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[Author's note: This article was originally published along with A Critical Bibliography of Mexican American Proverbs in Aztlán: International Journal of Chicano Studies Research 13 [1982]: 43-70 and 71-80.]

Mexican Americans share with speakers of Spanish throughout the world a notably rich and varied proverb repertoire--largely though not entirely derived from Peninsular Spain--and a vital and continuing tradition of proverb use that appears to contrast significantly, at least in some aspects, with that of Anglo-American society in general. Hispanic proverbs themselves have been the subject of compilation and study from medieval times down to the present, but the actual use of proverbs in Spanish, whether in the Mexican American community or elsewhere, has scarcely been examined. Roger Abrahams, in an essay summarizing some of the characteristics and functions of proverbs in general, remarks that "we still know little of why and how people use proverbs, or anything of the range of social use and cultural situations in which they are encountered."[1] His comment is as applicable to Hispanic--including Mexican American--tradition as to any other.

I should like to examine some aspects of proverb use among Mexican Americans, specifically in the area of Greater Los Angeles, California, as revealed in the course of an ongoing field project dealing with Hispanic proverbial speech.[2] Originally designed as a comparative survey involving informants from virtually all the Spanish-speaking countries, the project quickly and quite naturally came to reflect the predominantly Mexican American identity of our Spanish-speaking population: over half the informants in the project are of Mexican origin, while the remainder are divided among eighteen other Spanish-language countries. Along with a broad sampling of proverb texts, most recorded necessarily out of context, the survey has sought to assemble, by means of interviews with informants, information on how or where particular proverbs were learned, with whom or with what kind of individual their use is associated, the occasions on which they have been or would be used and general attitudes toward the use of proverbs. The resulting body of information combines self-reportage of the type often employed in studies of bilingualism, for example, with observation-in-retrospect, so to speak, on the part of informants asked to recall specific occasions of proverb usage. While allowances must clearly be made for some degree of inaccuracy--involuntary or otherwise--in the process of self-reporting or of recall, the approach can lead to at least a tentative overview of current proverb use in Mexican American tradition.[3] With time it should be possible to fill in the details of the picture with additional information gained through on-the-spot observation and recording of proverb use in context.

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Of the 304 informants of Mexican origin who have participated in the survey so far, 77, or approximately one fourth, were born in the United States, although not necessarily in California. The overwhelming majority of the American-born group are second-generation Mexican Americans, with a sprinkling of third and even fourth or fifth generations also included. Among the Mexican-born informants the length of residence in the United States (principally southern California) ranges from a few months to sixty years or more. Almost all of the informants are bilingual in the broad sense of being able to "produce meaningful utterances in more than one language,"[4] although there are some--usually either very recent arrivals or elderly long-time residents--who describe themselves as knowing no English at all. The language ability of the informants born in the United States varies from "symmetrical bilingualism" (equal domination of both languages) to, in a few instances, inability to speak Spanish at all and a limited comprehension of the language.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

Hayden observes, in his study of language maintenance cited earlier, that "often, despite or because of strong parent interest, children resist the maintenance of the ethnic mother tongue, while their children, in turn, may hold a more benign attitude toward it" (p. 202). A somewhat similar situation in regard to proverb maintenance is suggested in some of the comments of second- and third-generation informants in our survey, although there is no clear-cut contrast between the two groups. One Texas-born informant, now a sales representative for a Los Angeles firm, admits to knowing a great many proverbs as a young man (he is now in his mid-thirties), but explains that he no longer uses them because they "belong to the lower classes" ("son de la plebe"). Another second-generation informant, Nick E., recalls that his parents' habit of addressing proverbs to him was a source of annoyance as he was growing up--until as he grew older he discovered that he could counteract their proverbs with others that were of opposite meaning. Helen N., a third-generation resident of Los Angeles who speaks virtually no Spanish but understands the language to a limited extent, looks upon proverbs as characteristic of persons who "don't know how to express themselves, so they just throw these proverbs at you and confuse you"; she does not, she admits, understand many of the sayings that she hears. A more tolerant attitude, on the other hand, is expressed by another young woman, born in Los Angeles of Mexican parents, who describes herself and her brothers as "brought up by dichos"; proverbs were used in her family "for getting us to do certain tasks, for misbehavior, or for answering questions we shouldn't have asked." She recalls that she and her brother used to laugh at their mother's "constant" use of proverbs ("We'd say '¡Ay, mamá, usted y sus dichos!'"), but reports that they are now beginning to see that "many of them are true."

The parents of Delia B. stopped using Spanish in the home when Delia entered school, in order to facilitate her learning of English; as a consequence she now speaks English better than she speaks Spanish, and her younger brothers and sisters speak no native Spanish at all (some of them have studied it in school). Since Delia's husband also knows no Spanish, Delia speaks the language only when she visits her own parents; and although she recalls, and was able to contribute, some proverbs used by her Mexican-born mother, she reports that she never uses any of them herself. Yolanda A., on the other hand, a third-generation native of New Mexico now residing in Los Angeles, is totally bilingual. She used Spanish as a child at home, learned English in school, and later "improved" her Spanish, according to her own statement, after marrying her Mexican-born husband. Yolanda uses proverbs frequently in her own family circle, particularly to her children, and is outspoken in her approval of their "wisdom."

The above sampling of comments illustrates something of the range of attitudes toward proverbs expressed by our informants, attitudes that in many cases are undoubtedly linked to broader attitudes toward language and other aspects of ethnic background as a whole. To be sure, any characterization of "attitudes" is necessarily in a very general sense--the actual attitude of an individual will no doubt vary from one situation to another and from one type of proverb to another, and may involve a whole complex of interacting factors. How does one know, for example, whether antagonism is aroused by the using of a proverb to give advice, or by the act of giving advice itself? The question is particularly relevant in relation to the negative comments made by some of our younger informants concerning the use of proverbs by their elders.

On the whole, general attitudes toward proverb use appear more favorable among the first-generation, Mexican-born informants than among the second and third generations, although there are notable exceptions. Age may in fact be a more significant factor than a distinction between "Mexican-born" and "American-born" informants, as suggested by such comments as those of Noemi F.; but we know nothing about the attitudes of young people in Mexico itself toward the use of proverbs and therefore have no way of judging whether the apparent negative trend can be considered "Mexican American" as opposed to "Mexican" or merely a generational trait. It must be kept in mind also that informants who have participated in our survey have done so because, whatever their attitudes, they knew at least some proverbs (varying in number from two or three to as many as a hundred or more). Our sample does not, then, include individuals who, for whatever reason, quite literally did not know or could not recall any proverbs whatsoever.

In examining further the question of proverb maintenance in Mexican American tradition it will be convenient to borrow once more from the vocabulary of sociolinguistics and to make use of the concept of "domains" or "fields of interpersonal relationships." These have been variously delineated by investigators, but the four-fold division suggested by Barker will be appropriate for our purposes. In his study of the use of Spanish and English in the Mexican American community of Tucson, Barker identifies four such fields--intimate or familial, informal, formal, and intergroup or Anglo-Mexican--and observes that Spanish is "almost universally dominant" in the first two of these, while English predominates in the remaining two, even in situations involving bilingual individuals.[17] Observations concerning the use of proverbs as reported by our Mexican American informants parallel these findings; that is, although the various kinds of proverb use cut across all four domains, they are concentrated in the first and second. This concentration is not to be assumed to be an automatic consequence of language maintenance in these domains, since the same general pattern of proverb use appears to apply where bilingualism is not a factor--for example, in Mexico itself and in other Hispanic traditions. Instead, it is more appropriate to view this coincidence of concentration as a kind of "preservation of habitat," to apply an ecological metaphor, that favors the maintenance of proverb use in precisely those domains in which it is naturally concentrated. The corollary to this observation is that once the "habitat" is threatened, the continued survival of Hispanic proverbs in Mexican American tradition will be threatened as well.

The full text of this article is published in De Proverbio - Issue 2:1995, an electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.

The observations derived from our present survey, tentative as they are, should serve to convey some notion of the complexities of proverb use, both in general and within a bilingual community. Much, obviously, remains to be investigated. Many--indeed, most--of the questions raised here can only be answered through patient, detailed observation and recording. Individuals within the community who are attuned to the various aspects of bilingualism and proverb use would, for example, be in a strategic position to undertake detailed and accurate on-the-spot records of the actual use of proverbs--as has in fact been done by some of the young people who have taken part in our survey. Perhaps an increased awareness of proverbs as an ethnic or cultural resource and of the multitude of roles that proverbs can and do play within the Mexican American community will encourage just such investigations, so that in time we will have the means for assessing more fully the current status of the proverb in Mexican American tradition and for deriving some answers concerning its future as well.



  1. Roger D. Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," in Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), p. 119.

  2. A portion of the collectanea from the project has been published as Proverbial Comparisons and Related Expressions in Spanish Recorded in Los Angeles, California, University of California Folklore Studies no. 29 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977).

  3. The use of self-reports in studies of linguistic behavior is examined in Joshua A. Fishman and Charles Terry, "The Contrastive Validity of Census Data on Bilingualism in a Puerto Rican Neighborhood," in Bilingualism in the Barrio, ed. Joshua A. Fishman, Robert L. Cooper, and Roxana Ma, Language Science Monographs, vol.7, 2nd ed. (Bloomington:Indiana University Publications, 1975), pp.177-197.

  4. Fernando Peñalosa, "Chicano Multilingualism and Multiglossia," in El lenguaje de los chicanos, ed. Eduardo Hernández-Chávez et al. (Arlington, Va.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1975), p.165.

  5. Comparisons and exaggerations contributed by Mexican American informants are included in the volume of collectanea cited in note 2.

  6. Abrahams, "Proverbs and Proverbial Expressions," p. 123.

  7. For data on the history and the distribution of this and other similar proverbs, see Shirley L. Arora, "'El que nace para tamal...': A Study in Proverb Patterning," Folklore Américas 28 (1968): 55-79; and "The El que nace Proverbs: A Supplement," Journal of Latin American Lore 1 (1975): 185-198.

  8. The foremost source for our knowledge of seventeenth-century Spanish proverbs is Gonzalo Correas, Vocabulario de refranes y frases proverbiales [1627], ed. Louis Combet (Bordeaux: Institut d'Etudes Ibériques et Ibéroamericaines, Université de Bordeaux, 1967). For a convenient compilation of proverbs from diverse medieval Spanish sources, see Eleanor O'Kane, Refranes y frases proverbiales españolas de la Edad Media, Boletín de la Real Academia Española, Anejo 2 (Madrid: Real Academia Española, 1959).

  9. Published sources of proverbs will be designated in each case by the author's surname, publication date, and page or number; for full information, see the bibliography at the end of this study. All examples not so indentified are drawn from the field project. Informants whose comments are cited have been assigned fictitious names.

  10. Some of the factors affecting the use and meaning of proverbs are discussed by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in "Toward a Theory of Proverb Meaning," Proverbium no. 22 (1973): pp. 821-827.

  11. The first definition quoted was written by Taylor for the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, ed. Maria Leach (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1949-1950), p. 902; the second appears in The Proverb and An Index to The Proverb (Hatboro, Pa.: Folklore Associaes, 1962), p. 3.

  12. Augustín Yáñez, Las tierras flacas, 3rd ed. (México, D.F.: Joaquín Mortiz, 1968).

  13. Rosan Jordan De Caro, "Language Loyalty and Folklore Studies: The Mexican-American," Western Folklore 31 (1972):83.

  14. Robert G. Hayden, "Some Community Dynamics of Language Maintenance," in Language Loyalty in the United States, ed. Joshua A. Fishman (The Hague: Mouton, 1965), pp. 193-194.

  15. Tale Type 1373A, in Stanley Robe, Index of Mexican Folktales, University of California Folklore Studies, no. 26 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Califoria Press, 1974), p. 171.

  16. For a useful overview of research in these fields, see Joshua A. Fishman, "Language Maintenance and Language Shift as a Field of Inquiry: A Definition of the Field and Suggestions for its Further Development," Linguistics 9 (1964): 32-70.

  17. George C. Barker, "Social Functions of Language in a Mexican-American Community," in El lenguaje de los chicanos, ed. Eduardo Hernández Chávez et al. (Arlington, Va.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1975), pp. 176-177. This article first appeared in Acta Americana 5 (1974): 185-202. For further comment on various delineations of "domains," see Fishman, "Language Maintenance," p. 38.

  18. Démétrios Loukatos, "L'emploi du proverbe aux différents ges," Proverbium no. 2 (1965): 17-26.

  19. Fishman, "Language Maintenance," p. 53.



Aranda, Charles. Dichos: Proverbs and Sayings from the Spanish. Rev. ed. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sunstone Press, 1977. (Unpaged; page numbers have been supplied, beginning with the title page, for items cited from this collection.)

"California Spanish Proverbs and Adages." Western Folklore 3 (1944), 121-123.

Campa, Arthur L. Sayings and Riddles in New Mexico. University of New Mexico Bulletin, Language Series, vol. 6, no. 2. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1937.

Cerda, Gilberto, Berta Cabaza, and Julieta Farías. El vocabulario español de Texas. University of Texas Hispanic Studies, 5. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1953; reprint 1970.

Chávez, Tibo J. New Mexican Folklore of the Río Abajo. Portales, New Mexico: Bishop Printing Co., 1972.

Cobos, Rubén, ed. Southwestern Spanish Proverbs / Refranes españoles del sudoeste. Cerrillos, New Mexico: San Marcos Press, 1973

Espinosa, Aurelio. "New Mexican Spanish Folklore, Parts IV and V." Journal of American Folklore 26 (1913), 97-122.

Galván, Roberto A., and Richard V.Teschner. El diccionario del español chicano / The Dictionary of Chicano Spanish. Rev. ed. Silver Springs, Maryland: Institute of Modern Languages, 1977.

Espinosa, Aurelio. "New Mexican Spanish Folklore, Parts IV and V," Journal of American Folklore 26 (1913): 97-122.

Lea, Aurora Lucero-White. Literary Folklore of the Hispanic Southwest. San Antonio: Naylor, 1953.

MacArthur, Mildred Yorba. California-Spanish Proverbs. San Francisco: Colt Press, 1944.

Molera, Frances M. "California Spanish Proverbs." Western Folklore 6 (1947), 65-67.

Paredes, Américo. "Dichos," in Mexican-American Authors, ed. Américo Paredes and Raymund Paredes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972. Pp. 27-34.

Pérez, Soledad. "Mexican Folklore from Austin, Texas," in The Healer of Los Olmos, ed. Wilson Mathis Hudson. Texas Folklore Society Publications, 24. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1951. Pp. 71-127.

Robe, Stanley, ed. Antología del saber popular: A Selection from Various Genres of Mexican Folklore Across Borders. Aztlán Publications, Monograph 2. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Chicano Studies Center, 1971.

Vásquez, Librado Keno, and María Enriqueta Vásquez. Regional Dictionary of Chicano Slang. Austin: Jenkins, 1975.

Wesley, Howard D. "Ranchero Sayings of the Border," in Puro mexicano, ed. J. Frank Dobie. Texas Folklore Society Publications, 12. Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1935. Pp. 211-220.

Shirley L. Arora
Department of Spanish and Portuguese
University of California
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1532

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