In 1998, Victor Gaviria directed the film “la vendedora de rosas,” which represented the cruel reality of the Colombian youth surviving on the streets of Medellín. The movie was based off the life of Mónica Rodriguez, a young flower vendor who was assassinated before she could take on the titular role.
While the film revolves around the inescapable violence that surrounds each fictional character, it also provides important insight to the construction of identity and relationships in this region. In Antioquia, relationships and identity do not revolve around first names or titles, instead they revolve around nicknames (“apodos”), which serve to create relational ties and connections (“vínculos”).
These nicknames range from “malparido” to “mi amor,” depending on the relationship and level of intimacy between two characters. The use of these nicknames serve to illustrate how paisas do not exist as individuals; instead, everyone holds a social role to each other. This contributes to the collectivist society of Colombia today. Take note of the following nicknames that appear throughout “la vendedora de rosas:”
Malparido/a = this term, typically used as an insult, also appears between friends to show camaraderie and respect.
Hijueputa = while literally translating to “son of a bitch,” this address term is present between members of the same gang. However, when used outside of this relationship, it serves as an insult, creating relational distance between two individuals.
Gonorrea = this term is typically reserved for people who do not get along.
Parcero/parce = using parcero or parce indicates endearment. These nicknames can be used between friends, acquaintances, or even family members. The fact that acquaintances utilize these terms demonstrate the fact that this system exists entirely of relational ties; even if two people are not very “close” (by Western terms), there still exists a sense of unity between them through the use of nicknames like parcero.
Maricón/puta = typically reserved for enemies.
Mi peluche/mi amor = these terms demonstrate endearment, and in some cases, a sexual relationship between two individuals. Typically, it is the man who uses the nickname to refer to his female partner.
Hombre = hombre is used between men to indicate a friendship or partnership.
Nicknames, realistic dialogue, and cultural allusions serve to construct the collectivist reality of Colombia in “la vendedora de rosas,” as explained below:
The reality of Colombia depicted in “la vendedora de rosas” is almost inseparable from the reality of Colombian youth. To demonstrate the parallelism between “las películas” (the movies) and “la vida real” (real life), the documentary “poner a actuar pájaros” was created.
The documentary examines where the children ended up 20 years after taking part in the movie.
“La vendedora de rosas” and “poner a actuar pájaros” are almost inseparable from each other. As stated by Mónica Rodríguez in her interview below, “Es algo real, no hay mentiras.”
Here are some more fun instances of the paisa dialect in action:
Check out the video below! Notice how the “Y” sound (“LL”) changes to a “J” sound in the paisa dialect:
Want to hear some unique paisa sayings? Take a look at the video below, where native speakers share some of their favorite phrases:
In 2019, Colombian-Ecuadorian director Alejandro Landes created the film “Monos,” telling the story of military youth in Colombia. The term “mono” in Medellín is synonymous with “amigo” or “parcero” (meaning “friend”). Check out the following scenes to hear the dialect in action:
Listen to the songs below to hear a few unique characteristics of the paisa dialect:
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.
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.
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”):
Throughout the novel, paisas incorporate “filler” words throughout the sentences they speak. For example:
“no, pues tan picada esta pelitenida”
“vamospues 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.
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.
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”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Kristine Muñoz es profesora de español en la Universidad de Iowa. Ha publicado cinco libros y más de 40 artículos, capítulos de libros y entradas de enciclopedias en las áreas de lengua, cultura y teoría de la comunicación. Su trabajo de campo etnográfico en Colombia comenzó con su disertación por una beca Fulbright en 1987 y es la base de la mayor parte de su investigación y enseñanza posteriores. Recibió otra beca Beca Fulbright para colaborar con colegas de la Universidad de Antioquia en Medellín en la primavera de 2022 en un estudio de la enseñanza de la paz en las escuelas de toda la ciudad como parte de los Acuerdos de la Paz firmados en La Habana en 2016.
Desde 2016 su trabajo se ha embarcado en proyectos en las humanidades digitales, incorporando el espíritu narrativo de la etnografía con fotografías, videos y mayor énfasis en la cultura material. Este sitio web tiene el objetivo de compartir recursos de investigación, enseñanza y aprendizaje sobre Colombia, especialmente Medellín, más allá de los artículos de revistas, presentaciones de conferencias y las aulas de la Universidad de Iowa.
Kristine Muñoz is Professor of Spanish at the University of Iowa. She has published five books and 40 articles, book chapters and encyclopedia entries in the areas of language, culture, and communication theory. Her ethnographic fieldwork in Colombia began with her Fulbright-funded dissertation in 1987 and is the basis for most of her subsequent research and teaching. She received a Fulbright Scholar grant to collaborate with colleagues in Medellín in Spring, 2021 on a study of teaching peace in schools across the city as part of the Havana peace accords.
Since 2016 her scholarship has included public digital humanities in projects that incorporate the storytelling spirit of ethnography with photography, video and greater emphasis on material culture. This website intends to share scholarship and teaching/learning resources about Colombia – particularly Medellín – beyond the boundaries of journal articles, conference presentations and the classrooms of the University of Iowa.
It would be difficult to find a more iconic story of transformation, in Medellín or anywhere in the world, than the neighborhood known as Moravia. It would be even harder to find people as warm, welcoming, and open-hearted as the ones I met there when I first came to the city in early 2016.
The Story: How a garbage dump became a garden
The four square kilometers of northeast-central Medellín now known as Moravia was, until the 1960’s, a sparsely inhabited, fertile area near the Río Medellín. Early in that decade, migration from the Pacific coast (El Chocó) and rural areas of northwestern Colombia (Antioquia) increased dramatically as people fled sectarian violence that had convulsed the nation for 20 years. Squatters became settlers, extended families put down roots, and the population began to explode.
Just as humans started to claim the area of Moravia, the city of Medellín began to dispose of its garbage there. Medical waste from the region’s principal medical school mixed with industrial waste from the meat packing company Xenu and the prosperous textile industry, and the household garbage of nearly 800,000 inhabitants of the city. Soon there was a hill, then a mountain, of refuse. The ponds, streams, and fields were quickly replaced with blowing ash and plastic – and worse – but the humans were far from discouraged. The ever-flowing parade of dump trucks from the city brought items to recycle, resell, and feed hungry children.
By 1970, an estimated 40,000 people lived on or around the towering, smoldering cumulus that was never meant to house or feed people, let alone create a community with churches, gardens, a marching band and its own Boy Scout troop.
The city did its best to discourage the Moravitas, as they called themselves, from staying there. There were frequent efforts to reubicar – relocate – the population, sometimes through methods resonant with Gaza Strip relocations. Residents were offered apartments in high-rise buildings, but the apartments were 45 square meters of cement block, sometimes located hours away by bus from jobs, loved ones, and social networks. Although the apartments themselves were free, they were bare concrete: no furniture, no utility connections, no locks on the doors. There might be no elevators in buildings as much as 9 stories high. There were bills to pay for the first time: water, gas, electricity, all of which were “free” in Moravia.
When Moravitas refused to move, they sometimes woke up at night to find fires raging through their streets, destroying homes made of salvaged wood, turning to ash everything in a 10 square block area and giving residents no choice but to relocate.
In 1984 the municipal government closed the dump for good. By then, Moravia was a densely populated working-class neighborhood, one of the most violent and drug-ridden in the city. After Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, an overall regeneration of hope for a more peaceful future swept through Medellín. In Moravia, vigorous community government re-emerged from traditional structures in place since the 1960’s and the city government compromised, in some ways, with the residents still in place. Schools were formalized, city services were extended into the neighborhood, and the question of how to decontaminate the mountain of decomposing garbage (“El Morro”) began to take shape. A group of environmental engineers from Barcelona partnered with Colombian civil engineers and soil scientists to create a space that was beautiful, as well as livable. Beginning in 2004, an urban transformation initiative funded by the city government under mayor Sergio Fajardo utilized soil purification techniques to create a community garden, now visible from major highways and the Metro and regarded as one of the most spectacular sights in Medellín. The garden and nurseries created as part of that initiative now provide well-paid employment for several dozen people, most of them single mothers. Orchids and bromeliads cultivated in the hothouse are prized and sold throughout the city.