Spanish: One language, several meanings

As a freelance reporter for the newspaper La Raza in Chicago, I have had to adapt to the Mexican way of speaking Spanish even though I am Puerto Rican.

Doing an assignment takes longer than if I were writing it in my Puerto Rican dialect, but I have to do it because of my job.

There are many words in the Spanish language with several meanings. While I’m writing I have to make sure I use words that everybody can understand not in English but in Spanish.


Blog by Sylvia Obén

I wrote for the newspaper one day: “Thehabichuela in downtown Chicago is beautiful. This weekend you should enjoy the weather and take pictures with your family.” Habichuela is my word for bean and the nickname of a popular tourist attraction known as The Bean.

But the editor of La Raza changed the word habichuela to frijol, because this is how Mexicans say bean.

It is interesting how often some words that mean one thing also have another meaning. The Spanish language certainly seems to have more diversity today than ever.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 of 60.6 million people who speak a language other than English, almost two thirds (37.6 million) speak Spanish, the second most spoken language in the U.S.

I have lived in the U.S. for six years and I’ve been in situations where people from other countries do not understand what I say. And that is when I’m speaking Spanish.

“Vanessa, could you throw this paper in the zafacón ?”

My roommate from Nicaragua did not have the slightest idea what I meant with the word zafacón, or garbage can, since she uses bote de basura instead.

At the end of the year, Vanessa was using the Puerto Rican dialect in order to understand me. Then when she spoke with our college friends in my dialect it was funny because some of them were from Nicaragua and they couldn’t believe how we communicated.

Although that’s not the funniest thing. I remember one day, I took la guagua, or bus, with a group of friends from Latin America to buy some batidas, or milkshakes, and we asked for sorbetos, or straws.

“Si, yo quiero una batida de chocolate, por favor,” or “Yes, I want a milkshake, please,” I asked.

“¿Qué?” or “What?” the employee asked. “Ah una maleteada,” or “Oh a milkshake,” she finally understood.

We both laughed since we spoke the same language but we couldn’t understand each other.

There also are other words for guagua, batida and sorbeto, something that we talked about while buying our milkshakes.

I wondered, how many words are there in Spanish just for the word – straw?

Argentina: pajita, sorbete

Chile: pajilla, bombilla, popote

Colombia: pitillo

Costa Rica: pajilla

Cuba: absorbente

Ecuador: sorbete

España: caña

México: popote

Perú: cañita, sorbete

Puerto Rico: sorbeto

República Dominicana: calimete

Venezuela: pitillo

Words are not the only thing that can identify where we are from. Phrases like “Ay bendito” or “Oh my God!”can show others that you are Puerto Rican.

Chicago has the third largest Latino population in the U.S. and the city is around 30 percent Latino. Of that number, 73 percent of the city’s population is Mexican, 15 percent Puerto Rican and the rest are from other parts of Latin America.

As the U.S. becomes more Latino, we will have to be sure we all understand each other even when we speak Spanish.


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