Hang around with Colombians for any length of time and you’re sure to notice that religion continues to play a large part in their lives. In fact, faith is so strong, and religious belief so widespread, that many Colombians often take it as read that most everyone they meet will be a Catholic.
This is reflected in surveys and polls, where the vast majority of the population report that they are religious. In a Gallup survey from 2015, over 80% of Colombia’s said they were believers and about two-thirds declared themselves to be Catholic.
It becomes very obvious just how widespread faith is as soon as you step on any sort of public transport. Taxis and public buses are almost always decked out with all sorts of kitsch Catholic paraphernalia; any available bit of space is decorated with religious quotations, rosaries and drawings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. (Witness, for instance, the picture of Jesus adorning the license plate above.)
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And many drivers on public transport seem actually rather keen to meet their maker as soon as possible. Every time they pass a church or a little Catholic shrine on their travels, they are in the habit of releasing both hands off the wheel in order to make the sign of the cross. Not the wisest course of action I would say.
If you manage to survive the bus journeys, you might stick around long enough to notice the influence of religion on Colombian speech too. Let’s take a closer look here at the divinely-inspired phrases and expressions which Colombians favour.
Sayings and Proverbs
First off, a few local proverbs with distinctly religious overtones:
El que reza y peca, empata
“He who sins, but prays, breaks even overall”.
I confess that this is one of my favourite local sayings as it nicely sums up the many contradictions and inconsistencies found in Colombian culture.
By this I mean that the Colombian population is, on the one hand, broadly deeply religious and conservative and, on the other, hedonistic, often prone to infidelity, and quite prepared to bend (or even break) rules they don’t agree with.
The above saying helps you to reconcile this seemingly huge contradictions. It means essentially that if you get up to no good, but then go to church afterwards, you’re still good overall.
Admittedly, this proverb is a tongue-in-cheek kind of expression, which is only really ever said as a joke. But then they do say that many a true word is spoken in jest.
El que madruga, dios le ayuda
“God favours those who get up early”. This would be the Spanish language version of “the early bird catches the worm”.
In other words, get yourself out of bed early and all will go well for you during the day. Laze around till 12pm, though, and the Big Man Upstairs will not be quite so prepared to lend you a helping hand.
Le cuento el milagro, pero no el santo
It’s less easy to guess what this saying means from the approximate English translation of: “I’ll tell you the miracle, but not which saint performed it”.
This little expression is one popular among those partial to a bit of gossip – it means pretty much the same as the English expression: “I cannot reveal my sources…”.
In other words, you are able to spill the beans on the juicy secret you know, but can’t pass on the source of this information.
La cara del santo hace el milagro
The literal translation of this one would be “it’s the Saint’s face that works the miracle”.
Again, it might not be totally clear what Colombian’s are getting at here. But basically, it means that if you want to get things done, you have to go and do it in person (as opposed to over the phone, via email etc.).
So say you’re having trouble sorting out a problem with your visa application. Despite repeated calls to the immigration office to try and resolve the issue, you’ve got nowhere.
A friend might advise you: “sería mejor que fueras allí. La cara del santo hace el milagro, ¿sí o qué?” (“it’d be better to go down there. Face to face is the only way to get things done, right?”)
Dios le da pan al que no tiene dientes
“God gives bread to he who has no teeth”.
This expression usually means that “we live in a cruel world” (as those who have been given food have no teeth to be able to enjoy it).
It can also be used, less sympathetically, about a person who doesn’t fully appreciate what they have. In this sense, it is a complaint along the lines of “why has God given that person all that stuff when he doesn’t even fully appreciate it or enjoy it?”.
There are numerous variations on this saying heard in Latin America. Some examples include: “Dios da carne al que no tiene dientes” (“God gives meat to he who has no teeth”); “Dios le da sombrero, al que no tiene cabeza” (“God gives hats to those without heads”); and “Da Dios almendras al que no tiene muelas” (“God gives almonds to those without molars”).
Now a few more religion-related expressions heard on a more frequent basis:
This little phrase technically means “What a sin!”, but in Colombia it is popularly used for other purposes. In fact, there are two main times when you can whip out this particular colombianismo.
The first is when you think something (or someone) is particularly cute. See a particularly fluffy kitten or a gurgling, smiley little baby and you’d be well within your rights to say: “Ayy ¡qué pecado! ” (“oh, how sweet!” / “oh, that’s so cute!”).
The second is when locals want to show sympathy when something mildly unfortunate, but not disastrous, has happened. For instance, if a young boy gets splashed by a ton of water as a passing car drives through a puddle, an observer may take pity and say “Ay ¡qué pecado!” (“Poor thing!”).
Note that the “d” is almost never pronounced when using this expression, so it often sounds more like “Qué peca’o!”. Bear in mind too that the phrase is uttered much more by Colombian women than by men.
Eh ave maría (pues)
This phrase – featuring the Latin name for the Hail Mary prayer – is the number one expression by which you can identify a “paisa” (resident of the Antioquia region). It is an exclamation used either in exasperation or to emphasise how good something is.
For instance, after trying a new sort of food, a paisa might give their verdict on its deliciousness by exclaiming: “¡Eh ave maría! ¡Qué cosa tan buena!” (“Good God! That is amazing!”).
It can be used in despair too. Imagine, for example, that a woman tells her neighbour that her teenage daughter has just got back with a boyfriend who had previously made her miserable for months.
The neighbour responds to this unwelcome news by saying: “¡Eh ave maría! ¡Ella no va a aprender nunca!” (“Oh Christ! Will she never learn?”).
Si Dios quiere
“If God wishes” / “If God so desires”. This is kind of a Christian version of the phrase “inshallah”, heard in the Arab world, meaning something like “if all goes according to plan”.
Thus, a local might say, “me voy a graduar el otro año, si Dios quiere” and that would mean “all being well, I’ll graduate next year”.
Watch out, though, if someone says this to you immediately after they’ve just promised to do something. If they shove in a “si Dios quiere”, it probably just means that whatever they’re talking about is not going to happen (at least not within the agreed time frame).
I’ll illustrate what I mean with an example. Say a mechanic has taken much longer than he originally said to fix your moto; he claims it is because he’s waiting on a bike part he’s ordered to make into the workshop.
When you ask for an update about the delivery date, and he responds, “me lo van a entregar es el lunes…pues, si Dios quiere” (“I should be getting it in on Monday, all being well”), you’d do well not to get your hopes up. Your motorbike is most likely staying in his workshop for a few more days yet.
Dios le pague
An expression literally translating as “may God pay you” or “may God reward you”. It is sometimes used by locals, especially elderly folk from humble backgrounds, as an alternative way to say “thank you”.
And a couple of others…
Colombians use a few other phrases with a religious flavour with which you might already be familiar. A couple of such examples are “Dios te bendiga” (“God bless you”) and “Gracias a dios” (“Thank God”).
Though these largely mean the same as they do in English, I’ve always got the sense that they are a bit more literal than how we English speakers use them. The phrase “Gracias a dios”, in particular, seems not to be used as a throwaway comment, but more like an actual way of acknowledging God’s role in their life and well-being.
Ask someone how they are, for instance, and you will sometimes get the response “Muy bien. Gracias a Dios” (“Very well. Thanks be to God”). In other words, it is quite literally a result of God’s will that that particular individual is doing well.
In both language and life in Colombia, God apparently reigns supreme.
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The Perplexing Mystery of Colombian Culture
As you settle into your time in Colombia, you’ll most likely find local cultural values and social customs to be at once familiar, and refreshingly different, from what you’re used to back home. Colombian culture contains plenty of contradictions, which means it’s difficult at first to get a coherent picture of what life in the country is really like. But then figuring all this out is part of what makes the place so enjoyable.
English Words That Colombians Love
Speaking natural-sounding Spanish is all about learning how to use the exact same words that locals do, in the exact same contexts. Your teacher or textbook might tell you the correct way to speak, but on the streets of Bogota or Cali, many of these phrases just won’t cut it. Rather than obsessing over how to say things in a technically perfect way, my advice would be to embrace the local variations and imitate them as far as possible.