Tomorrow is my 25th birthday. Instead of sharing a classic “25 lessons I’ve learned by my 25th birthday”, I thought I’d share some wisdom passed down to me by my abuelo (grandfather) in Ecuador, and subsequently my mom.
That man had a saying for everything. EVERYTHING.
There wasn’t a scenario where he couldn’t come up with a “dicho” for.
A dicho is the Spanish word for “a saying.”
Think of dichos as proverbs (simple, concrete, traditional sayings that expresses a perceived truth based on common sense or experience. Proverbs are often metaphorical) or idioms (a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g., raining cats and dogs, see the light )).
Growing up, my brother and I would make fun of them — the combination of how poetic the Spanish language can be, as well as the sheer amount of opportunities he’d find to slip them into conversation.
He used to say them all the time. Now my mom says them all the time, and sure enough, I’m starting to as well. I guess we do become our parents over time. 😂
Let’s get to the generational wisdom! Here are some of my favorite sayings – the literal translation from Spanish, as well as the deciphered meaning and wisdom it contains.
1. Al mal tiempo buena cara.
Literal Translation: Show a good face to the bad times.
Meaning – deciphered: Be positive in the face of adversity. This was a huge one for 2020 and continues to be.
2. El que come gratis come callado.
Literal Translation: He who eats for free, eats quietly.
Meaning – deciphered: If someone does something kind for you out of the bottom of their heart (i.e., feeds you free feed), you don’t critique & you don’t complain. You graciously accept. Use your manners, in other words.
3. En boca cerrada no entran moscas.
Literal Translation: If your mouth is closed, flies can’t get in.
Meaning – deciphered: Don’t be a gossip. You can’t get caught up in things you have no business being involved in if you just keep your mouth shut when you should!
4. Mas sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo.
Literal Translation: The devil knows more because he’s old than he does from being the devil.
Meaning – deciphered: Wisdom comes through experience. We learn more as we age simply because we have time and experience on our side. This was commonly used to tell us kids to listen to our elders because they’ve lived through more and know what they’re talking about 🙂
5. Mas vale pájaro en mano que cientos volando.
Literal Translation: One bird in your hand is worth more than 100 flying above you.
Meaning – deciphered: The Spanish version of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. What you have right now in the present is the only thing that you have for sure. It’s more valuable than the possibility of having more but without any certainty or guarantee. It’s not real until its in your grasp. Don’t take the present for granted because you’re dreaming of what could be!
6. En el comer está el vivir.
Literal Translation: Eating is living.
Meaning – deciphered: Eating is one of the best parts of life. Quite simply without food, there is no life! An obvious statement, but a family favorite to express how much we love preparing and sharing a yummy meal together. It’s one of the best parts of life.
7. Enfermo que come no muere.
Literal Translation: One who is sick but continues to eat does not die.
Meaning – deciphered: Similar to en el comer esta el vivir. Of course, not every illness can be overcome by continuing to eat well. But the idea is you get your strength from eating. Even when you’re sick, eat well. If you don’t you’ll become weak and your body won’t be equipped to heal. Again, this saying shows just how strong the cultural ties to food are!
8. Veneno que no mata engorda.
Literal Translation: Poison that does not kill you makes you fat.
Meaning – deciphered: If eating poorly doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you fat. In other words, anything in excess is bad for you in some way, even if it doesn’t kill you. But again in this case we’re talking specifically about moderation with food.
9. Caras vemos pero corazónes no sabemos.
Literal Translation: We see people’s faces but we don’t know what’s in their hearts.
Meaning – deciphered: You don’t know a person’s true intent just by looking at them. The way someone looks doesn’t show you their true colors. Essentially, be cautious before you come to trust someone because they might not be showing you what’s in their true nature.
10. Mientras el un burro habla el otro calla.
Literal Translation: While one donkey is talking, the other is silent.
Meaning – deciphered: When someone else is talking, shut up and listen. 😀
11. Con pacienca se gana la gloria.
Literal Translation: With patience you win the glory.
Meaning – deciphered: Be patient – good things will come with time. The bigger the sacrifice now, the better the opportunity for glory if you are patient. Glory, as with the English word has a religious connotation – with patience you will receive God’s glory (you’ll be honored and rewarded for your good actions today.)
12. Lo que no nace no crece.
Literal Translation: What wasn’t born doesn’t grow. What isn’t planted doesn’t grow.
Meaning – deciphered: I’ve mostly heard this one be applied to relationships. If love was never there at the beginning, it doesn’t magically appear later. In other words, if it wasn’t a good relationship from the start, it won’t magically become one 3 years later.
13. No puedes ahogarte en un vaso de agua.
Literal Translation: You can’t drown in a glass of water.
Meaning – deciphered: Sort of like the English, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. When you’re feeling down, disappointed, overwhelmed or have a lot of problems you’re facing, remember that one small problem isn’t going to be the end of you. Don’t make your problem out to be worse than it is, that would be like saying “I’m going to drown in this glass of water.” Sounds silly when you put it that way, right? Step back and take some perspective, a problem often isn’t as big as it feels in your head.
14. No hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo resiste.
Literal Translation: There is no illness (or problem, depending on the context) that lasts more than 100 years, nor is there a body that could withstand it.
Meaning – deciphered: Nothing lasts forever. This too shall past.
15. La suerte y la muerte llegan cuando menos lo esperas.
Literal Translation: Luck and death arrive when you least expect them.
Meaning – deciphered: Well, in this case the literal translation has the same meaning. But to expand on it a little — this saying is used to describe anything that occurs in an unexpected way. We must acknowledge that there are parts of life that we simply cannot predict. That needs to factor into how we live, how we approach decisions, and how we behave when the unexpected comes.
16. Cuida la plata porque después de un tiempo viene otro.
Literal Translation: Take care of your money because after one time comes another.
Meaning – deciphered: Be smart with your money. After one chapter comes another. Again, we never know what’s coming. It’s smart to treat our money with care and prepare for a time in the future that look vastly different than now. Just because you have a lot of money and are well off today does not mean that misfortune won’t strike. You’ll wish you had taken better care of your money then, when you really need it.
17. Mas vale prevenir que lamentar.
Literal Translation: It’s better to prevent than to complain.
Meaning – deciphered: It’s better to be proactive and prevent something from happening that is within your control now, than complain about the outcome later. For example, it’s much more valuable to take steps towards living healthy today than complain one day when you inevitably have health complications but it’s too late.
18. Mas vale perder un minuto que perder la vida en un minuto.
Literal Translation: It’s better to lose a minute of your life than lose your life in a minute.
Meaning – deciphered: Don’t be in a rush. The consequences of being impatient can be deadly. I always think of this one when driving and someone zips around all the cars and runs the red light. Is shaving off one minute of of your arrival time to a destination really worth it? Not if the price to pay is with your life.
19. Para mentir y comer pescado, hay que tener mucho cuidado.
Literal Translation: To lie and eat fish, one must be very careful.
Meaning – deciphered: Essentially, all lies come out in the end. Once you start telling them, it’s a dangerous game. Much like carelessly eating fish and getting the bones stuck in your throat.
20. Ya lo bailado nadie me quita.
Literal Translation: What’s already been danced, no one can take away from me.
Meaning – deciphered: What’s done is done. No one can change what’s in your past. Telling me what I should have done in the past is pointless. It doesn’t do me any good to dwell on it either since it doesn’t change anything.
21. Cosechas lo que siembras
Literal Translation: You harvest what you plant.
Meaning – deciphered: You reap what you sow. You get the results you deserve based on the work you put in. This one I’ve heard commonly used to describe parents who have disobedient children. If the parents didn’t put a lot of effort into raising their child well, they have to deal with the consequences of their own lack of parenting. But of course there are many other applications.
22. Quien al lobo se junta, aullar aprende.
Literal Translation: He who joins the wolf learns how to howl.
Meaning – deciphered: You learn things based on who you choose to hang out with, particularly when you’re young and impressionable. Choose your social circles wisely.
23. Nada viene gratis, tienes que doblarte el lomo para ganarte la vida.
Literal Translation: Nothing is free, you have to bend your back to earn a living.
Meaning – deciphered: Don’t expect anything to come easy/to be free in life. Everything requires hard work.
24. Cada loco con su tema.
Literal Translation: Each crazy person has their own thing.
Meaning – deciphered: Essentially, to each their own. Everyone has their own idea, hobby, interest, taste in a significant other, you name it. The idea with saying “loco” or crazy person, is to demonstrate that what to one person is normal, to another is crazy. So therefore we must all be crazy to some degree and respect that we all do our own things.
25. Todo se paga en vida
Literal Translation: You pay for everything in life.
Meaning – deciphered: This is probably best explained as similar to karma — that everything has a cause and effect. You’ll pay for your actions in the future. The context that my family has used it in is exactly what I explained at the beginning of this post: my abuelo would say these dichos all the time, we teased him for it. Then my mom started saying them all the time, and now I do too. Todo se paga in vida in this case would mean (loosely) we’re paying for our “sins” of having made fun of our parents because we eventually become like them too 🙂