In January I was in Monterrey, my first stop in Mexico as well as my first trial speaking Spanish in a group social setting. My Mexican friend Karen and I went to a small meetup with some Couchsurfers, a German and three Mexicans, who we met at a bar in the city. While we sat around a table eating the last person’s leftover chips and salsa in the dive bar (because Mexico), a Couchsurfer named Antonio struck up a conversation with me, in which he asked me what brought me to Monterrey. I told him in my very basic Spanish that I was backpacking through his whole country, to which he replied, “mochileando, con madre!”
Of course I only understood a very literal version of his comment: “Backpacking? With mother!” I replied in another simply constructed sentence that my mother was actually at home, not with me, which elicited a round of laughter from the others at the table.
What I was missing was that the expression con madre really has nothing to do with mine or anyone else’s mother, just like most of the other Mexican slang phrases using madre. It actually means something more like “how cool!”
Madre is probably the single most used word in Mexican slang expressions, and ostensibly it has nothing to do with mothers or women. But after spending eight months in Mexico this year, putting myself hasta la madre (really really drunk) with dozens of Mexicans, and brushing up on my colonial history and my Spanish linguistics, I’m not so sure that’s the case.
Aquí se habla mexicano
The Spanish language of course originated in its namesake country, Spain, but just as its first cousin English it has come to be dominated by speakers in the Americas. Mexico is unchallenged as the largest hispanophone country in the world, with over 120 million speakers, nearly three times what the mother country comes in with in the runner up spot. (It’s also interesting to point out that the ‘English-speaking’ United States, if included in this list, would hold the number two spot with its 52 million total hispanohablantes.)
With that for context it’s no surprise that Mexican Spanish makes up such a distinct and vibrant dialect of the language. Indeed, the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Language Academy) publishes a Diccionario de Mexicanismos, descriptively reporting on the good, the bad, and the ugly of what Mexican speakers are doing with their language.
Mexican Spanish is pretty famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world, including Florida and the southwestern United States. Ask a Cuban-American from Miami qué onda and you’ll probably get a chuckle in return. Even among monolingual English speakers in the US, people generally tend to know a few hallmark Mexicanisms like cabrón and pendejo.
It’s exactly these sorts of words for which Mexican slang seems to be known. CNN México recognized the publication of the Diccionario de Mexicanismos by calling the dialect “sexist and chauvinist” on many levels. Later in the same article, however, Mexican Spanish was labelled equally “festive, intimate, and affectionate”.
So which is it? And what does all this have to do with my mom? To answer that, we’ll jump right into some Mexican slang.
A thousand ways to say “yo mamma” in Mexican slang
The same CNN article referenced above points out early on that the word pene (penis) in Mexican Spanish has some 250 different meanings, while in parallel vagina has no more than 30. But this slant isn’t unique to Mexican Spanish or Spanish at all.
In few disciplines is there as much evidence of sexism as in linguistics. English, for example, has about ten times more sexual slurs against women than against men, and of those anti-male insults, many like ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘bastard’ aim to insult the man by means of insulting his mother.
Spanish fits the pattern of most languages on this one, and Mexican Spanish does it quite spectacularly. Most of us already know, Spanish speakers or not, that chinga tu madre is the line in the sand, the point of no return, fightin’ words. For those who don’t know, “fuck your mother” would seem a pretty strong insult in any language, but in Mexico it goes about ten steps further.
But the slang use of madre goes beyond directly insulting one’s mother. To start, here are a few Mexicanisms that use it in a clearly, consciously negative way:
- un desmadre — a disaster, something really messed up. You might apologize for your house being un desmadre when you have guests over. Literally “motherless [thing]”.
- dar en la madre — to beat the shit out of someone. Literally “give in(to) the mother”.
- estar hasta la madre — absolutely fed up. I’m hasta la madre with your constant bitching [gendered language sic]. Literally “until the mother”. Ponerse hasta la madre is similarly used to describe getting very drunk, literally “putting oneself until the mother”, implying that the speaker is absolutely full of alcohol.
- valer madres — to be totally worthless or unimportant, literally “to be worth mothers”. Interestingly, the phrase valer la verga (to be worth the penis) carries the same negative connotation in this case.
- madrear — to fight or attack. Similar to dar en la madre. Literally taking the noun madre and making it a verb: “I’m going to mother you.” In English it would make for an awkward threat.
- madres! — interjection similar to “fuck!”. An expression of disapproval or disappointment. Literally “mothers!”
- la chingada: literally “the fucked”. Put this one on the back burner for now, but don’t forget it.
Some other expressions with madre seem neutral or even positive, but even a quick intellectual pry into them shows otherwise:
- poca madre — super cool. Literally “little (not much) mother”.
- no tener madre — if very little mother is really cool, the total lack of one is just the coolest. Literally “to not have a mother”.
- ganar una madre — to earn very little money. The verb ganar is used in this sense how we use ‘make’ in English (to make money), and its object is una madre, or something very small and of little value.
- una madre — actually my favorite example of sexism in Mexican Spanish. Madre can be used the way we use ‘thingamajig’ or ‘whatchacallit’ in English, to refer to a nameless or insignificant object. “Pásame esa madre“, literally “hand me that mother”, takes a meaningless and identityless object and names it “mother”.
- ni madres — absolutely nothing. Similar to how we use “at all” in English to reinforce that we “don’t know anything at all about that” or “haven’t done anything at all”. If I don’t understand you ni madres, I have no clue what you’re saying. Incidentally probably the phrase I’ve said the most on this list.
There are a few exceptions to the trend of overtly or subtly using Mom to express something negative. Below I’ll take a stab at explaining why there are a few positive associations with madre in Mexican slang, but for now here are the only two I can come up with:
- con madre — the phrase I referenced in the intro above. It just means something cool. This is anecdotal and subjective, but I’ve noticed qué padre (“how father!”) at least ten times as often as this to express the same sentiment. In fact I’m not sure I heard this one outside the North of the country. (Maybe a Mexican reader could comment on its usage below?)
- a toda madre — super effin’ cool. Basically the same as something that’s poca madre or that no tiene madre, if it’s “to all mother”, it’s badass.
Mexican slang and women
So does all this mean that Mexico is full of millions of men who hate their mothers and everyone else’s? Hardly.
It’s a popular stereotype that Latinos are fiercely close with their mothers, always getting into fights to defend Mom’s honor and doing their best to keep her happy. And often this is used to refute claims that there’s any trace of misogyny or sexism in the language — no no, you’ve got it all wrong, we say things like chinga tu madre because Mom is the apple of the Mexican eye!
That one also doesn’t really add up. For context, it’s important to know that padre in Mexican slang embodies everything cool and good and desirable. Qué padre! is basically the standard reaction to a trivially pleasant piece of information or story, and if something is padrísimo (the superlative form of padre: as padre as could be), it’s the awesomest bestest coolest thing out there.
Most Mexicans address their parents as mama and papa, simply because the semantic fields of madre and padre are already so overcrowded. Referring to someone’s madre provokes a defensive reflex (WHAT YOU TRYIN TO SAY ABOUT MY MOMMA), and using padre to talk about your dad almost seems like a punny way of saying he’s pretty cool.
Clearly there’s a gendered dichotomy here: dad good, mom bad. There are few Spanish linguists out there who wouldn’t connect this to sociological issues like women’s domestic roles and violence against women. But some go further and say that this gender issue is only a symptom of a different, deeper racial problem inherited from colonial days.
La chingada: why madre may not just be about gender
In May this year, Capital 21, a Mexico City TV and radio station, published a linguistically brilliant article called “Madre, La Mala Palabra” in their online magazine. The article starts with a survey of the roots and cultural uses of words for ‘mother’ across different world languages, including not only related tongues like English and Spanish but the similar words in Quechua, Korean, and other far-removed world languages. The article then turns to the problematic use of madre in Mexican slang, and then traces it to Spanish colonial times.
Eventually the author comes to the famous work of Octavio Paz, beloved writer and diplomat from Mexico City, who already in the mid-twentieth century in his Laberinto de la Soledad was addressing derogative uses of madre. He traces it only superficially to an issue of gender: one that is symptomatic of a much deeper issue of race.
Remember above where I listed la chingada as an openly negative use of madre in Mexican slang? The phrase is an elision of la chingada madre or la mujer chingada, a phrase originally referring to a raped and impregnated indigenous woman. Translated from Paz’s Laberinto de la Soledad:
“Unlike the ‘hijo de puta‘ [son of a bitch/prostitute] of Spain that the conquistadores carried to the Americas, the ‘hijo de la chingada‘ [son born to a raped mother], has a different origin and connotation. […] It is said that the first Spaniards to arrive in Mexico did not bring women [with them from Spain]. To satisfy their sexual appetites, they took native women and helped themselves to the women by force. Many of these women were impregnated and thus gave birth to mestizos, generally rejected and unrecognized by their fathers and the Europeans as members of their family [and thus denied participation in society]. As the years went by there came to be many, and they began to gather to protect themselves and form a brave, rowdy race of people on the defensive; in other words, the definition of an hijo de la chingada.”
Paz would then argue that references to la chingada (madre) equate to a racial attack. A highly detailed racial caste system was enforced and formally legislated by the Spanish colonizers, so within this setting the implication that one’s mother is a chingada is equivalent to relegating them to the despised mestizo class. Furthermore, it (historically speaking) would have actively, pointedly called into question one’s right to participation in society at large.
Paz claims that the slightly weaker chinga tu madre is an extension of this: aside from being the active wishing of rape upon one’s mother, it equates her to the societally worthless violated indigenous woman and by extension implies that the person to whom the speaker is speaking is of impure racial heritage. Paz and a large school of Spanish linguists argue that this is the source of many of the uses of madre that manifest in the much less consciously violent Mexican slang of today.
Mexican slang is a desmadre, but that doesn’t mean the country is
For me as someone who is constantly thinking and perceiving the world in terms of language, this was my insight into the ‘machismo’ culture that we sometimes talk about a bit unthoughtfully in regard to Latin America.
When you have phrases like ganar una madre or simply equate madre to an object with no identity and little relevance, that’s complicated. Even the use of a phrase like con madre could, in the context of these other uses, draw its meaning from the view of (indigenous) women as ownable things. I would never suggest that the Mexican who casually uses these phrases is ever actively, consciously thinking misogynistic thoughts, but rather these uses of the language reflect cultural ideas that are so pervasive most people don’t notice them. Mexican men and women (because women absolutely speak this way as well) who swear with la chingada are not rabid woman-haters or confused white supremacists, but rather they’re the proverbial fish who doesn’t understand what water is.
I’m trying to be a linguist more than a social justice warrior here. This isn’t a criticism of Mexico or its people, but simply a linguistic analysis of something I thought about a lot while traveling in the country. You could take the same approach to my native language of English and find just as much evidence of similar problems.
This is really a universal linguistic phenomenon, and traveling in the country for as long as I did let me see how that looks in Mexico. While I sat in that dive bar in Monterrey and munched on the leftover chips, I learned how to use not only phrases like con madre and ponserse hasta la madre, but also other Mexican classics like a huevo and no hay pedo. Language is probably the biggest conveyer of culture there is, and this is only one of a billion possible linguistic insights into Mexico and its nuanced culture and warm people. At the end of it all, my time in Mexico was con madre for sure.