What monkey? they asked.
- Mexico is full of dogs that are loved like sons and brothers, but their lives are often utter hell. Sometimes it’s the fault of well-meaning Americans. Church groups will occasionally appear at an orphanage with a dog for the kids. This is usually a dog the gringos don’t want, and they figure the orphans always need a pup. But when you’re trying to feed 30 or 60 kids, spending money on a dog is insanity. (May 9, 1991)
The author’s parents, c. 1955
- In the meantime, in our old neighborhood in Tijuana, my Aunt Lety and Cousin Hugo are in the family house on Rampa Independencia. They are waiting for Beto to arrive from his visit to Sinaloa. Hugo has built him a small bedroom where he keeps all Beto’s tokens — love letters, bowling trophies, moldering Playboys, a box of photographs. In those photos, my father is a skinny boy with a heart-shaped mouth. He looks sad in every one. (July 3, 1991)
The cops raid the hill sometimes and deliver sound beatings. To avoid the cops — or anybody else — the boys have dug elaborate tunnels under the house.
- It’s prostitution and drugs. Soon, it becomes obvious that the thousands of gringos who come to party on the weekends make easy targets, once they’ve had enough to drink. The boys (they’re all boys in Andres’s world) lure them away from the disco lights. All it takes is a promise: girls — muchachas bonitas. They are sly enough to know that we still believe the racist myth of fock my seester, and they say it. (Oct. 3, 1991)
Born in Tijuana, Luis Urrea wrote feature stores for the Reader from 1990 through 1994.
Urrea's collection of short stories, The Water Museum, was a finalist for the 2016 PEN-Faulkner Award and was named a best book of the year by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews,
Into the Beautiful North, his 2009 a novel, is a Big Read selection by the National Endowment of the Arts and has been chosen by more than 50 different cities and colleges as a community read. The Devil’s Highway, Urrea’s 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize.