An Authentic Take on the Paisa Dialect: “era más grande el muerto”

The most authentic portrayal of both the paisa dialect and the cultural atmosphere of Medellín is illustrated through Luis Miguel Rivas’ novel, “era más grande el muerto.” The story follows the daily lives of ordinary characters, like two young men who buy and resell luxury clothing from the morgue, a mob boss who falls in love with an average woman, and a hitman who’s searching for his already deceased target. These characters and their relationships, rather than an out-of-the ordinary occurrence, drive the plot of the story, demonstrating how paisa culture is dependent on interactions and social ties, rather than individualistic value and extraordinary personal attributes.

Era más grande el muerto by Luis Miguel Rivas

Rivas uses accurate phonetic and semantic features throughout the novel to create an authentic representation of the lives led by the people in this region. The novel itself is a conversation between the author and the reader; the tone is relaxed and the personality of the characters are on display with every sentence the reader absorbs. The author doesn’t attempt to glamorize or hide any aspect of Colombian reality through inaccurate speech samples or larger-than-life characters. Instead, the book serves as a genuine and authentic celebration of the paisa dialect and culture. It carries the spirit of Medellín.

Let’s take a look at a few of the unique speech characteristics throughout the novel:

The diminutive (“diminutivo”):

In Spanish, the diminutive is a suffix that modifies a noun to serve a purpose, like making something seem smaller and cuter.

How To Use Diminutives in Spanish: 50+ Examples
In the example above, adding “-ito” to the end of “perro” appeals to the audience’s heartstrings, making the puppy on the left smaller and cuter than the dog on the right.

Using the diminutive in the story:

In paisa gang culture, emotions are rarely expressed directly through words, so the use of the diminutive adds an element of trust, security, and solidarity (“confianza”) between male characters, while maintaining their personal appearance of strength and machismo. For example:

  • “dame un guarito sencillo…”
  • “mamacitas” who have “la piel suavecita” and “la hojita del talonario”
  • “musiquita americana movidita”

Female characters in this novel rarely use the diminutive, making it a more masculine attribute. Instead, men commonly use it to describe women, which highlights the inequality between the two genders, where men are expected to adhere to “machismo”, avoiding emotions, whereas women are portrayed as tiny, delicate, and therefore, less powerful.

“Filler” words (“Muletillas de conversación”):

LAS MULETILLAS EN ESPAÑOL (FILLERS) | Aprende Hablando

Throughout the novel, paisas incorporate “filler” words throughout the sentences they speak. For example:

  • “no, pues tan picada esta pelitenida”
  • “vamos pues que se nos va”
  • “¿vos crees que yo soy guevón o qué?”
  • Es que lo que pasa es que…”
  • vea, yo le presto de esta plata que tengo”

All of the above phrases immerse the reader directly into the culture, making him/her feel as if they are engaging in a conversation between friends, rather than simply reading a novel as a third-party spectator. In this way, the reader is involved in the action and the lives of the characters. This illustrates the collectivist nature of Medellín, where everyone (including the reader) is socially connected; one cannot exist in this society without social ties.

Elision (“Elisión”):

Another linguistic characteristic that immerses the reader directly into the novel is elision, which occurs when a sound or syllable is omitted from a word or phrase.

Definition and Examples of Syncopy in English
In English, we automatically omit certain sounds and syllables to pronounce certain words quicker and easier.

One of the most common syllable omissions throughout the novel occurs with the word “para.” Phrases like “pa’qué tanto,” “cuando uno se tira en la manga a mirar pa’rriba,” and “antes de irse pa’la casa” allow the reader to “hear” the spirit of Medellín and gain an authentic understanding of the culture.

Rivas also implements the omission of the /d/ in the word “pelado,” which transforms it into “pelao.” Notably, this omission never occurs with the feminine version of this word, “pelada.” The word itself literally translates to “hairless,” and is used to refer to adolescent boys and girls, who have yet to go through puberty and grow hair, which would mark them as adults. Until they grow this hair, they are inferior to their elders, who have more experience, money, and power than them. For this reason, older characters often use “pelao” in commands to reinforce the existing power imbalance and social hierarchy:

  • “pelao, tráigame un trago”
  • “pelao, préndame este cigarrillo”
  • “pelao, amárreme los zapatos”
  • “pelao, bésame los pies”

Nicknames (“Apodos”):

As illustrated through the film “la vendedora de rosas,” nicknames are crucial to paisa culture, providing a sense of interconnectedness and camaraderie. Medellín exists as a collectivist system depending on social ties and relationships, rather than individual success; for this reason, relationships are on display for all to see in this region and everyone exists as a connection to someone else. Rivas illustrates this concept throughout the novel. Let’s quickly examine some of the most common nicknames used:

  • “hijueputa” – occuring in various contexts, this nickname serves both as an insult and as a respectful term throughout the novel. Notably, it’s the mantra of the working class, as most of the interactions between ordinary men include “hijueputa.” Everyone seems to be a “hijueputa:” friends, enemies, business partners, family members. Although it can be used as an insult, it still shows group affiliation, instead of isolating individuals.
Amazon.com: Memorias de un hijueputa (Spanish Edition) eBook : Vallejo,  Fernando: Kindle Store
  • “malparido” – similar to “hijueputa,” this nickname can be an insult or a term of camaraderie. Characters strive to be “malparidos” in camaraderie, rather than “malparidos” in bad blood.
Malparido. | Love phrases, Phrase, Humor
  • Words for women: “mamacita” and “mona” – these nicknames are used to refer to women throughout the novel. In particular, male characters utilize these names in tandem with physical descriptions, which reinforces the sexism at play in paisa culture. Women seem to be most valued for their bodies and physical appearance.
  • Words for men: “man,” “orangutanes,” “chichipato,” “home,” “hombre,” and “maricón” (among others…) – the number of nicknames for men far surpasses that of the women, indicating the prevalence of machismo and gang culture in this region. Men refer to each other with various nicknames, indicating camaraderie, friendship, and relational ties.
  • “parce”/”parcero” – these two nicknames are used among friends and acquaintances, demonstrating camaraderie and collectivism. Everyone exists as a “parcero” to someone else. Nobody exists solely as an individual, without a “parcero.”
Amazon.com: Colombian Funny Parcero Medellin For Colombia Men And Women:  Clothing

Address Forms (“formas de dirección):

Paisas use various forms of addressing each other, depending on the context of the conversation and the relationship between the two speakers. Let’s take a peek at typical pronouns used throughout the novel.

The pronoun “vos” is usually implemented between paisas and acquaintances, for example:

  • “Es que vos sos demasiado chichipato para estos lugares”
  • “¿Y si vos sos tan tantán qué hacés andando con chichipatos?”

Here, “vos” serves to indicate mutual respect, creating an immediate relationship between two characters, simply by means of speaking like a paisa. “Vos” creates social ties, which contribute to the collectivist nature of Colombia.

No sos vos, soy yo (2004) - IMDb

Throughout the novel, the pronoun “tú” is rarely used; it’s reserved for intimate and romantic situations, which don’t apply to mafia culture.

Use of the pronoun “usted” is a little more complicated. Paisas reserve it for two extremes of the social spectrum: strangers or intimate friends/family members. For example:

  • “Don Omar, soy yo, Manuel, el hijo de Irene, es que necesito hablar con usted una cosita”

Notice that in the example above there exists a large degree of unfamiliarity between the two characters. Manuel decides to implement the pronoun of “usted” to show respect to Don Omar, an older stranger.

  • “¿Usted sabe cuanto debe valer esa chaqueta nueva?”

In this example, two close friends are holding a conversation. They decide to use the pronoun “usted” to show respect and intimacy.

Upon reading the two examples above, the audience understands that paisas value their relationships, and the address form used can set the tone for the entire interaction. These forms serve to indicate who is a “part of the group” and who is “outside of the group.”

Some Contemporary Colombian Writers

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The literary scene in Medellin, and in Colombia, is one of the most vibrant in Latin America. Although the global success and influence of the Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, means that he is the first name that comes to mind when Colombian literature is mentioned, there are many others that offer deep insight into the language, culture and unique flavors of life in this largely unexplored territory. Here you’ll find a sampling of some relatively brief contemporary novels and nonfiction works that are accessible to upper intermediate to advanced Spanish language learners. They may be useful to Spanish American literature teachers looking to broaden their teaching repertoire or in need of an extra work to assign to a Spanish club or highly motivated honors student; to the post-graduation Spanish major hoping to keep up their reading fluency; and anyone interested in learning more about Colombia through its literature.

A caveat: This list is shaped primarily by the criterion of the first audience listed above, namely relatively brief, accessible works that could be assigned in part or in whole to upper intermediate/advanced Spanish classes, probably at the college level. It is also limited to contemporary prose published since 1990. I welcome suggestions of other works in the comments, below, that might be useful for these purposes, as well as feedback if you use one of these for some purpose.

La casa de la belleza (Emece, 2015) puts a beautiful face on the city of Bogotá, a transformation as complex as anything happening in the beauty salon of the title. As one Colombian reviewer noted, Escobar captures the lifestyles of people who manage to live in Bogotá without living in Colombia … and also the lifestyles of those who do their bikini waxes, serve them coffee, and suffer the indignities of the caste system. It is a finely sculpted view of class, race and gender imbalance woven into what the English translation (House of beauty, Fourth Estate 2019; translation Elizabeth Bryer) of the book bills as “a thought-provoking Colombian crime novel.” Having the book available in both Spanish and English, in a genre many learners read for pleasure, can provide enough motivation to get through a longer volume – around 250 pages – than they might otherwise undertake.

Tomas Gonzalez has often been described as a “hidden treasure of Colombian literature.” Abraham entre bandidos (Alfaguara, 2010) tells a story of an unfortunately central fact of Colombian life – kidnapping – in terms at once concretely human and transcendent of its time and place. Although set in the 1950’s, during the historical period known as La Violencia, the logic and circumstances for the kidnapping of a simple farmer and his fishing buddy by their childhood acquaintance are not far removed from what happens every day in the 2020’s. The story is told simply and clearly, with rich details of the lives of Colombians on every side of the confusing political situation that was La Violencia for more than 40 years. It is emotionally wrenching, unforgettable without being depressing. If an English teacher made you read The Pearl in high school, you need to read this – it’s way better.

For many years, Jorge Franco was best known for his tough-yet-tender heroine Rosario Tijeras, from his novel of the same name made into first a feature film, then a long-running television series in Colombia and Mexico. This early accomplishment was eclipsed in 2014 with the publication of El mundo de afuera, a fictionalized version of an all-too-real story of the kidnapping and murder of one of Medellin’s best-loved, most mysterious and tragic figures, Diego Echavarria Misas. don Diego, wealthy beyond imagination and generous in nearly equal measure, built libraries and schools and housing for the workers in his successful textile businesses. He also, for reasons not easy to understand – and thus explored imaginatively in this novel – built El Castillo. An actual castle, quite at home in the Austrian Alps, Germany, France. Now a spectacular museum and picnic destination, with views of the city from on top of a hill, abundant flowers and forest and fountains and artwork. It’s easy to imagine local people scratching their heads and saying: What the hell is this doing HERE? Or becoming so eaten up with jealous rage, despite the generosity of the residents, that they have to commit the crime of the decade. The characters are exquisitely created, the action riveting, poignant, and richly textured, There is laughter to be had, and some head-shaking along with the head-scratching. Jorge Franco is a genius.

Wise people have observed that literature is a time-honored way to deal with tragedy. Piedad Bonnett turns often to voices of others who have suffered as she struggles to make sense of the suicide of her son. Asking herself at the end of the book why she has written about such a painful time in her family’s life, she quotes Spanish author Juan Jose Millas: “More than anything because writing opens wounds and cauterizes them at the same time.” The title Lo que no tiene nombre – that which has no name – refers to the lack of a word for a parent who loses a child. There is no opposite of “orphan” for such a person. Profoundly sad though this memoir is, its focus on the years of stigma her son endured as his mental health wavered between soundness and precipice is a stark reminder to any of us who have remarked, too casually, that someone is “nuts.” The agony of a mother who watches her child’s exquisite talent fall silent touches something universal about the journey of every parent: At some point, they are beyond your grasp, and all their choices are theirs alone to make.