Colloquial Mexican Spanish expressions can instantly add a native touch to your Spanish while in Mexico. At least more so than the run-of-the-mill aguas and wey. For example, did you know that when a Mexican wants to exploit you, they eat your groceries? I bet you didn’t. How about exploding like a bean instead of failing? Or flying like a kite instead of getting distracted? Sure, none of this makes any sense whatsoever. But that’s how idiomatic expressions work. And that’s what makes them sound so witty and downright awesome, right? All languages are packed with a gazillion such expressions and new ones are getting coined each day. And Mexican Spanish is no different.
Although I call them Mexican Spanish expressions, they may or may not be exclusive to Mexico. What I can assure you though is that they surely pack a bigger punch in this country than in any other. I have already discussed a few words of Mexican colloquialism in the past but those are mere words. This one is about expressions. Whichever language you speak, you know expressions, especially the idiomatic kind, contribute a lot more to its wit than individual words.
Also, do note that when I say Mexican Spanish expressions, I grossly oversimplify things. And that’s because not every part of the country accords the same ubiquity to an expression. At least that’s the case with most of them. Mexico is huge and Mexican Spanish is a blanket term for at least five different dialects. Each dialect has its own characteristic quirk and some expressions enjoy better currency in one dialect than in the others. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll keep those dialectical quirks out of this discussion.
Mexican Spanish Expressions
As you go through the following list, you’ll notice that there’s a considerable gap between the literal word-for-word translation of the expression and its implied meaning. This gap is essentially what defines an idiomatic expression. The bigger the gap, the more fun the expression. Take, for instance, medirle el agua a los camotes. No, this one isn’t on the list but that doesn’t make it any less Mexican. What do you think it means?
Medir is to measure. Camote is sweet potato or yam in Latin America and derives from the vegetable’s Nahuatl name. So the expression translates into something like to measure water to the yam. But trust me, that’s not what it means. It actually means to plan ahead. See the gap? In the following list of similar Mexican Spanish expressions I have tried to bridge this gap between the literal and actual meanings wherever possible. But at times, it’s too complicated to even bother. Don’t let that put you off. Just enjoy the wit they bring and enrich your Spanish.
1. Aflojar a Alguien un Varo
Literal meaning: To spare someone some change
Actual meaning: To lend money
Varar means to run aground, something boats and whales do (against their will, of course) from time to time. In Latin America, the word also means to break down and understandably so. In Mexico, the word has yet another colloquial interpretation, to cheat. Don’t ask me why. And from this interpretation comes varo. Varo is Mexican slang for illegitimate money or just chump change. Aflojar is to loosen or relax. Thus, aflojar a alguien un varo is, simply put, to let someone have some chump change, i.e., to lend someone some dough.
2. Agarrar a alguien de Bajada
Literal meaning: To grab someone on their way down
Actual meaning: To bully someone
Bajada, in this context, could be substituted for barco or encargo. And the expression essentially alludes to someone being caught with their guards down. Depending on the context, the intensity could range from mild to severe. So it could be harmlessly pulling someone’s leg or flat out attacking them with the intent to hurt. Say there’s a group of six and five of them decide gang up on the sixth, that’s lo agarraron de bajada. The teacher giving the class a surprise test is another good example. Like several Mexican Spanish expressions, this one is also common in some other parts of the Spanish-speaking world; albeit with other words in place of bajada. For instance, it’s punto in Argentina. Or sopita in Venezuela. Or lorna in Peru. The Chilean equivalent is tener a alguien de goma. There’s many other variants around the world but I digress.
3. Andar Papaloteando
Literal meaning: To go wandering like a kite
Actual meaning: To be distracted
Papalote comes from pāpalōtl, Nahuatl for butterfly, and means kite. The word enjoys standard currency in all of Central America, the Caribbean, and, of course, Mexico. Now it shouldn’t be hard to think of being distracted as simply wandering away in one’s mind. And aimlessly wandering away is what a kite does in flight, no? So when you’re distracted, a Mexican would often ask you if you’ve gone kite-ing. Another fun colloquialism for this act is babosear which comes from babosa, Spanish for slug, and means to slobber over or daydream. Again, it’s not hard to see why; a slug’s motion looks anything but aimless. This one should be the easiest of all Mexican Spanish idioms to figure out, or at least one of them.
In English we chip in or whip around (British English). In Mexico, we make a cow!
4. Armar la Vaca
Literal meaning: To arm the cow
Actual meaning: To raise money
This one always gives me a chuckle. Just imagine a cow, generally seen as docile and minding its own business, being outfitted for battle. Hilarious, right? Armar is often switched with hacer for the exact same effect and either way, the expression is classic Mexican. In English we chip in or whip around (British English). In Mexico, we make a cow! The expression can also be heard in Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia.
Oh and also Spain. But some Spaniards prefer to make an escote (cleavage)! I really have no idea what fundraising or collecting money has got to do with making a cleavage, but hey, whatever sells, right? This is what I love about idiomatic Mexican Spanish expressions (rather, idioms in general), they can absolutely stump you with their connotations no matter how good your Spanish is otherwise.
5. Aventar a Alguien un Choro
Literal meaning: To fling a thief at someone
Actual meaning: To make up stories to someone
Choro is a fun word to know, and quite versatile colloquially. The word gives us several cool Mexican Spanish expressions and also enjoys quite the currency in other countries of Latin America. Most of its colloquial interpretations come from the Andean regions of Chile and Peru where it can refer to a mussel, a burglar, a thief, a robber, or even the female genitalia! In Mexico, though, choro also refers to lies or empty talks. The word, I’ve read, has a Quechua origin. How choro came to mean a lie in Mexico, I don’t know. But the idiom it has spawned is quite ubiquitous.
By the way, it’s an interesting coincidence that choro means thief in most Spanish-speaking countries (although colloquially) and the word for thief in Hindi is chōr! No, there’s no etymological connection here but if you happen to be from India, this word-bridge could come in mighty handy. I have discussed word-bridges and other memory tricks at length in the past so feel free to dig in.
6. Aventarse Como Guillermo Rivas
Literal meaning: To throw oneself like Guillermo Rivas
Actual meaning: To wing it or improvise
Back in the way, there used to be a popular sitcom called The Beverly Hillbillies that ran on CBS during the sixties. It did so well that Telesistema Mexicano (the father of Televisa) decided to run a Spanish-language version titled Los Beverly de Peralvillo. The lead character in this series, el Borras, was played by this Mexican actor named Guillermo Rivas Rowlatt. El Borras is a cabbie known for his erratic driving in this series and is where the idiom comes from. Basically, to throw yourself like Guillermo Rivas or el Borras is to do something with zero planning or deliberation.
This is one of those Mexican Spanish expressions that the current generation has inherited from the last. Even in Mexico, most kids are unaware of this little history. But that’s the case with most Mexican Spanish expressions, or expressions in general, no?
7. Caerse de Madres
Literal meaning: To fall off mothers
Actual meaning: To be very sure
This one is a Mexican Spanish expression, sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t hear it elsewhere. The meaning, however, changes from country to country. In Spain, for example, the expression goes caerse de puta madre and means to like someone a lot. The expression, of course, is quite vulgar outside of Spain and people sometimes tone it down by omitting the puta. This usage, without the puta bit, is common in Puerto Rico.
Coming back to Mexico, the expression caerse de madres can mean both to really like someone and to be very certain of something. But it’s the latter that seems to be the most common interpretation. Of all Mexican Spanish expressions listed here, this one seems to be the most difficult to reason. I can’t even begin to theorize on what hanging by one’s mother might have to do with being smitten or being sure.
8. Chupar Faros
Literal meaning: To suck lighthouses
Actual meaning: To die
Now that sounds super vulgar, or maybe it’s just my mind being perverted. But come on, sucking a lighthouse? Where did that even come from? Okay, calm down cowboy, this isn’t what you think. Faros, you see, is a Mexican brand of cigarettes, the oldest in the country. They were mighty popular back in the day, not because they were particularly good but because they were so darn cheap. And strong. These unfiltered devils were so strong that they had to be rolled in sugar-coated rice paper to make them more tolerable. Goes without saying, they were quite the killer. With time, this association between early death and Faros became immortalized in one of the most weird-sounding Mexican Spanish expressions. So you see, chupar faros is more about smoking being fatal than about some weird lighthouse fetish. I must admit, Mexico has quite the fetish for death.
Mandado means errand. Or shopping. But in Mexico, it also means groceries. Thus, if you want to exploit someone or leach off them, you just eat their groceries.
9. Comer a Alguien el Mandado
Literal meaning: To eat someone’s groceries
Actual meaning: To take advantage of someone
Mandado means errand. Or shopping. But in Mexico, it also means groceries. Thus, if you want to exploit someone or leach off them, you just eat their groceries. At least that’s what this very popular idiom says. Depending on the context, the expression can also mean to steal someone’s chance. For example, if you’ve been working hard for the job but finally end up losing it to someone else you’d go:
Él me comió el mandado (He stole my job).
Mandado, incidentally, is also Mexican colloquialism for opportunist when used as an adjective. As many other Mexican Spanish expressions, this one too enjoys some usage outside of Mexico. In Costa Rica, for example, they use it in the same context; they just prefer robar instead of comer.
10. Dar a Alguien el Avión
Literal meaning: To give someone an airplane
Actual meaning: To ignore someone
You give someone the airplane when you want to shrug them off. For example, if someone were giving you a bunch of unsolicited advices and you were just nodding along waiting for them to finally shut the hell up, that’s giving them the airplane. Doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, just like most other Mexican Spanish expressions, I know. But that’s what makes it fun to use!
You don’t always have to insincerely nod to someone in order to ignore them. You could also go down the more impolite road and straight-up give them the cold shoulder. Both qualify as dar in avión and the context decides which one is being implied.
11. Dar a Alguien en la Torre
Literal meaning: To give someone in the tower
Actual meaning: To hit someone where it hurts
This one hurts. Torre (tower), in this Mexican Spanish expression, is most likely a euphemism for the male genitalia. Don’t ask me to get more graphic than this, let your imagination do some work. What’s being given here is, of course, a solid kick. So now you see why giving someone in the tower alludes to hitting them where it really hurts?
The expression comes with quite a few fun variants, each one using something other than torre. One of them targets the victim’s mother (but of course):
Voy a darte en tu madre (I’m gonna hit you where it hurts).
The usage of madre, as you’d expect, makes it more vulgar and more intense. The torre version doesn’t always have to mean something violent. if someone gave you in the tower, they could’ve probably just ruined you. Or even beat you in a game.
12. Echarse una Pestañita
Literal meaning: To apply an eyelash on oneself
Actual meaning: To take a nap
This Mexican Spanish expression is better recognized elsewhere than the others I’ve listed so far. Pestaña is Spanish for eyelash and like most things Spanish, it can be, and often is, personalized with an -ita. Latin Americans in general and Mexicans in particular are known for their prolific usage of such diminutives. Given the relationship between eyelashes and eyes, and eyes and sleep, this expression should be easy to understand.
To give it an even more exclusively Mexican color, replace pestañita with coyotito, the cuter version of coyote. Now why one would throw the poor little animal in order to take a nap, I don’t know. But I’m sure there’s a cute story behind the idiom, there always is.
Literal meaning: To turn into a large goat
Actual meaning: To get mad
Of all Mexican Spanish expressions discussed here, this one’s the shortest. What happens when you’re furious? You go red, you fume, you speak foul, and you probably even have blood rushing to your head. In Mexico, you just turn into a big friggin’ goat! Yes, just become a goat and everything else follows. You see, cabrón is one of the most defining features of Latin American profanity. The word means everything from pimp to asshole and from bastard to buddy! It derives from cabra, Spanish for goat. The -ón in cabrón is what we refer to as an augmentative. Augmentatives are the polar opposite of diminutives. They make things look bigger or more intense. I know putting a single word in a list of Mexican Spanish expressions is a tad unfair but trust me, the word is too ubiquitous to leave out.
Now coming back to the verb at hand, the en- of Spanish serves a function similar to that of its English homonym. Just as endanger is to place someone or something in danger, encabronar is to turn someone or something into, well, a cabrón. We have already seen the negative connotations of cabrón, so when someone gets mad, it’s easy to see why they turn into one.
14. Estar Picándose los Ojos
Literal meaning: To be poking one’s eyes
Actual meaning: To kill time
Picar means to pick or poke. Don’t flinch, we’re not driving nails into your eyes here. When you pick your eyes in Spanish, you’re merely winking. Slapped with an estar, you have someone who is repeatedly winking. Or, idiomatically speaking, killing time. Winking to communicate is fine but doing it repeatedly is something else. Then you’re not communicating, you’re just doing it because you have nothing better to do. Still sounds contrived if you ask me, but hey, if them Mexicans are okay using their eyes as fidget spinners, who am I to complain?
Similar expressions are heard outside of Mexico too, often with different verbs or organs. In Peru, for instance, it’s estar rascando la panza. Ditto for Argentina except it’s higo instead of panza. Higo (fig), someone told me, is probably a euphemism for the male crotch. Whoa!
15. Hacer las Cosas al Aventón
Literal meaning: To do things to the push
Actual meaning: To be careless or clumsy
Aventón is a Central American colloquialism for a range of things like ride, push, or shove. This slang usage is also familiar to Peru. Thus, dar un aventón could be either to give someone a ride or to give someone a push, depending on the situation. So that’s aventón for you. Now what about hacer las cosas al aventón? How do you do things to the push?
Well, think of it this way, you aren’t always excited about doing whatever it is you’re doing. Sometimes you do it because you have to. Because someone asked you to or, in other words, pushed you to. And when that happens, you usually tend to be less deliberate or meticulous about the task at hand. You just want to get it over with. And that’s what makes you reckless about the job.
16. Hacer Como que la Virgen le Habla
Literal meaning: To do as if the Virgin were talking to them
Actual meaning: To ignore someone
What would you do when Virgin Mary herself shows up for a chatter with you? Of course, you leave everything else and lend her all the attention you could ever muster. Even more so if you happen to be a Mexican. You wouldn’t wanna waste time listening to me or your girlfriend when the Holy Mother herself has granted you an audience. That’s why pretending to be listening to the Virgin is a Mexican way of ignoring someone.
This is the only item on this list that talks about the Virgin. But don’t be surprised if you run into more when out in the wild. Mexico’s obsession with Jesus’ mother is no news. They even have an entire holiday dedicated to the Lady, Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe). It falls on December 12 each year and is almost as big a shindig as Christmas itself! So a few Mexican Spanish expressions running with the Virgin theme should hardly be a surprise.
17. Hacer un Pancho
Literal meaning: To make a hot dog
Actual meaning: To make a scene
Pancho is colloquialism for many things. The most widely-known interpretation is belly and the English word paunch should give you a good hint as to why. Closer home in Latin America, especially the Southern Cone, pancho also refers to a hot dog or a chorizo sandwich. In Mexico, there exists a third meaning, commotion. Mind you, all of these are colloquialisms.
So hacer un pancho is one of the most straightforward Mexican Spanish expressions and simply means to make a scene. Pancho is also a proper noun, a Hispanic nickname for Francisco. This should remind you of this guy called Pancho Villa. But that interpretation won’t make sense here because, well, how do you make a Francisco? Oh and no, you cannot say San Pancho instead of San Francisco, that’s not how it works.
18. Hacerse Bolas
Literal meaning: To turn into balls
Actual meaning: To get confused
The basic premise here is that balls spin. That’s what all ball-like things do — the Earth, the Moon, the planets, everything. And when you’re confused, your head spins too. At least figuratively so. So when you’re confused, you just turn into a ball. At least in Mexico. See that? Not all Mexican Spanish expressions are convoluted with a rich and twisted history. Some, like this one, are just basic day-to-day stuff.
Actually, bola figures in many other Mexican Spanish expressions. Let me mention one more here: Hacerle bolita. No, this one isn’t the same thing. Hacerle bolita is a very common fun activity where a bunch of people pile up on someone lying down or asleep, yelling “¡Bolita!” Sounds so familiar, right? We all do this regardless of whether we chant bolita or just yay. But only in Mexico there’s a name for it!
19. Ir Vuelto Madre
Literal meaning: To be in a hurry
Actual meaning: To turn into a mother
Vuelto is Latin American colloquialism for change, as in money. It can also mean transformation as is the case here. To go changing into a mother just sounds awkward. This is one of those Mexican Spanish expressions I was talking about earlier, that make no sense whatsoever when translated literally. Don’t even bother digging into its history because I’m sure it’s more convoluted than worth the pain. Like what’s becoming a mother got to do with being in a rush?
Okay, lemme theorize. Maybe because moms, Mexican moms in particular, maintain an image of being perennially anxious and in a rush? In a good way, I mean. Like they always want you to be prompt with your chores and be back soon while you’re out? I dunno, just a conjecture. But hey, if it helps you relate, why not?
Google around, talk to people, read books, and you’ll discover an overwhelming treasure of cool Mexican Spanish idioms such as irse a bailar a Chalma (to wait for a miracle), pasar de panzazo (to barely make it through), ponerse la del Puebla (to share), pedir paros (to seek favors), ser bien sangrón (to be unbearably annoying), or tronar como ejote (to fail miserably).
So here we are, finally done with the list. But we both know this is not even close to all there is. Mexican Spanish expressions run into thousands if not tens of thousands and it would take an entire book, if not books, to cover it all. And no, I won’t even call these the 19 most important Mexican Spanish expressions, because that simply won’t be true. I am not even qualified to judge the importance of one expression in comparison to the rest. But yes, I can confidently assure you that these are as Mexican as it gets and having them in your language arsenal will do a whole lot of good to your communication skills while in Mexico.
Google around, talk to people, read books, and you’ll discover an overwhelming treasure of cool Mexican Spanish idioms such as irse a bailar a Chalma (to wait for a miracle), pasar de panzazo (to barely make it through), ponerse la del Puebla (to share), pedir paros (to seek favors), ser bien sangrón (to be unbearably annoying), or tronar como ejote (to fail miserably). The more you look, the more you’ll find. So get digging and don’t forget to share your findings with me in a comment below!