English is my third language; I grew up speaking Spanish and Caló

panzonI was born and raised in El Paso in an area known as The Second Ward because of its political designation in city government.

In the greater community, it was most popularly called South El Paso. However, the approximately 25,000 mostly Chicano people who lived there referred to the neighborhood as El Segundo Barrio. It was a barrio that was like an island sandwiched between the Rio Grande Mexican border and downtown El Paso.

In this isolated area, about a third of the families were of second or third generation Mexican descent like ours. Another third was made up of mostly migrant newer arrivals and the rest were in transition. However, it was the Spanish language that served to unite the whole community. Although Spanish was prevalent, lots of exposure to English came through, school, work, movies, radio, music and TV, which was then in its infancy.

Although I love that I am bilingual, I was recently reminded that I am, in fact, trilingual. You see, this third language was unique to our Segundo Barrio culture because it originated there. It started as the jargon for the criminal element in our midst. These outlaws were widely know as “pachucos” because of the Los Angeles bent to their style of clothes. Most of us called them Tirilis and for all intents, they were the precursors of today’s gang members.

Much as today, these gangsters were drug-dealers, smugglers, extortionists and thieves and so they devised a secret language to conceal their illegal activities. The language, which is commonly known as Caló, is Spanish-based but was meant to be a unintelligible to both Spanish and English speakers. However, over time, this secret language spread through the community and eventually to many parts of Texas, Chihuahua and Los Angeles.

When I was a student at Long Beach State, I came across a study done of this unique language by an academic researcher named Lurline Coltharp from Texas Western College (now University of Texas El Paso or UTEP).

A book, Tongue of the Tirilones: A Linguistic Study of a Criminal Argot, was published in 1962. I used it as a reference for a paper I wrote for a linguistics class but had forgotten it. Recently, I heard some guys speaking Caló in a restaurant and was again intrigued by its use. I boughht the book online.

Growing up in South El Paso, we learned and used this language on a daily basis, especially if you wanted to sound like a bad-ass. It was not used by decent people, elders and females since it was considered low class. But despite feigned ignorance, everyone understood it.

In time, El Paso begin to be widely known as El Chuco (short for El Pachuco) as local youngsters earned a reputation during state incarceration of being the toughest and most vicious. The rough sounding Caló also served to enhance this reputation, so us boys chose to emulate it when we wanted to act tough. Due to this reputation, when I was in the Navy and told other Chicanos I was from El Chuco, I got instant respect.

Instead of Caló, we used to call it Totacho. To me, it was much like the slang used in the novels I read about the gangs of New York or about black people who used slang to pepper their distinctive dialect. They are all considered low-class jargons and are rarely used by or around proper folks. So, it was with us. We used it around the guys, but we did not use it around our parents or other grown-ups. Girls did not talk this way lest they be thought of as being tramps.

Still, when I get together with my male relatives or compadres, we quickly fall into this jargon because it’s like putting on a comfortable old pair of shoes; it is instantly reminiscent of the old days and the old ways. Although we are now middle class and gentrified, on hearing us you would think we were a bunch of Pachucos planning their next heist. If someone from Spain, Puerto Rico or Argentina could hear us talk, they would probably think we were speaking some indigenous dialect.

The book I mentioned has a glossary of words and phrases to help a reader understand the language. However, I found that it was an incomplete list because many words or phrases I know were not included. There are probably many other books on this topic that should include additional examples.

Here are some examples of this language so readers can understand what the language is like in its true form.


“Ese bato se apaño una ranfla.” (“That guy just got a car”)
“Es nuevo el mueble?” (“Is it a new car?”)
“Chale, es una pinche tartana!” (“Nah, it’s a damn jalopy!”)


“Esa huisa con las gáfas hánda estrenando lisa, tramos y calcos.”
(“That girl wearing glasses is showing off a new shirt, pants and shoes.”)

“Mira ese shuga con el tando jitty. Se mira muy aventon, el buey.”
(“Look at that black guy with his cool hat. The sucker looks like he can fight.”)

“Vive chole…no hagas pedo…hay vienen los juras!”
(“Be quiet…don’t make any noise…here come the cops!”)

Orále carnales…Ay los watcho,
(Hey brothers…see you later)

El Willie Q. de EPT (El Paso Texas)
(same to you)

The author is former Texan who has been a Californian for over 50 years and now resides in the Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach. He recently retired after 35 years at L. A. Harbor College.

Reprinted with the permission of our amigos at LatinoLA.com