Death is death but death in Mexican Spanish, now that’s an entirely different idea. Death is grim. And undesirable. Nobody wants to die. To that end, the Mexicans are no different. But not all cultures approach death the same way. Mexico dedicates an entire week to celebrate this station of life and that should tell you at least a wee bit about their undying attitude toward dying. Here, we attempt to explore this grim territory through the various ways one could express death in Mexican Spanish.
Every language has more than one expression for most verbs, including to die. In English, for instance, we don’t always die. Sometimes we kick the bucket, breathe our last, cross the great divide, bite the big one, meet our maker, turn up our toes, and do a whole lot of other things. There’s dozens of ways we describe the act of dying in English and so is the case with Spanish. But here we only cover the ones from Mexico. And only 16 of those.
Translating Death in Mexican Spanish
Life is short, too short to learn every single expression in this niche. But these sixteen seem to be the most common of all, so that’s what we’ll look at here. And trust me, they’re no less intriguing than the English ones we ran through above. For example, did you know you lifted up your tennis shoes when you died in Mexico? Or that you drop the beak when you breathe your last? How about sucking on a cheap cigarette? Or going into a hole? Dying in Mexico sounds more fun than somber, no? Let’s get started!
1. Alzar los Tenis
Literal meaning: To pick up the sneakers
Alzar means to lift, to raise, or to pick up. And when you do that with your tennis shoes in Mexico, you die. I mean not literally, of course. I have no idea where this expression comes from and what sneakers have to do with death. But in English we do have an expression involving footwear, to die with one’s boots on, meaning to die while active. This one is different though.
Maybe life is a sport and when you’re done playing, you just pick up your shoes and leave? Maybe the expression alludes to the final act of retirement? Perhaps you just pick up your shoes to signal to your friends that you’re don’t and are going home now? There could be a dozen ways to interpret this and I don’t know which one, if any, would be accurate. But death in Mexican Spanish sure seems fun with tennis shoes and all. Oh and you can also hear colgar (to hang) instead of alzar at times.
2. Apagarsele el Motor a Alguien
Literal meaning: To have one’s motor die
This one’s easy. The human body is seen as a biological machinery in many cultures. And by that analogy life, whatever constitutes it, is the engine that keeps it running. When you die, you essentially turn that engine off. Or, more accurately, it’s the other way around. This analogy is so common all over the world that it should come naturally to you no matter what language you come from.
The verb, if you notice, at the heart of this expression is apagar. In the reflexive, of course. Apagar means to switch off; to die off in the reflexive. One way to remember the verb is to think of it as pack up. apagar has a -pag- which kinda rhymes with pack. You pack up when you’re done or, figuratively speaking, when you die. Word association like this can always come in handy no matter how nonsensical it might sound at times.
3. Azotar Como Chango Viejo
Literal meaning: To flog like an old monkey
Chango a word of Spanish slang with many colors. In the Caribbean it means joker or prankster. In Bolivia and Argentina, it’s a young boy, a kid. Actually in Argentina, chango is also a shopping cart, but that’s beside the point. In Mexico, chango refers to a monkey. Azotar is to flog or, in Mexico, to slam. So why would a monkey flog someone? And what’s that got to do with dying? Maybe the act of dying is akin to an old monkey whipping around itself, gasping for breath. Again, that’s just my personal hypothesis and only a native speaker can clarify what the real connotations are.
By the way, azotar can also be used reflexively in colloquial Mexican Spanish and when done, it means to put on airs or to fancy oneself. But I doubt that has got anything to do with this expression since it uses azotar and not azotarse. The monkey, incidentally, is a symbol of lust in pre-Columbian Mexican folklore! This usage of a symbol of lust in an expression about death should tell you all about Mexico’s nonchalant approach to death.
Literal meaning: To carry
Cargar comes from the same Latin root that gives us its English counterparts, carry and charge. But cargar means more than just carry and charge. It also means to flunk, at least colloquially. And it also means to kill, when used reflexively. Again, I am just going to hypothesize because I have no idea what the actual story is behind this one.
Ever committed a murder? Or seen someone do? In a movie, I mean. Notice how killing is only the first part of a much longer process. The next step involves hiding the body and cleaning up the evidence. Now to hide the body, you’ve gotta carry it someplace. I think that’s what this cargar alludes to. And don’t let the reflexive usage fool you, that’s just a decoy. The one getting killed is not the one carrying out the murder, i.e. this isn’t a suicide:
El pozolero se cargaba a sus víctimas metiéndolas en barriles de ácido (The pozolero bumped off his victims by putting them in barrels of acid).
You see how we use an a to introduce the victim while still using se before cargaba? That’s what I meant when I said this usage is not about suicide. The verb is reflexive but the object remains different from the subject.
5. Cerrar los Ojitos
Literal meaning: To close the little eyes
This one should be a cakewalk. No matter what language you speak, you almost certainly close your eyes when you die. No wonder death is often seen as the Big Sleep in most cultures. Ojo is Spanish for eye and with the -ito suffix, also known as diminutive, becomes ojito (small eyes). Notice that cerrar is not used reflexively here. This is quite a break from the norm since verbs usually go reflexive when the object happens to be a body part:
Me duele la cabeza (My head hurts).
See the me before duele? That’s what I’m talking about. Following this tradition, it ought to be cerrarse los ojitos but it isn’t. Well, death deserves a little exception, after all, doesn’t it?
6. Chupar Faros
Literal meaning: To suck on Faros, a cheap brand of strong cigarettes
I have discussed this one in a previous post about common Mexican Spanish idioms. Yes, faro means lighthouse, and sucking on one makes zero sense. The image is both gross and nonsensical at once. But in this context, it refers to a brand. A brand of cheap cigarettes, one of the oldest in Mexico. Faros are also considered to be one of the strongest cigarettes in the country. So strong, they earned a reputation for being bigger killers than their more benign counterparts. And thus, with time, chupar Faros came to become a metaphor for death in Mexican Spanish.
7. Clavar el Pico
Literal meaning: To hammer the beak
Of all the ways you express death in Mexican Spanish, this one seems to be the strangest. And the expression also enjoys some currency down south in Colombia. Clavar pico, in non-grim situations means to fall asleep. And every language sees death as a slightly extreme version of sleep, hence the allusion. But how hammering one’s beak came to be seen as having anything to do with falling asleep, nobody knows. At least not me.
No clavé pico en toda la noche de ayer (I didn’t sleep a wink all night yesterday).
Humans neither have beaks, nor are beaks hammered while one’s falling asleep. And that’s what makes this expression an absolute favorite of mine. The more nonsensical an expression, the more idiomatic an air it takes. And the more that happens, exotic it sounds.
8. Dar el Changazo
Literal meaning: To give the monkey
Chango is monkey. In Mexico, that is. The -azo at the end of changazo is just an augmentative suffix whose job is to merely make whatever it is attached to bigger. So if chango is a monkey, changazo is a big monkey. So if you somehow manage to give the great simian, you die. Doesn’t maker to whom you give and why, you just give. This is one of those situations where give doesn’t take a receiver. Don’t let this stump you though, you do that in English all the time. I mean how many times have you not given a damn about something? To give the monkey is one way to express death in Mexican Spanish.
If you can recall, this is the second expression on death in Mexican Spanish involving monkeys. Remember azotar como chango viejo? What’s with them Mexicans and monkeys? Well, I can explain this one. You see, dar el changazo is also colloquialism for taking a violent fall on the ground. The changazo instead of chango makes the effect more dramatic and, well, violent since the bigger the monkey, the harder the fall. So as an expression of death in Mexican Spanish, this is seen as the final fall to the ground; perhaps alluding to one’s burial?
9. Dejar el Pellejo
Literal meaning: To leave one’s skin
Let’s forget about the central theme of this discussion — death in Mexican Spanish — for a bit, and take a little detour to understand pellejo. Skin, you see, has more than one names in Spanish depending on who it belongs to. There’s cuero, there’s piel, and there’s pellejo. But to make things harder for you, Spanish doesn’t allow them to be used interchangeably.
Let’s start with piel. That’s your skin, human skin. If you hear someone use it for animals, the meaning changes to fur. The word is closely related to peel in English. Next up is pellejo. That one’s for animals. The closest equivalent in English would be hide. You could use pellejo for humans too in some situations, especially if you’re being mean or something. Then there’s cuero. Cuero is something else altogether, it’s what you get once you process the hide. Leather. Of course, cuero has plenty of other colloquial uses especially when it comes to being cheesy with pretty women, but that’s for another day.
So leaving your skin is one way of doing death in Mexican Spanish. Shouldn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why this works. Dejar can also be substituted with perder (to lose) in some cases for the same effect.
Literal meaning: To break down due to an overheated tie rod
Biela is Spanish for connecting rod in the context of automobile engines. It’s the piece that connects the crankshaft to the piston, basically the piece that makes the whole thing work. No biela, no engine. So you see how important it is. But sometimes, it breaks down due to overheating. When the engine gets too hot, it throws this biela off track and asks you to get a new one. This act of breaking down due to a problem with the biela is called desbielarse. You won’t find it in most dictionaries!
Se desbieló el motor (The engine threw a rod).
If an engine can die out, so can people. So the usage of this verb to describe human death in Mexican Spanish shouldn’t really shock you. Just like chango, this one’s the second expression of death in Mexican Spanish involving automobiles. Remember apagarsele el motor a alguien?
Remo, by the way, is Spanish for oar. It comes from Latin rēmus which itself goes back to Ancient Greek eretmós. Guess what else we get from this Ancient Greek word. Oar.
11. Doblar los Remos
Literal meaning: To fold the oars
This one imagines life as a boat-trip and you as its rower. Reminds me of that nursery rhyme — Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream; Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream! Sweet, no? So what do you do at the end of the trip if you’re the rower? You fold your oars. That’s what this expression alludes to. You fold your proverbial oars when you die. That’s the end of your boat-ride.
Remo, by the way, is Spanish for oar. It comes from Latin rēmus which itself goes back to Ancient Greek eretmós. Guess what else we get from this Ancient Greek word. Oar. Okay, I know this is some super-twisted history and hardly much help when it comes to memorizing remo. So try carving out the innards of the word like a Halloween pumpkin and then flip what’s left — or! Doesn’t it sound a lot like oar now?
12. Entregar el Equipo
Literal meaning: To hand in the equipment
Equipo generally means team but sometimes it also means equipment. The two words sound like they should be synonymous anyway. Entregar is to submit, to turn in. Basically, this one treats life as a game. Or work. And you as the one playing or working. With borrowed gear. And once you’re done playing or working, you turn in your tools. Simple, isn’t it? Death is merely the act of turning in the tools you borrowed because your job’s over in this world! The tool here is probably life itself.
I love this one, it’s so deep! In fact of all the ways you could express death in Mexican Spanish, this one seems to pack the most amount of philosophy. Along with the one about oars, of course. This should also tell you how Mexicans have come to embrace death as an inevitable station of life. Well, they come from a culture that did human sacrifice until less than 800 years ago, so their easy relationship with death is understandable.
13. Estirar la Pata
Literal meaning: To stretch out the paw
Estirar is to stretch and pata is foot, typically that of a bird. Stretching your foot is a Mexican euphemism for dying, similar to buying the farm or kicking the bucket in English. Perhaps the idea is that you stretch your legs when you retire after a hard day’s work. Hang up your boots? The focus is on the retiring nature of death. Instead of being an undesirable accident, it’s a comfortable moment of rest after all of life’s misadventures. That’s how the Mexicans see it.
14. Irse al Hoyo
Literal meaning: To leave for the hole
Ir is to go but when used reflexively, it becomes synonymous with salir (to leave). Slap the preposition a to it and it becomes to leave for. That’s what’s going on here. Hoyo looks very much like hole and that’s probably because that’s what it means. This expression focuses on death’s uncertainty and permanence. Much like a black hole. Nobody knows what’s inside, nobody who enters ever comes out. So when you die, you basically depart for this black hole of death, never to return.
Hoyo also happens to be a colloquial Spanish euphemism for tomb or grave. Well, this one is literally a hole in the ground! This is another way to interpret irse al hoyo — no black hole, no uncertainty, just the plain old pit in the ground!
15. Irse al Otro Barrio
Literal meaning: To leave for the other neighborhood
Death is often associated with an afterlife in many cultures, especially those with pagan roots, e.g. the Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican ones. Think of life as one neighborhood and the afterlife as another, albeit a tad unknown. That’s what they mean by irse al otro barrio. You leave for this other neighborhood when you die. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to you if you’ve ever heard of someone going to the other side in English.
I doubt this one is exclusive to Mexico though. I mean the underlying idea seems too generic to be a novelty elsewhere. So watch out, you might run into it in other countries too. I have heard at least one Colombian claiming to be familiar with the expression, so there’s that.
16. Quedárse Frío
Literal meaning: To remain cold
This is the last expression for death in Mexican Spanish we’ll discuss today. We know life is warm. Death is cold. That’s straight-up science. Body temperature is a direct function of biological activities which can only take place if you’re alive. So a drop in body temperature after death is not an alien concept to any culture. Even in English we sometimes hear expressions like cold as death or death’s icy grip.
But I still don’t get the usage of quedar here. I was instead expecting something like volver here. You don’t remain cold when you die, you become cold. But that’s what it is, an idiom is an idiom. Another, a semantically better, alternative is enfriárse (to cool down). The verb, as you can tell, derives from friar which means to freeze. The two are near cognates and it shows.
There’s, I’m sure, at least a dozen more ways to express death in Mexican Spanish. But I don’t want to give y’all an existential crisis by talking about something that morbid for far too long. The finality of death makes it quite a philosophical subject. It often inspires the best of metaphors and similes in almost every language. It’s the same in Spanish. And Mexico knows death like few other countries do, so there’s that.
If you happen to run into any other witty expression pertaining to death, please don’t hesitate to share it with me in a comment below. The topic has always fascinated me and the more I can learn, the better!