Work of Art: What exactly is a ‘jefito’?

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By David Giuliani

By Art Trujillo

Well, I wish I’d had the pleasure. In Thursday’s Journal, I read a detailed obituary for Ruben Cobos, the author of “A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish.”

For years, we’ve had a copy of the latest revised edition in our house and at work. Cobos, who died last week at age 99, provided quite a service, especially helpful to people like me, who grew up with Spanglish and who as a youngster, just knew that we often speak a different slanguage.

That’s where the volume by Cobos, an esteemed educator, was helpful. He earned a Ph.D. degree from Stanford University and taught at numerous institutions, including Stanford, UNM, Highlands and even in the pin-dot community of Wagon Mound. I wish I could have met him.

At the Optic, we have Cobos’ volume as a reference. People often provide us information that we in the newsroom aren’t familiar with.
One obituary, for example, referred to the deceased as “El Jefito,” (pronounced “heff-ito”), a slang term for boss. Where did we go for clarification? Cobos’ dictionary, of course, where it states the term is an affectionate application for a parent.

For anyone with a question about how we in northern New Mexico use the language, this  dictionary is essential. According to his obituary, Cobos worked most of his life exploring, interviewing, researching, and trying to give substance to how and why we in this area use language as we do.

The dictionary generally doesn’t pass judgment on usage but merely reports it. And though this issue is not necessarily addressed by Cobos, it’s still a question. One of the first words we came across in our beginning Spanish class at Immaculate Conception School was “aparador,” translated as a “sideboard.” Interesting, but I doubt there was one person in the class of 25 students who had ever heard of a sideboard, much less an aparador. I still don’t know what it is, and I’m not even curious.

Cobos’ book addresses different words for the same object: Is it buñelo or sopaipilla? Is it luminaria or farolito? My sister-in-law, Virginia, once invited our family to tour Santa Fe “to see the farolitos.” Well, had she said “luminarias,” we would have understood. As it was, we weren’t sure what we were touring.

• • •

In the preface to his dictionary, Cobos explains that he had omitted standard Spanish words likely to be found in dictionaries. Accordingly, I selected some words that have made the rounds in El Norte for centuries. You’re unlikely to find the words below in a standard Spanish dictionary. They all appear in Cobos’ dictionary, and they’re extremely helpful.

If you’ve ever smoked, slipped on your sandals and jacket, left your house, driven a ‘50s-era car, bought cheap gas and taken a spin by any of the area’s several auto graveyards, with change in your pocket, you ought to be able to identify these words: bacha, cloche, chancla, chante, chortes, reque, flate, daime, cuara and cute (pronounced koo-teh).

• • •

Notice that people have their individual terms for things and people, not to be altered or abused. For example, none of my offspring call me “el jefito”; our oldest son, Stan, refers to me as “Papa Dad”; the second-born, Diego, calls me “Daddrrr,” and he rolls not only his r’s but also his d’s. I try to imitate that and come up with something risible, like “Daddrrrlll”; and the third-born, Benjie, simply calls me “Pops.”

We have an understanding in our household: It doesn’t work if, for example, Stan or Diego calls me Pops. Each one has a personalized moniker for me, and the usage simply is not interchangeable.

The same applies for what I call them, but that remains our secret.
• • •
I’ll bet there are more restaurant menus in Las Vegas that misspell the word for fried bread, usually served with honey. Is it “sopapilla” or does it have an extra “i,” as in “sopaipilla”? There’s the sound but not the taste of “pie” in the item otherwise known as a bunuelo, but we seldom hear it.

• • •

My wife and I, opponents of the proposed low-altitude flying planned by Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, aimed our vitriol at the wrong person last week. Soon after the San Miguel County Commission’s almost unanimous vote to support the fly-over plan over northern New Mexico (can’t the Air Force simply fly over Clovis and leave the rest of the state alone?), we ran into Ron Ortega.

We asked why he’d voted in support of the low flights without ever consulting with his constituents, the people he represents. “I’ll take the blame for it,” he said, “but I’m not even on board yet.”

Our bad. The newcomer’s term doesn’t begin until 2011.

Nevertheless, Ortega promised always to keep the will of the public uppermost in his mind. And that’s what he said last fall, as he knocked on doors in our neighborhood, soliciting our votes.

Few, if any, of us constituents sensed any real effort on the part of the current county commissioners to check the pulse of the San Migueleños on this important issue.

• • •

Tony Marquez, the former mayor, won the fitness challenge, which he originated, with support from the city and Alta Vista Regional Hospital, a while back. And for the also-rans, including me, he sent a thoughtful letter congratulating us on having entered the challenge.
He was a great fitness role model.
We will miss him.

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.