Spanish slang connoisseur Roxana Fitch grew up in Tijuana, birthplace of some of the most distinctive slang words — or jergas — in the entire Spanish-speaking world. The proximity of Tijuana, and of Mexico's entire border region, to the United States has spawned such English-influenced expressions as llamar pa' tras. "It's a literal translation of the English 'to call back,' which in Spanish makes absolutely no sense, but people say it anyway," Fitch says. "We borrow those words from English and adapt them, make them sound more Spanish."
Other examples of Tijuana/border slang: chiroquear, a verb meaning to install drywall, derived from Sheetrock, the leading brand of drywall. Lonche means lunch. Raite means ride.
Fitch continues, "Some people from Mexico City turn their nose up at border slang because they think it is so contaminated with English. But if you go to Mexico City, they have their own set of slang, which is very extensive, rich, and varied. And if you go to another place, like Michoacán or Culiacán, they have their own vocabularies. Every single state has their own set of slang."
Fitch ought to know. She makes her living with language as a translator and Spanish teacher in Bologna, a university town an hour's drive north of Florence, Italy. But her passion is collecting slang and colloquialisms from all over the Spanish-speaking world and documenting them on a website she started in 1997, jergasdehablahispana.org.
Since she was a child growing up near Avenida Revolución, Fitch, 47, has loved language. "Like many Tijuana people," she says, "I crossed the border to go to school and came back home for the rest of the day." While a student at Chula Vista's Hilltop High School, Fitch says, "I saw all the possibilities for studying languages, so I took some French and German. Then I went to Southwestern College, and then I went to UCLA, where I did some Japanese and Portuguese as well. But Italian has always been my favorite."
It was with a degree in Italian that Fitch graduated from UCLA in 1982. After graduation, she moved back to Tijuana and "worked a little bit on both sides of the border. I taught languages and did translations."
At the age of 29, Fitch moved to Bologna, a town she'd become enamored of six years earlier. "When I was 23, I came for the first time to Europe with my backpack. I was traveling and trying to see if I wanted to do some graduate studies over here. So I visited a lot of university cities. And I fell in love with Bologna. It's a small town, but it has everything. It's very lively because the university community is very strong. The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe."
The idea of a Spanish slang dictionary first came to Fitch when she was having trouble communicating with Spanish speakers from other countries whom she met in Italy. "If I was speaking with a Peruvian," she says, "or an Argentinean, we had a hard time understanding each other and talking to each other when we got down to a more familiar conversational level. When it was formal, it was fine. We could understand each other perfectly. But when we started being friends and hanging out, that's when we had a hard time understanding each other. A lot of misunderstandings arose. Sometimes the same word has different meanings, and sometimes it's offensive. Let me just give you an example. The word bicho is generally understood in most countries as a critter, a small animal or a bug. But in Puerto Rico, bicho is the male sexual organ. You can see how misunderstandings could arise from there."
When the Internet revolution took off in the mid-1990s, Fitch indulged her interest in languages online. "I started chatting in chat rooms, and I was focusing on the Spanish. I encountered the same problems as usual of misunderstandings and people fighting over stupid things because they didn't understand what the other person had meant to say. At the same time, I had started compiling a dictionary of Mexican terms for a friend of mine, a Spaniard, who was really hooked on Mexican soap operas but didn't understand half of the things they were saying. So she used to write and ask me what does this mean and what does this other thing mean? So I started writing a glossary for her. It was very small, only about 200 terms. But I already had something. So I decided to open the website and start convincing people who are interested in the subject to help me get vocabulary from other countries as well. So I've divided everything by the 20 countries that speak Spanish, plus the U.S. because of the Spanglish. And it all started developing that way online. I still have some helpers who have been helping me for more than ten years and occasional helpers who come into the website and see that a word or two is missing so they write me and ask me to include the new vocabulary. So it's still growing. Every month I add new material to it."
Fitch estimates that she spends 20 hours a week on the website. "Every chance I get, I'm working on it," she says. When she was developing the site before it opened, she worked even more hours on it. "I did everything. I had no funding or anything, so I had to learn how to create a webpage. And that was way before they had programs that let you design websites at a click. I had to learn all the HTML codes and everything. It took me I don't know how many hours to write a few sentences because of all the codes I had to include. But it was fun, and I'm really passionate about it, so I kept on even though it didn't make me any money. It was just the satisfaction of having people go in there and say, 'Hey, I really enjoy reading your dictionary and all the stuff you have in there. It's been really useful.' "
These days, the site makes a little money from advertisers such as Cervantes language school in Málaga, Spain, and Language Trainers in England. But Fitch says it's not nearly enough for her to consider quitting her day job. A printed dictionary she published in 2006 has not been a big seller, though Fitch has been gratified to learn that it is becoming standard in college libraries.
She was also gratified to learn recently that her site was being visited regularly by members of the Real Academia Española of Spain. "They are the authority for the Spanish language. They set the rules on grammar, vocabulary, anything to do with the Spanish language. What was really funny was that, last year, I noticed that the Academia was going into my website quite frequently. I have a little program that tells me who comes in and what they're looking at. So I noticed that they were coming in and looking at stuff, but they never sent me a message or anything to let me know. So I wrote them and asked what they were looking for and whether I could help them. After five months and no answer from them, I decided, I'm going to post all the statistics from their entries into my website. And it was really funny because I posted the proof that they were entering my website and three days later they wrote me. They admitted that they had been entering my website because they are creating a new dictionary themselves, which is called Diccionario Académico de Americanismos. It focuses on all the Spanish vocabulary that originated in the Americas, not in Spain. So they were taking material from my website, 'getting ideas,' as they said. They were really happy that I had my website with all its material because it quickened their process. Because I do have a lot of material. They told me they were willing to give me credit in their dictionary when it was published. The only problem is, it will be published in 2010, and before that nobody will know that in some way I contributed to that dictionary. So I decided that I needed to go to Spain and talk to them about it. Because I've never received any support from them. It was just 'thank you, you'll get your little credit.' Some fine print in the back of the book. Who's going to read that?"
Asked to weigh in on the age-old discussion of what nation speaks the most beautiful and correct Spanish, Fitch refuses to take sides. "I think they all have something. Seriously, working with the slang trends and dialects of 20 different countries, I have a way of comparing. Each has its own distinct flavor, its own idiosyncrasies, its own something that makes it special, interesting, and alive."
That doesn't mean she teaches slang to her students in Bologna. "We get our textbooks from Spain," she explains, "and a lot of things they expect me to teach I won't teach because I don't think it's correct Spanish. These books just assume that if it's spoken like this in Madrid, it's proper Spanish. But it's not."
As for Tijuana, "I do miss it a lot. I may be able to find a Mexican here, but more often than not, it will be somebody from Mexico City. I have never met anybody from Tijuana here. So to me, our brand of slang and colloquialisms is really special. I am fond of it because that is what I grew up with. I try to visit once a year, and when I do I find myself having to learn new terms and new uses for old terms. For example, I'm sure you're familiar with the word güey [pronounced way]. When I left the country, the term was used to refer to men, never to women. Now, women say it to each other. Mothers say it to their children. I can't stand that."