Friday, May 30, 2008

"Understanding albures, Mexico's coarse, cryptic puns"

(Published May 31, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

The Mexican albur has no translation. It is at once a game, a dirty joke, an offhanded pun, and an attempt to verbally disarm a credulous opponent. It is, to be exact, a spoken slap in the face (or perhaps, as you’ll see, on the buttocks).

The art of constructing a particularly injurious albur, about which books and extensive Internet forums have been assembled, is not something the average Spanish-speaking foreigner is likely to be familiar with or able to interpret – or for that matter a native Spanish speaker outside the Mexican border. Albures are intrinsically Mexican and by their nature cryptic to the unwitting outsider. But the concept is certainly worth being familiar with, lest you trip into one.

The albur (whose verb form is alburear) is the macho lovechild of a “your mama” joke and a dirty limerick, with Jon Stewart’s comic timing. Its goal is to cleverly use words with double sense in a way that will catch their recipient offhand, or to make an enemy feel like less of a man. For that reason albures are almost always sexual in nature, if not belonging to other strains of coarseness.

As they come in the form of word play or double entendre, English conversion is nearly impossible. But anyone will understand an albur’s main ingredients.

For example, can you guess what the chorizo, banana, cucumber, corncob, and chili represent in an albur’s context? How about eggs, marbles, or melons? Deconstruct just about any popular Mexican platter (did I mention cream and cheese?) and each component serves as fodder for vulgar discourse.

While most examples are not newspaper appropriate, and are more comical when spontaneous, a few tamer ones will suffice. Here’s an albur, in Spanish and English so the word play makes sense:

“Cual es la diferencia entre una silla y un pulpo?” (“What’s the difference between a chair and an octopus?”) Answer: “El pulpo tiene tent├ículos y la silla tenta culos.” (“The octopus has tentacles and the chair touches backsides” – to be polite.) Get it? Tent├ículos (tentacles) versus tenta (touches) culos (rear ends).

Another: “No es lo mismo papas en chile que chile en papas.” (“Potatoes in chili isn’t the same as chili in potatoes.”) The difference is subtle: The former refers to a dish, and the latter to a sexual act (“papas” is a not too common synonym for sex).

More often, albures occur naturally between two people-perhaps friends, or perhaps a taxi driver and his unassuming passenger – as a result of one party naively mentioning his sister or that he had eaten something phallic-shaped earlier in the day. The alburs are thrown back and forth like a hot potato until a clear winner emerges, rendering the losing man speechless, and thus emasculated.

The author of, a website that attempts to define and classify various user-contributed albures, warns that “you must treat the world with a certain delicacy in order to avoid what’s called a ‘French albur’ or ‘self-alburearse.’”

In other words, don’t fall into a trap. You might be treading dangerously if you mention simply that your head hurts or that you’re hungry. Come to think of it, best to avoid food talk altogether – you never know where that will go.