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Work of Art: Putting on the trout

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By Art Trujillo

“Don’t forget ‘truchas,’” Joseph P. Santillanes yelled at me as I parked on Douglas and he crossed the street.

Was the personable candidate for San Miguel County sheriff inviting me to have trout with him at Charlie’s Restaurant or at Dick’s?

Hardly. Santillanes was reminding me that in my frequent attacks in my columns on words we use around here I’d omitted “truchas.”

“Why don’t you write about truchas?” he asked.

It’s true: I’ve written entire columns on words like “like,” “so,” “whatever” and “sapo” but never “truchas.”

Let me explain:

That expression I’ve heard since I was a child. Usually the full text is “ponte truchas,” which roughly translates to “be on the alert.” It’s like what Zeus said to Narcissus: “watch yourself.” But the contexts in which I hear the expression usually deal with mischief.

To someone unfamiliar with barrio-speak, or using a translating dictionary, the literal rendering of the expression might be “put on a trout.” Sorry, in northern New Mexico, we don’t do that. Yes, we might put on the dog (or in this small berg, put on the puppy) or even put on airs, but not fish.

“Ponte truchas” would never qualify as a warning to a night watchman whose supervisor tells him to be on the lookout for thieves. Instead, thieves would be the ones warned to look out for night watchpersons.

The expression generally comes as a companion to “don’t get caught.” So a cell phone-toting kid surreptitiously texting answers to a buddy is the kind of person for whom the truchas-clause is intended. Or someone sipping beer while driving might also hear the truchas warning.

But why truchas — of all words — to convey the meaning of being cautious? It’s probably the northern New Mexico equivalent of “Cheese-it, the cops!” a term we’ve heard in every black-and-white movie of the ‘50s, or read in comic books. There, it’s usually some ghetto kids swiping apples from a green grocer’s cart who must cheese-it.

“Cheese-it” might be a variation of “cease it” but more likely  a P.C. way of rendering “Jesus” without seeming profane. It appears in O Henry’s The Voice of the City, published in 1908 but has even earlier citations.

But back to our Lenten staple: fish.

A good source for this kind of ethnic curiosity is in Ruben Cobos’ “A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish.” In addition to the definition as rainbow trout, Cobos’ dictionary refers to “ponte truchas” as a slang expression “to be on the lookout.” Cobos defines the term but doesn’t explain why it means that.

We can accept Cobos’ expression “just because an expert said so.” But it’s doubtful there is anything peculiar to a silly little trout that hints at “caution.” It’s true that many breeds of fish outsmart fishers by failing to fall for the worm trick at the end of the hook. But why would a trout be noted for its eel-ishness more than any other fish?

I asked people about the expression, most of whom agree they’ve heard the expression only in the Southwest, more particularly in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. And they’ve heard and perhaps even used the term all their lives.

Sam Vigil posits that truchas concerns both the alertness of the fish and of the fisherperson. “A slight tug on your line,” Vigil says, “doesn’t guarantee that you’ve landed a fish.” Similarly, to avoid getting snared, the fish needs to be vigilant as well.

And my friend James Sandoval, who admittedly would rather be fishing than doing anything else, says the truchas warning applies also to the caution people employ when running a chainsaw, for example. Like Vigil, Sandoval says he’s heard the expression all his life, but only in this area. And he adds that “trout are wary; if they see you, they’re not gonna bite.”

Max and Bertha Jimenez, quite familiar with the expression, say it might have originated with the Pachucos of the ‘50s. Ever hear of a Pachuco? They’re the ones who wore slicked-back “D.A.” hairdos, taps on their shoes and who enriched our language with words like “jefito” for father, “bacha” for cigarette butt and “ramfla” for car. But more on that in a later column.

Naïve one that I am, Moby Dick himself could be swimming in Lake Storrie without my being able to identify it. Yes, I’m able to distinguish subtle differences among varieties of fish on my plate, but not on the hook.

I naturally assumed that trout was about the only fish caught in this area. Not so, says Sandoval, who has caught carp, walleye, pike, catfish and others.

Is there, then, any always-on-the-alert characteristic to the trout that earns it the distinction of qualifying for the “Ponte Truchas” award?

Pike, even tastier than trout, for example, doesn’t get uttered in warnings to be on the alert. Catfish, also available in this region, is “bagre” in Spanish; perch is “perca”; flounder is “platija.”

Would “Ponte platija, ese” ever fly? How about “ponte bagre”? Nah, somehow they just lack the flair of truchas.

• • •

As for the above-mentioned race for sheriff, Santillanes has plenty of company on the ballot: incumbent Benjie Vigil, Ben J. Lujan, Roy Pacheco and Clarence Romero.

Regardless of who gets elected, we’re sure all of the candidates are familiar with “truchas” and we promise they’ll come across the term many more times — probably even on their first night on duty.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to artbt@rezio.net or atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com.