On Caló this week, host Oscar Rodriguez explores two words: “Mercar” and “Trucha” — the first meaning to buy or purchase, and trucha meaning to watch out, or be on alert.
You can hear Caló every Tuesday on Marfa Public Radio during “Dos Horas con Primo.”
“Yo merqué esa land from mi uncle más que thirty years ago,” an elderly neighbor in the Norte said when we were standing in line at our neighborhood hardware store one morning.
I had asked him what he thought of the idea of a new traffic light leading into town. People had been talking about it for months. It didn’t take much for the conversation to turn from traffic patterns to Spanish land grants.
Almost as if on queue the old Spanish term for purchase had flown in out of the blue sky. But the old man didn’t seem to do it for that purpose. It was simply the appropriate word to use when you’re talking to Spanish-speakers about land that had been in his family for more than a century. Compré, the modern Spanish verb tense for comprar (buy), would have been correct, as he certainly knew, but it wouldn’t have captured the nuance of legacy.
Merqué, a verbalization of the noun, mercado (market), was closer at hand and more to the point. After all, that’s likely how his uncle came of the land. Had he bought from somebody he would have said so.
If I had only known modern Spanish, I would have asked “eh?” But all of us standing in line who heard him knew what he meant. I understood immediately and couldn’t help smiling. I hadn’t heard mercar since childhood. It was the language of my grandparents’ generation and beyond. They were Natives, not Spanish, and unschooled, yet it was all they spoke, same as their people for at least a couple of generations before them. It was the language you had to speak at the market and the word you used if you needed to mercar anything in town. By their time, it was the unifying tongue of the countryfolk and the marginalized who lived in the towns and cities up and down the Rio Grande from Chihuahua to Colorado. By my time, you spoke it lightly and only to those you were familiar with, for it marked you with low social status. Or you spoke it in defiance, to precisely to announce yourself and offend those who on sight thought less of you.
That this old man still used this word told me the old lingua franca extended far north of West Texas, binding together Natives like my grandparents and descendants of the Spanish colonists who resettled lands hundreds of miles away starting in the early 1700s. We’re still here. They’re still here. And happily so is that old childhood tongue, which I still knew.
I wondered how much of it this old man knew.
“Sí, you have to drive through there en trucha cuz of the high speed drivers que no están paying attention,” I said.
“Eeee, yeah, looking left and right all the time, cuz they just blow right through Ranchos,” somebody waiting in line with us responded.
After a brief pause, the old man responded, “si, en trucha,” then paused some more and smiled as if amused to hear it from somebody from the south — “On the lookout, no?”