¡Ask a Mexican! 

If Mexico is mostly desert, how did Mexicans end up with rice as a staple of their diet?

Dear Readers: Mucho comments about my February 1 column regarding the metamorphosis of Mexican names into seemingly wacky nicknames — "Nini" from Alejandrina, for instance, or "Chely" from Araceli. I argued such changes occurred thanks to linguistic laws; some of you had other theories. Here are the best.

Here's what a Chicano Studies professor at East Los Angeles Community College once taught me: The way we shorten names and add the ch- sound is our way of defiantly infiltrating the invaders' Spanish language with Nahuatl, but only doing it in the personal realm, especially to show affection. Vicente becomes "Chente," Alicia becomes "Licha," and even though "Memo" is usually used for Guillermo, so is "Chemo." Certainly Mexican Spanish differs from Castilian Spanish largely due to our indigenous heritage.


The following two responses are translated from the original Spanish as a token of goodwill to gabacho readers:

When I was in elementary school, they taught me this: Men named José would be called "Pepe" because of the original José: the husband of the Virgin Mary, whom the Catholic Church referred to in olden times as "Padre Putativo" — or, in abbreviated form, P.P.

Puro Pedo

I'm a Dominican who works as a translator for the mayor's office in New York, and your column helps me better understand Mexicans and the linguistic idioms they use. I wanted to stress the preponderant role that kids play in the formation of nicknames. Many of my friends have nicknames that are the result of bad pronunciation by an infant. My friend Carolina says that her grandson couldn't pronounce her four-syllable name and ended up calling her "Pita." But — in a sign of that which makes us so Latino — rather than correct her grandson, my friend opted to keep the nickname, and now many older people call her "Pita" as well.

Quisqueyano King

Gracias to all letter writers. Now on to this week's question...

Dear Mexican: Rice grows in rice paddies flooded with water. From what I understand, Mexico is mostly desert. So how on earth (literally) did Mexicans end up making arroz a staple of their diet?

'Nam Vet Who Has Seen Real Rice Paddies

Dear Gabacho: Thank the Moors. They introduced arroz (the Spanish word for rice, which is derived from the Arabic ruz) to Spain, which introduced it to Mexico shortly after the Conquest. But stop thinking of Mexico as one giant backlot for The Magnificent Seven, 'Nam Vet: the country's geography and climate can support rice cultivation, mostly in the tropical states of Veracruz and Campeche and the Pacific coastal state Sinaloa. And forget rice — let's talk tortillas. Did you read the Washington Post article last month that reported the price of tortillas in Mexico has almost quadrupled since last summer? And that Mexico's government is importing more than 800,000 tons of corn — most of it from the United States — to combat the price hikes? In a country that has suffered more black eyes than Rex Grossman, Mexico's tortilla troubles mark an all-time low. No matter how bad life got, Mexicans could always rely on salvation via cornmeal disks: My father still tells me stories of his mami saving the Arellanos from starvation by preparing tacos stuffed with corn kernels picked from cow shit. The rising cost of tortillas means either one of two things will happen, and none are good for gabachos: a revolution that will force millions to el Norte, or a collapsing economy that will force millions to el Norte. Stave off the coming invasion, gabachos: swear off Burrito Supremes and buy Mexican tortillas by the tons.


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