Language is a bottomless rabbit hole. Dozens of terms are not truly what they appear to mean. That’s why people who take the literal meaning of a word often end up confused. Take this case. Carlos, my Salvadorean friend, once told me about his bewilderment that one time he attended a Peruvian party in New York.
At first, Carlos assured me that his Peruvian friend (Jessica) used a “natural” language. Her Spanish was “pretty cool.” As he put it, he was “able to communicate with her without a problem.” As they became closer, Jessica invited him to a party in Yonkers, New York, where many Peruvians live. Carlos, a friendly guy, was very interested in joining Jessica’s “social circle.” It was obvious that he was romantically interested in Jessica.
However, on the night of the party, he practically made a fool of himself.
WHAT IS”PATA”?: A DUCK OR A PAW?
Coming late was his first mistake, Carlos said. Jessica had told him to show up at her apartment at around seven P.M. But due to his shifting schedule, he could only leave work at nine that night. So, by the time he knocked on Jessica’s door, at 10:30, the place was already crowded. Jessica received him at the door and blurted something he could not understand. Most of the guests were very tipsy.
“This is going to sound snobbish.. I honestly could not understand 30% percent of the words Peruvians spoke,” Carlos told me. I came to the realization that he was not exaggerating. It is a common phenomenon for immigrants abroad. Whenever we Peruvians, or any other foreign national, meet people from our own nation, we automatically switch to our local dialect. Often, we do it unconsciously. That feeling of “being at home” makes us change our demeanor and attitudes in a special way.
‘I reasoned to myself that she does not have any paws, only human feet. I literally thought she had a duck farm on her roof, and that she was going to show me her ducks..’
“You guys have a quite a language of your own,” Carlos told me. So he felt quite inhibited surrounded by the drunk, rowdy crowd. Sometime later, Jessica noticed his reluctance to socialize. Then, all of a sudden, she said something that confused him.
“Ven, te voy a presentar a mis patas,” she said. (Trans: Come here, let me introduce to my ducks…(or paws?)
“I reasoned to myself that she does not have any paws, only human feet. I literally thought she had a duck farm on her roof, and that she was going to show me her ducks,” Carlos told me. “I am not kidding….What exactly is a paw? Why do you guys call “friends” that way?
His question left me speechless. I grew up in Peru but I did not know the etymology of the word “pata.” I always used it, but I ignored how the expression came to be. Nonetheless, Carlos found the term pretty hilarious. Later that night, he almost got as drunk as Jessica’s friends. Drinking nonstop in that long crazy night, both girls and boys consistently said pata…
“Yo tengo un buen pata” (I had a great paw), Me enamoré de ese pata (I fell in love with that paw), Yo tengo bastantes patas (I have far too many paws), Tu pata se está pasando de vivo (Your paw is getting too sneaky), Tu pata es bien simpático (Your paw is pretty handsome), Me hice su pata (I became his paw), Lo mandé al diablo a tu patita (I told your little paw to go to hell)…”
“Every time I heard pata, the image of a dark hairy dog paw came to my mind,” Carlos said. He just could not help it. Already intoxicated, he imagined hairy paws talking, walking and even kissing each other. Before leaving, Carlos cracked a silly joke about “the paws” that Jessica’s crew did not receive well. At all.
I thought it was interesting how dialects can often confuse and distance speakers of one same language. Peru, Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela, and other countries have words of their own, because they have worlds of their own.
And in the Peruvian world, pata is how we call our very close friends.𝔖