Mind The Slang: Speaking Spanish In Panama

Spanish Words And Their Many Meanings

Language is a fluid thing… We (us writing this essay, you reading it) speak English, but aside from American English there’s also British English, Australian English, Irish English, etc. Even just in the United States, New York English is pretty different from Mississippi English… and slang that works in Chicago isn’t understood in L.A.

Spanish is no different. There’s Spain Spanish—and several types of that, to boot—in addition to Chilean Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Panamanian Spanish… etc.

In my younger years, I was stationed in Spain and, while living there, learned to speak Spanish (most of which I have forgotten). But, to be more accurate, I learned to speak Andalusian Spanish (Southern Spanish). Using that here in Panama just leaves locals staring at me, baffled.

For example, in Spain I learned that a ceiling fan was a ventilador, here in Panama it’s an abanico. In Spain, an abanico would be a handheld fan used by a lady to fan herself.

More recently I had a miscommunication with my neighbor. This past weekend a Panamanian friend of ours invited my wife Carolyn and me to join him at a local feria (fair). His actual invitation was this: “Dusty, tomorrow I have a carrera in a local village, please, I hope you can come with me! I’ll see you and Carolyn at 1 p.m.”

I know carrera to be a race. Hey, I’m a NASCAR fan, I like to watch the carreras de NASCAR. But you could also watch a carrera de caballos (horse race), or even participate in a carrera yourself on foot.

A carrera is also a career, though—you can see the logic there, it stems from the idea of the career “track” that you are on.

Both meanings are correct.

To understand why we were a little confused, I must first tell you a little about our Panamanian friend… He is a young lawyer and not an athletic person—not that he’s out of shape, but he doesn’t care much to work up a sweat. The most strenuous workout he gets is walking into court, walking property boundaries with a client, or climbing the stairs at the registry office.

He is well educated (he is a lawyer, of course) and speaks Spanish (Panamanian style), English, and Italian. In fact, he usually speaks English when he is with us, out of respect for my wife, who doesn’t speak much Spanish. If he and I are alone he normally speaks Spanish, and just for fun I toss in a few words in Italian that I know.

So we weren’t sure what he meant when he asked if we could come to his carrera… He doesn’t run. I don’t run. What was the deal here?

The feria was being held in a little village that we have long wanted to visit. In all our years living here, we still haven’t had the opportunity to travel there. And it’s always nice having someone who knows the town show you around. This was too good a chance to pass up. So, having no idea what we would be doing, we agreed to go with him and his girlfriend.

So we ended up in this town during one of their annual local fairs. The carrera, as it turned out, referred to the parade through the town streets (I guess the connection there is also to do with the “track” the parade took). For the past three years we have been living in Chitré. There, I thought, a carrera would be called a desfile (a march… like a procession in a parade).

Our friend had teamed up with a local business and had a float in the parade. We were going to be walking in front of their float, which was pulled by ox-drawn cart. Those of us walking with the float were to hand out flyers, the current issue of a local tourist newspaper (the issues are in both Spanish and English), toss candy, and hand out small bottles of Seco (a popular local alcohol made from sugar cane juice).

After returning home I looked up the word carrera in my Cassell’s Spanish Dictionary. The dictionary is two-and-a-half inches thick, and I swear it weighs a ton. But it is a very thorough resource.

The definitions of carrera take up a quarter of a page. I won’t bore you with all of them but here are some of the more significant translations: run, race, racetrack, career, profession, method of life, course of life, and, of course, a pageant or procession.

At first we thought our Panamanian friend used the wrong word when he invited us, we later discovered that carrera was correct. Thus, we learned a new meaning for an old word… and we had a lot of fun in the process.

Learning the local language is key to enjoying your new home and integrating at a more intimate level. Plus, practically speaking, it helps. You’ll feel a lot less confused, frustrated, and more in control of your life if you speak at least some Spanish. After all, that is one of the reasons you presumably moved overseas—to experience new adventures!

Dusty Tubbs
Panama Insider