'Dichos:' wise words, the Spanish way

Even today, proverbs pepper the speech of Spanish speakers – and are being featured in exhibitions and a book.

"Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente," my father used say. I loved the sweet, lyrical humor of the literal translation ("The shrimp that falls asleep is swept away by the current") and the way it contrasted with the more abrupt English equivalent ("You snooze, you lose"). As I grew older, there were more phrases like this one as my father and my Mexican grandmother passed along pieces of cultural wisdom.

Pithy words to live by – every culture has them. In English we call them proverbs. In Spanish, they're known as dichos. Serious and sly, didactic and playful, los dichos continue to punctuate daily conversation, making their way from one generation to the next.

Now, the idiomatic expressions are being appreciated anew. A pop-culture book, with dichos at its heart, recently hit bookshelves. The popular sayings played a supporting role in a traveling Smithsonian exhibition on Latino achievement. And dichos inspired simultaneous art exhibits at two well-regarded museums here earlier in the fall. Each example underscores the way the sayings embody Latino culture and its romance with the Spanish language.

"In the Latino community these dichos are such a tradition," says Fox TV judge Cristina Pérez, who lives in Los Angeles. "They're very catchy, very colorful, and funny." Her book, "Living by Los Dichos: Advice from a Mother to a Daughter," falls somewhere between memoir and self-help. Ms. Pérez freely doles out the colloquial wisdom she learned from her Colombian parents on her English-language TV show "Cristina's Court." Even in an unfamiliar tongue, she says it tends to be well received. "Because the message is universal – it's about respect or love or faith in yourself or just faith in human beings in general – people are very receptive."

Appropriately enough, the judge cites as one of her favorites: "El que es buen juez por su casa empieza" ("A good judge starts with his own home"). It means, roughly: "Judge your own life before criticizing others."

As for the simultaneous shows in this desert town flush with artwork, the timing was accidental. Yet each offered a different and complementary take on the dicho.

"Dichos: Words to Live, Love and Laugh by in Latin America," at the Museum of International Folk Art (www.moifa.org) in September and scheduled to travel in August, was contemporary and playful. Forty large format portraits of trucks and buses decorated with colorful phrases were arranged by theme. The "vehicular dichos," touching on faith, love, humor, and sex, photographed by Grant La Farge over two decades, were akin to what you might find on an American bumper sticker.

In 1978, Dr. La Farge and his new wife were on their honeymoon. Driving through Mexico, they saw a wood paneled truck with the words "Páseme ..." ("Pass me ...") on its bumper. La Farge asked his wife what the ellipses meant. She explained they signalled that the rest of the message was on the front bumper. He overtook the truck and looking through his rearview mirror saw: "tu hermana" ("your sister.")

"Well, that did it for me," he says. "That was the kind of humor I could understand."

La Farge's show celebrated this sort of witty wordplay and double entendre, something the Spanish language lends itself to.

"Federico Vigil's Dichos" at the Museum of Fine Arts (www.mfasantafe.org) offered a different collision of word and image. Inspired by a book of Spanish proverbs and those he heard as a child growing up in northern New Mexico, Vigil visually translated their meaning through a series of colorful sketches.

My favorite – in part because I'd heard the saying so often – depicts a bearded, mustachioed man, his mouth ajar. Between his slack lips rested a fly. "En boca cerrada no entran moscas" was written across the bottom. The explanatory text translated it as: " 'Flies don't enter a closed mouth,' or, 'It pays to keep quiet so you won't put your foot in your mouth.' "

I always understood this dicho to be an admonishment against gossiping. Yet dichos can be fluid in meaning. "They're so useful because they have different interpretations," says Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, an independent scholar who has written extensively on Latino arts and culture.

Some dichos have classical or biblical roots. The origins of others lie in literature or a community. While English sayings such as "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" have come to sound antiquated, clumsy, or trite, dichos are commonly used.

During my grandmother's visits to our family in the US, the time would come when she would turn to one of us and say, "Aunque la jaula sea de oro no deja de ser prisión" – meaning she was ready to return home. It's a beautiful, bittersweet dicho, one the English translation doesn't quite do justice: "Although the cage is made of gold, it's still a prison." I imagined myself, my cousins, my aunts, my uncles, and my father each as the gilded bar of a lovely cage that my grandmother was happy to return to, but that required escape from time to time.

"Our Journeys/Our Stories: Portraits of Latino Achievement," a Smithsonian traveling exhibition that profiles 24 influential Latinos and one family with the dichos that have guided them, will be at El Museo Latino (www.elmuseolatino.org) in Omaha, Neb. through Jan. 13, 2007.

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