guest article by Henry Kammler
(All original data collected by Catherine Whittaker unless otherwise indicated.)
“You have to stay trucha in Tijuana,” the tour guide explains while taking a group — all holders of privileged passports — South on a day tour across the border from San Diego. What if someone stole your passport and later committed a crime on US soil? You’d be in trouble for the rest of your life.
Why would the Anglophone guide say trucha, Spanish for “trout”, in his cautionary advice? Global media coverage has made one example of trucha used in this sense quite famous: the name of a multinational street gang originating in Central America, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Interpreted as a standard Spanish expression, the attribute salvatrucha may be mistaken as meaning “saving trout” (with salva meaning ‘save’ and trucha meaning ‘trout’). In Mesoamerican colloquial speech, however, the intended label “shrewd Salvadorians” is relatively clear, not least because trucha in its usage as an adjective is an everyday term in regional Spanish.
Hybrid English-Spanish expressions like “staying trucha” or “being trucha”, which are common among the Chicano/a population in the US, indicate that the meaning of the loan element trucha doesn’t have an adequate semantic counterpart in English. Loosely translatable as “alert, shrewd, sharp, vigilant, watchful, on one’s toes”, trucha operates on several levels of meaning: an individual’s momentary stance, an individual’s behavior of constant watchfulness, as well as a habitus and even a collective cultural trait. As Alberto Pulido, professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of San Diego, asserts: “Being trucha is a way of life” (interview Feb 19th, 2020). A look at different contexts of the use of trucha may help shed some light on this claim.
Tracing the term trucha
At this point, some observations about the historical sociolinguistic dynamics in northern Latin America are in order. While standard Castilian was introduced as the official language of colonial administration in the 16th century, it interacted with regional Indigenous languages that were widely used as linguae francae, as well as for administrative purposes. Moreover, the European invaders brought with them their regional language variants and sociolects spoken in different parts of the Iberian Peninsula. From these diverse sources New World Spanish developed its own dialectal and socially stratified speech patterns (cf. Parodi 1995).
In Mexico, certain “nonstandard” variants of Spanish have been called caló at least since the 19th century (Alvarez 1967). Caló is one of the common designations for the Iberian variants of the Romani (or gitano) language. In the Americas, the label caló was extended to different types of argot and street slang that retained only few Romani elements (Wagner 1919). Although argots are codes of exclusion, speech elements from these sociolects often diffuse into colloquial forms of speech in the general society, for example via adolescents’ speech. Such is the case in Mexican Spanish where lexemes of Romani / Caló origin are not confined to the niches of argot, as can be seen in the widely used chavo for “kid” (from Romani čávo “child”, related to chaval in other Spanish variants which originated from Romani čaválo “young man”) or chingar for “mess up, strike, destroy, spoil” (most likely from Romani čiŋər– “fight, brawl, strike”; Wolf 1993: 235, 238; a second, sexualized layer of meaning typical for Mexican Spanish may be a case of convergence from a Nahuatl source: ‑tsīnkōwia “have paid sex”, cf. Touvenot 2015: 444).
The variants of Spanish that need to be taken into account for tracing trucha are: the standard Spanish in official use in Mexico, two regional dialects (central Mexico vs. historic southwestern US Spanish) and emergent Caló forms of speech in both dialect areas. A type of Caló specific to the southwestern United States is termed pachuco. It originated in El Paso, Texas, before World War II and expanded rapidly among Spanish speakers (who used to be called chicanos before this ethnonym took on a more politicized meaning after c. 1960) as a counter-culture jargon, especially in California (Griffith 1948). In this linguistic landscape, we find three basic meanings for trucha.
Trucha1 = “trout”. In standard Spanish, trucha designates various fish species within the Salmonidae family. The term’s meaning was expanded to “fish in general” in parts of America, notably in the variants historically spoken in Texas and New Mexico (Pedrero González 2006). The “trout / fish” meaning is common to all linguistic variants.
Trucha2 = “knife”. Vocabularies for pre-1960 Chicano Spanish and Pachuco slang gloss trucha only in this sense (Gaarder 1944: “arma blanca; navaja o cuchillo”; Barker 1969: “knife”). It is still in common use as an argot term (García 2005).
Trucha3 = “vigilant, alert, smart”. Trucha in this sense does not occur in written sources for Mexico until the 20th century. As it is not mentioned in earlier studies of Southwestern US Spanish, it probably migrated with Spanish speakers into the US after World War II.
In Mexican Caló (though not of Romani origin), trucha means “shrewd, alert person” and is also the root for the verb entruchar “to understand” (García 2005: 808). The most likely semantic source for trucha = “shrewd” is cross-referenced by the Diccionario de la Real Academia (DRAE) as a shortened form of an archaic Iberian Spanish colloquial word truchimán meaning “persona sagaz y astuta, poco escrupulosa en su proceder” (“a shrewd and astute person that goes about things in a rather unscrupulous fashion”). Borrowed from classic Arabic (turǧumān), it originally meant “interpeter”. Judging by the DRAE entry, trucha in this sense has fallen out of use in Peninsular Spanish. However, two closely-related languages in northwestern Spain use trout-related lexemes for “shrewd (person)”: Galician (Galego) has the noun troita and Asturian the adjective truchu/a (DGLA). Further evidence comes from the Río Plata of Argentina and Uruguay region where the main local Caló is known as lunfardo. In the Lunfardo sociolect, trucha means either “face” (as a fourth meaning) or “shrewd person” (Chamberlain 1981). This is probably also the source of the Rio Plata Spanish adjective trucho/a for “fake, counterfeit” (fifth meaning).
For the presence of trucha3 in Mexican / Chicano slang, Galician / Asturian is one possible road of entry into Latin American Spanish, in the wake of several waves of immigration from northwestern Spain between 1880 and 1950. Galicians often established themselves as petty merchants and owners of small hotels, a contact zone for Caló speakers (Salazar Anaya 1996). Another explanation could be that trucha3 was retained in Mexican Spanish but has fallen out of use in Castilian. Currently there is no way of establishing this, because non-standard forms of Spanish in Mesoamerica before the late 19th century (when “folkloristic” language studies became popular) remain under-studied and under-documented.
The South American argot meaning of “face” is very likely derived from the fish and the form of its head (male trout develop grotesque jaws and big mouths in the mating season when they travel up the rivers). Similarly, the use of “knife” could be motivated by the physical attributes of trout, as they are carnivores and have dense rows of tiny, sharp teeth. As for trucha = “shrewd / vigilant” folk etymology has it that “being trucha” refers to the smart fish that know how to avoid a hook (Cardozo-Freeman 1995: 20) and are also determined swimmers against the current when going up the rivers, symbolizing “the fight for survival” (Rodriguez & Cesare 1995: 63; in reality, most Pacific trout die on that journey). This may be true for the trucha-derived Mexican slang verb entruchar “understand”, but its homophonous counterpart in Castilian means the opposite: “to get drawn into a business agreement under false pretenses (to bite the hook; DRAE)”. All in all, the Arabic etymological source via truchimán seems more convincing.
Usage in Spanish
While probably of Caló origin, trucha for “vigilant” has become part of middle-class colloquial speech in Mexico and parts of Central America. The most common occurrence of trucha is in the well-intended advice ponte trucha (“be on your toes, watch out”; literally “assume a trucha stance”). A father in urban Mexico may tell his kid Tienes que ponerte trucha en el examen para que no repruebes.(“You got to be be trucha in the exam so you won’t fail.”) The phrase can also be uttered as a threat, as in a song by Guadalajara-based rapper Tren Lokote: Trucha cuando salgas de tu cantón / cuando te topes con todo mi pelotón / póngase trucha si pasas por el callejón […] (“Trucha when you leave your hood, when you bump into my posse, be trucha when you walk in the alley […]” ). Another common wording is estar trucha (to be temporarily trucha), as in the phrase estáte trucha with exactly the same meaning as ponte trucha.
While trucha is normally used as an adjective, there is also the much less used construction tener trucha (“have trucha”), where the word in question operates as a noun and direct object of the verb tener, possibly in analogy to the widespread standard-Spanish expression tener cuidado “be cautious, watch out”. That trucha is not yet fully integrated into middle-class Spanish on the US-side of the border becomes apparent in Mexican American journalist Gustavo Arellano’s judgement: “Ten trucha is very specific, you know, barrio slang. I’m not gonna say ten trucha in your high school classroom, you know” (Aug 11th, 2020, interview).
Trucha can also encode the description of a personality or a permanent attitude: Mira qué trucha esa chola. (“Look at how trucha that tough-looking girl is”). Accordingly, in Spanish this notion goes with the verb ser (“to be permanently”): Ese bato es bien trucha. (“This guy is quite trucha.”) Taking on trucha as a permanent attitude can also be found in what Alberto Pulido’s father used to tell him: Uno se tiene que poner trucha y seguir trucha. (“You need to take on a trucha stance and stay trucha,” interview Feb 19th, 2020.) His advice also contained word-play on the theme of ponerse X which both means “take on a stance” and “put on a piece of clothing”: Ponte trucha con la cachucha! (“Put your trucha on together with your baseball cap.”), meaning to make trucha a routine in life. Trucha as a character trait is equated to audaz (“sharp-eared”) and sagaz (“sharp-eyed”) in Spanish dictionaries that recognize the slang term (e.g. DRAE).
Regional standard Spanish contains many common ways of saying “to be vigilant / cautious”. The direct Spanish cognate form vigilante is rarely used as an adjective and was not mentioned by the persons consulted for this sample. Besides the already mentioned tener cuidado further examples are ser cauteloso/a (“be cautious”), andar con cautela (“tread with caution”), ser prudente (“be cautious”). Among the more colloquial expressions in direct discourse (Kammler data) are ¡ojo! (“eye!”) like in ¡Ojo! con que no te roben. (“Watch out so you don’t get robbed.”), and ¡aguas! for calling attention to immediate danger: ¡Aguas! se te va caer encima. (“Watch out, it’s gonna fall on you.”). None of the aforementioned words, however, carries the connotation of astuteness or shrewdness that characterizes trucha. One Chicano metaphor documented by Adolfo Ortega 1991 comes close to trucha in meaning, namely águila (eagle): Águila con el señor Sánchez. (“Be on the alert with Mr. Sánchez.)” Trucha even enters in a double word play: ¡Aguiluchas truchas! (“Be on the alert!”, literally: “eaglets trout”). Interestingly, águila is also used to denote the symbolic opponent “police officer” in the phrase águila volador “police patrolman on vehicle” (literally: “eagle in flight”).
Trucha at the language crossroads
Since the early 19th century, Spanish and English have been in close contact in what became the southwestern United States after 1848, and US-Spanish has developed many localized variants and sociolects that show diverse phenomena of borrowing and loan-translation from English. A typical example of English-influenced Chicano/a slang used by Latino GIs in Vietnam can be found in Miguel Méndez’ novel “Peregrinos de Aztlán” (1974):
Huacha, carnal, ponte trucha. Esos batos te apañan por debajo de la water, ese, como si fueran tortugas; en el monte, chavalo, pela los chícharos […] Al alba, hasta con los frogs, mi buen; ora, que si se te duerme la paloma y te sumes en un hole, pos, te chingaste, carnal. (quoted in Foster 1994: 85; English ad-hoc-loanwords marked by HK)
“Watch out, bro’, be trucha. Those guys [Vietcong] will get you even from under the water, dude, as if they were turtles; in the underbrush, kid, be really cautious […] Be careful with even the toads, my friend; now if you’re careless and you fall into a hole, you’re screwed, bro’.” (translation by HK)
This excerpt not only shows the adaption of the English “watch out” to huacha but also the varied language of vigilance present in Hispanic discourse, besides trucha and huacha we find pelar los chícharos (“peel peas”) and al alba (“at first daylight”) for applying caution and se te duerme la paloma (“your dove falls asleep on you”) for a lack thereof. The popularity of huacha in Chicano/a slang is easily discerned by looking at rap lyrics, from Delinquent Habits’ 1996 “Tres Delincuentes” (huacha, trucha, cálmate, escucha / somos delincuentes tu no quieres lucha, “watch out, trucha guy, calm down, listen / we are delinquents and you don’t wanna pick a fight” ) to Maldito’s 2019 “Ponte Trucha” (ponte trucha, escucha y huacha / ochocientos-cinco es mi area, “be trucha, listen and watch, [Interstate] 805 is my area”).
Though English influence on regional Spanish is bigger than vice versa, trucha seems to represent a case of borrowing from Spanish to fill a lexical gap in English. Our material from San Diego shows multiple examples of “being trucha” and “staying trucha” in English discourse. Other evidence of borrowing is documented in Inez Cardozo-Freeman’s (1995) study of New Mexican prison inmates’ speech, where she found the English phrase “keeping truchas” for “keeping watch while someone commits an illegal act.”
And that’s what’s so “trout” about being vigilant.
Dr. Henry Kammler is a lecturer at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at LMU Munich.
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Cardozo-Freeman, Inez (1995). The Lingo of the “Pintos”. Bilingual Review / La Revista Bilingüe 20 (1): 3–21.
DGLA (Diccionario General de la Lengua Asturiana). Entry “truchu, a ,o”.
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Featured image: Courtesy of wordart.com.
Cite this article as: Henry Kammler, Trucha: what’s so “trout” about being vigilant?, in: Vigilanzkulturen, 08/04/2021, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/1381.