Is it Tenochtitlán? City of Palaces? Federal District? or Chilangolandia? A Quick and Quirky Overview of Spanish in Mexico City.

Where can you order a bag of dried chapulines (grasshoppers) as a snack, but also order some of the world’s best haute entrees according to Forbes? Mexico City. Where can you see centuries of historical ruins at the same time behind you stands some of modernity’s un dia mexico C9.jpgmost spectacular skyscrapers? Mexico City. Where can you request an Über helicopter in the same place indigents struggle to traverse unpaved terrain by burro (donkey)? Again, the answer is Mexico City. If there exists an award for “most contrasting” city, Mexico City would make a serious candidate. Travel connoisseurs like to boast how Buenos Aires is a slice of Europe in South America, but Mexico is unlike any other city in Latin America. Alexander von Humboldt dubbed it La Ciudad de los Palacios (The City of Palaces) in the turn of the century, which has become the unofficial name of the city. Before the European destruction, the Spanish couldn’t find the words to describe the Aztec grandeur to their kings; it rivaled any major European city at its time. And in many ways, it still does.         

Among other alpha cities: Tokyo, Paris, London, New York City, or Buenos Aires, Mexico City rarely makes its appearance in chic shopping bags or crop tops. It hasn’t received the reputation it deserves. Which can be a good for me, since it can be like my own well kept secret…

Once a cradle of an incredibly organized, complex, and fierce Aztec Civilization starting from the 12th century, the Spanish made the next greatest cultural appearance with a quick interlude from the French. Mexico City exemplifies diversity and dynamism of enormous heights.

As a regional power and highly important global financial center, the city of palaces has become an interesting case study for those understanding the third world. Mexico City’s cultural and financial weight has put Mexico in an awkward position between the developing and developed nations scale; It can be considered “first world”, but it is not developed. Despite the amount of money, glamour, and excitement in Tenochtitlán (the original Aztec name of the city), the increasing wealth divide has created a classist and stratified culture that seems black and white to outsiders. Take that, and add a visible third world poverty in the outskirts. Perhaps those are reasons Mexico City hasn’t gained much attention among travelers. Despite its “misgivings”, and I’m adding quotations on ‘misgivings’ because my upbringing is from those very barrios miserables (hopeless districts). Mexico City is truly a gem worth visiting. Otherwise, you’re just missing out. How is that for some unrestrained bias?   

For the sake of Atticus Lingus, Mexico City contains some compelling directions for the Spanish Language. To begin with, Mexico is the largest Spanish speaking nation in the hispanosphere. Unlike French, that is associated with the France and not Haiti, many North Americans instinctively look towards Mexico instead of  Spain when they think of the Spanish language. Multilingual websites will often represent a foreign language with a national flag. The Mexican flag competes with the Spanish flag for recognition.

Having the most amount of speakers comes with a price–not all Mexicans sound identical. Mexican Spanish is a collection of several other dialects: the noreste (northeastern) dialect spoken in Tijuana, Yucatán en Cancún, Oaxaqueño in the south coasts, and Altiplano (plateau) in Mexico City.  

 Las Hablas Altiplanos (The Plateau Speeches), apart from Mexico City, includes central Mexican states circling Mexico City: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Hidalgo, Estado de México, Querétaro, Zacatecas, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Morelos, Aguascalientes, and San Luis Potosí. Because of Mexico City’s cultural and financial weight, the Altiplano dialect is the dialect most associated with Mexico. Mexican film and television that is distributed throughout the world are dubbed using this specific dialect. This dialect acts as the common denominator throughout Mexico’s linguistic diversity.  

Throughout my in and out travels through Mexico City, I have befriended several people who attended or are currently attending the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), one of Mexico’s leading research institute. Think of it as Mexico’s Harvard. UNAM never is absent on the lists of most recognized universities in Latin America and worldwide. Some statistics have regarded the campus as the leading institute of the Spanish-speaking world. Although such claim remains dubious, the ratio of students to publications is unmatched in any other hispanic university. The 2011-2012 academic year saw 300 thousand students. No other Spanish-speaking university can beat that. 

The Royal Academy of Spanish, the governing body that decides the “official” rules of Spanish has come to terms with incorporating Prehispanic terms, to accept new realities. A few centuries ago, the Spanish crown would have never dreamt of accepting tianguis., tee-yan-geese (an outdoor pre-hispanic market). Now the RAE has a whole body of terms that it recognizes as not truly Spanish.   

Place names throughout the vicinity of Mexico City are a hybrid of indigenous and European names: Lomas de Chapultepec, Iztapalapa, Tepito, Insurgentes, Coyoacán, Condesa, Polanco, Roma, Azcapotzalco, and so forth… Upscale districts names like Hipódromo Condesa (Racetrack Countess) allude Spanish heritage, whereas Huixquilucan., weex-kee-loo-can is classic Nahuátl for (place full of edible thistles). But the official name of the city of Huixquilucan, is Huixquilucan de Degollado. As a non-Mexico native, I still struggle pronouncing these indigenous places. I visited a few friends who live in a satellite city of Mexico City called Los Reyes (The Kings). My bus to there home was to make a stop at a platform called Techachatitla. Any local would see the foreigner in me as I hopelessly butchered the correct pronunciation of the word. Although Nahuatl is still a living language, it isn’t Spanish, but Mexico City residents are trying their best to join the two together to create a colorful and unique Mexico City talk.        

Visitors from other Spanish-speaking areas who come to Mexico City oftentimes complain of the seemingly nonsense of its slang, unknown anywhere else in Mexico. ¿Qué Pachuca por Toluca? (What’s cracking through Pachuca through Toluca), is an exaggerated ‘what’s up’. But why did the creator of the slang have to include the outlying cities of Pachuca and Toluca in such a phrase? Who knows. Gódinez, is an Spanish surname, but has become a classist term for a salary person working a 9 – 5 work week. In Mexico City it is used as a derogatory term for a regular employee with no importance within the company he works for. There exists much more terms like these that make visitors cringe, but the fact of the matter is that it seems to get the point effectively across through chilangos–the demonym for anyone from the City, which comes from the Mayan word Xilaan meaning disheveled. The demonym is used derogatorily.

The use of language in Mexico City has been labeled by visitors as original, colorful, usefull, rustic, rowdy, dirty, or plain street clatter. But whatever one’s social standing is in the city, people use bits of pieces of it. It goes to say that the people of Mexico City utilizes an already existing Mexican Spanish in a way that only they themselves understand. Given the political context of Mexico, Mexico City, in some ways resembles almost a separate country from the rest of Mexico. And what better way to understand a peoples’ culture and mindset than their language.     


*The image above is a Xolocuintle, a Mexican hairless canine. They have no fur. They are an emblematic of mesoamerica. They are one of the most friendly dogs I’ve ever petted.


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