April 2012


This sign appears just above the windshield inside one of  San Miguel’s many well-traveled city buses. It is a slightly edited version of the standard sign displayed on other such buses:


[Your family is waiting for you.
Report the driver
who talks on his cell phone
while this bus is
in operation.
Call 1540040.]

As you can see, someone (quite possibly the bus driver) has edited out the second line that asks you to rat him out if you observe him talking on his cell phone while driving and has removed a generous portion of the phone number to call should you wish to do so. The injunction to not  dispose of trash [No tire basura] (“on the bus” being taken as understood) is often added to the standard message. By the way, yes, the driver could be a woman—in this context, the grammatically masculine operador could refer to a driver of either sex—but that is another subject for another day  (see the earlier viabrevis posting “Sexist Language a la Mexicana”).

 In any case, native speakers of Spanish who ride the bus probably don’t give the sign, either in its original or edited form, a passing thought. However, for those of us for whom Spanish is not a first language, the two versions of the sign are noteworthy as they provide a useful lesson in the use of the subjunctive, a feature that in the English verb system is now pretty much restricted to such linguistic mummies as Be that as it may and Till death us do part.

 In the canonical form of the sign, “Reporta al operador que hable por celular,” Reporta is the second person singular familiar () imperative form of the verb reportar [‘to report’], the “you” being enjoined to do the reporting being you, the observant rider/reader. Hable here is the third person singular present subjunctive form of the verb hablar [‘to speak’]. Why the subjunctive? The point being made is subtle: The driver might actually not be speaking on his cell phone (though it certainly may look that way), so rather than accuse him flat out by using the indicative form of the verb—habla—it’s safer use the subjunctive to suggest that you’re not absolutely sure, but he seems to be talking… Spanish makes similar use of the subjunctive in referring to events that are expected to occur in the future (but might be kind of iffy): Mañana cuando venga Victor, …[‘Tomorrow (if and) when Victor comes,…’] uses the present subjunctive form venga because Victor might not in fact come after all,  rather than the more definite future form—vendrá—as in, say, Mañana vendrá mañana [‘Tomorrow will come tomorrow’].

Given the lack of punctuation and the fact that Spanish often doesn’t require an explicit subject for a verb, allowing you to infer it, the edited version of this sign can still be read  as a grammatical utterance: Instead of “Your family is waiting for you. Report the driver who looks as though he’s talking on his cell phone while the bus is in operation,” we may now read “Your family is waiting for you. Let them talk on their cell phone while the bus is in operation.” Or, perhaps less likely but still possibly: “Your family is waiting for you (). You (usted) are urged to talk on your cell phone while the bus is in operation.”

In both readings, hable is an instance of what is known as the hortatory subjunctive, the idea being that the subject is being exhorted to do (or not do) something. In the first case, the implicit subject of the verb would be tu familia [‘your family’] from the preceding sentence: If they’re getting impatient waiting for you to come home to dinner, let them give you a call while you’re driving the bus (perhaps on your way home even as they speak).

The other reading—admittedly a bit of a stretch—takes the second person singular “polite” form (usted) as the subject of the hortatory hable, the verb forms that regularly go with the pronoun usted being those of the third person singular. (The Cliff Notes story of usted is that Spanish appropriated an Arabic term meaning ‘experienced artisan, master,’ which could be used as an honorific, as in, “Would Master be kind enough to call his family on his cell phone?” and generalized its use as a polite form of address, retaining many of the trappings of its original grammatical third-personhood.)  The only problem—well, not the only problem—with reading Que hable por celular as “May you (you are urged to) call on your cell phone” is that in the preceding sentence (Tu familia te espera) the reader is addressed with the familiar pronouns tu and te (possessive and direct object, respectively), while here the more formal usted is the implicit addressee.

 But let’s leave it at that as this is my stop.



This photograph was taken through a chain-link fence at an abandoned construction site in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. From the look of it, work had been largely completed on the exterior of this very elaborate building before the project was shut down. The purpose of the little shack in the foreground is not obvious.

The lettering on the shack, like the larger work, seems to have been abandoned in medias res: If you look up “pelig” in a Spanish-language dictionary (or avail yourself of the type-ahead feature in the Mexican edition of Google), you come up with “peligro” (‘danger’), suggesting that the mark following the “G” is an abandoned “R.” Besides “peligro,” a dictionary will typically also list “peligroso” [‘very dangerous’], while Google offers, in addition to “peligro,” “peligro reik” , “peligro reik letra” [the lyrics to the foregoing], and “peligroso pop” [a song by the pop band Plastilina Mosh], and that’s pretty much it.

So, if looking forward fills out a truncated label that would have, had it been completed, spelled “danger,” what’s the back sto|

In San Miguel de Allende, the application of paint to a wall is a widely popular form of artistic expression (a word for which we balked at coining in an earlier viabrevis posting [“Paper, Pen, and Ink, or, Up Against the Wall Writing”]). Shop signs, product logos, street names, portraits of La Virgen de Guadalupe (Mexico’s patron saint), and, relatively recently, American-style graffiti may all be seen on the city’s walls.


Hair Salon (Tagged)

Not surprisingly, anticipation of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to Mexico inspired a flurry of wall-painting activity as it did considerable coverage in the other media, not all of it enthusiastically welcoming. Mexico, after all, has had a long history of conflict over the boundaries between Church and State, the secular and the profane. Indeed, around the  time of the Pope’s arrival, the national legislature was winding up a two-year debate on a constitutional amendment that would add the word “secular” (laica) to make explicit the definition of the Mexican state as a secular republic (una República representativa, democrática, laica) while ensuring such human rights as the free exercise of religion (which opponents feared might open the door to teaching religion—specifically, Catholic doctrine—in the public schools or—ahem—holding religious services in public). On the other hand, Mexico’s population is overwhelmingly Catholic by tradition and current practice, and even for nonbelievers, a visit from a pope is a noteworthy event.


Two other events of recent and immediate history have helped to a greater or lesser degree to focus public expression on the papal visit. The first was the clerical abuse scandal involving the high-profile Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, the investigation of which, begun under Pope John Paul II, was closed not long ago by Pope Benedict XVI in a way that the victims and their families, by all reports, did not find satisfactory and were hoping (in vain) to meet with the pope to discuss during his stay. The second event (or nonevent) was the “quiet period” (known as the veda) during which all announced candidates running for president are barred from publically campaigning, which would include advertising in any of the conventional media or stenciling your party logo with an exhortation to vote for you on a wall. This period was due to end shortly after the Pope’s visit.

Here, then, is an example of a stenciled notification of the Pope’s imminent arrival:

Ya viene el PAPA (1)

Or, writ large:

Ya viene el PAPA (2)

The message “Ya viene el Papa” [‘The Pope is coming soon’] is pretty straightforward, and the resemblance of the squared circle enclosing the word “Papa” to the logo (soon to be ubiquitous) of one of the major political parties (PAN, the Partido Acción Nacional) is presumably coincidental.

The following photo is of the part of the wall immediately adjacent to the one in Ya viene el PAPA (1):

Hay viene el Papa

“Hay viene el papa” [literally, ‘There is/are the Pope is coming’] contains a misspelling—a slip of the spraypaint can—possibly for the not quite homophonous “Ahí” (‘Here, Hither’), “Hoy” (‘Today’), or—and this is a bit of a stretch—“Ya” (“Soon,” as in the stencil). Take your pick (and say nothing about the schools). We may infer from the differently-colored paint that the grammatically and orthographically correct  “Esconde a tus hijos” [‘Hide your kids’] is a response to the above.

While the reference to clerical sexual abuse is obvious in the response, it is worth noting that, while grammatically masculine in gender, “hijos” is semantically unspecific in this context: Like the other Romance languages, Spanish uses the grammatically masculine form (when there is one) as the default when referring to an aggregate that may contain members of both genders. Indeed, a cartoon that appeared in the newspaper Reforma during  Benedict XVI’s visit showed a bishop whispering to the Pope “¡¿Y esos monaguillos?!” [‘And those altar boys?!’], referring to the presidential candidates of the three major parties (one of whom is a woman) depicted at the pope’s side dressed as, yes, altar boys.