Dichos: guideposts for good character

The late Narciso Montoya relaxes in the resolana by his nephew's house in the Los Ojuelos neighborhood of Chimayó, 2012.

Most Sundays, when the weather is good, I take a drive with my mother to Chimayó, our querencia (home ground), the place of origin for so much of who we are. In our conversation as we travel, we find ourselves recalling stories of people and events from our many decades of experience in that small, sheltered valley, a place laden with legends, not only for Chimayosos like us but for people from afar.

As we wind through the magnificent landscape, our platica (conversation) includes a wide circle of family and friends who have a shared history with us in this place. And on these journeys, we often find ourselves recalling dichos, old folk sayings in Spanish, finding again and again that these compact aphorisms evoke the character of Chimayó succinctly and also cleverly capture foibles of human nature. The dichos are just as fitting today as when they originated, many of them centuries ago.

Amid a discussion of a primo (cousin) whom we recently overheard criticizing his father for being stubborn, we recall the dicho “ Es como el burro hablando de orejas! That’s like a donkey talking about ears!” The son, too, is infamous for his stubborn ways.

As we pass the turnoff to Santa Cruz Lake, my mother recalls a boating accident that left a childhood friend dead. “Poor Rafelito,” she says. “He drowned — and so young!”

No sabemos ni el día ni la hora. We don’t know the day or the hour,” I say, recalling a dicho that my grandmother used often when reflecting on the seeming caprice of la muerte.

A moment of silence ensues, as if Rafelito had died yesterday (he actually met his demise in the 1940s), and then conversation turns to a friend who barely survived a vicious attack by her own dogs. Shaking her head, Mom comments, “ Escapó la gallina, más que sea sin plumas. The chicken escaped even though it lost its feathers,” a dicho humorously appropriate for anyone suffering a close brush with death.

My mother and I sometimes slip into chisme (gossipy conversation) and remark on the weakness of character in people we know, which brings up an ancient dicho derived from a biblical passage: “ Vemos la paja en el ojo del vecino y no la viga en el nuestro. We see the straw in the neighbor’s eye but not the log in ours.” On the same note, Mom will often admonish me when I’m critical of someone’s actions, “ Cuidados ajenos matan al burro. Minding someone else’s business kills the donkey.” It’s true that meddling in someone else’s affairs, or becoming entangled in their worries, will come to no good.

In the old days, any situation could be a teaching moment that might be driven home with a dicho. When a friendship turned treacherous, you could enjoin, “ Dios, cuídame de mis enemigos que de mis amigos yo me cuidaré. Lord, protect me from my enemies and I’ll protect myself from my friends.” Or, when pondering the conceit of a newly minted political leader or other haughty character: “ De más alto se han visto caer. From greater heights people have been known to fall.”

It seems that dichos serve foremost as guideposts to cultivating good moral character. Among the virtues most encouraged is humility, as suggested by the dicho “ Hacen más unos callando que otros gritando. There are those who accomplish more being quiet than others who are shouting.” Or “ Más altas están las nubes y el aire las desbarata. The clouds are much higher, and the wind still scatters them.” (No matter how high a position you reach in life, you can fall.)

The landscape sweeps by the car windows as we drive through fields and past houses that evoke memories. At the old plaza in Chimayó, Plaza del Cerro, Mom comments on the brilliant yellow rosas de castilla (Castillian roses) at the casita where her tía Bonefacia lived. Tía Bone, a spinster, was responsible — along with her brother Reyes, my great-grandfather — for passing on much of the folklore that we remember today, including the dichos. It was the stern Bonefacia who used the folk sayings to instill moral character in her numerous sobrinos and sobrinas (nephews and nieces).

Looking at the roses, my mom can hear Bonefacia, who died in 1953, invoking through the sharp lens of the dichos her own sensibilities about right and wrong. In the same way, memories of my grandma are shaped through recalling the sayings she told and retold. With each utterance of a dicho, we are part of a chain of voices, of hearts and souls touching over generations.

In reciting these old sayings, we are also practicing a tradition that is common to Spanish-speakers the world over. Every culture has its own suite of axioms, but it seems that inheritors of the Spanish tongue have a particular affinity for sayings like these. I’ve found that they’re familiar and well understood throughout Latin America and Spain. Recounting a dicho or two quickly establishes a bond that bridges time and cultures.

Over the centuries, dichos have been perpetuated mostly through the spoken word, but now, with the publication of dichos in collections like ours (and there are many others in print), the transmission to future generations has leaped to the written form. Putting the words to paper commits them to an eternal state of “preservation,” but printed words don’t stick to the heart like those spoken. Nor do they work as well without the context of the people, the houses, the rugged hills, the weathered gravestones of the camposanto (cemetery).

So, as we take the winding road home from Chimayó, I try to savor the moment and hang on each word, committing to memory as many dichos as I can. And each journey through the landscape, memory and language, chasing dichos through Chimayó, ends with a satisfying sense that the chain of memory remains unbroken.

Don Usner, a 13th-generation New Mexican born in 1957 in Embudo, holds a BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz and an MA from the University of New Mexico. He has published several books of nonfiction and photography, including Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza, Chasing Dichos through Chimayó, Valles Caldera: A Vision for New Mexico’s National Preserve, and most recently Órale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico.

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