Skip to content

Puerto Rico’s Unique Lingo

Tourists stroll on the paseo de la princesa promenade in old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Copyright: Dennis V. Dwater

Puerto Rico’s vernacular is different than the Spanish spoken in other parts of Latin America or Spain. Here are a few words and phrases that are uniquely Puerto Rican:

Jíbaro—a person from the mountains, representing the heart of Puerto Rican culture
Jurutungo—somewhere far away
Guares—twins. That explains the nickname “Guar” that my uncle (Auntie Helen’s twin) carried all his life.
Limber—a frozen treat, similar to an Italian ice
Enfogonarse—to get angry
Achaques—aches and pains experienced by older persons
Chévere—cool, groovy
Echa pa’cá—Come over here/bring that over here.
Empache—When you overeat or eat too much of something
Guagua—a bus, SUV, or pick up truck
Bruto—Dumb; idiot
Fajao—working hard or hustling
Por un tubo y siete llaves—an overabundance of something
Ay bendito—used to show sympathy
China—an orange
Guineo—a banana
Zafacón—a garbage can

Some of our Puerto Rican vocabulary, such as hamaca, canoa, macana, maraca and güiro, came from the Taíno language.  Other words were derived from the African languages brought to Puerto Rico by slaves: mondongo (tripe soup), gandules (pigeon peas) fufú (a spell), and malanga (a tuber) are some examples. Still other words were influenced by American English, like raitru, which comes from “right true,” meaning in agreement to what was just said, or gufear, to goof around.

A trademark of Puerto Rican pronunciation is the switching of the “r” for an “l” in some words—”puelta” instead of “puerta,” and the omission of the “d” from words ending in –ado, -edo, or –ido (pegao instead of pegado, deo instead of dedo, or sorprendío instead of sorprendido).  This is very similar to Andalucian Spanish; indeed, the original colonists that immigrated to Puerto Rico in the 15th and 16th centuries were said to come from Andalucía, Spain. Colonists who arrived from the Canary Islands in the 19th century brought a different accent and vernacular to our island, and as a result, the intonation and syntax of Puerto Rican Spanish is supposedly very similar to the Spanish spoken in the Canary Islands.

As if that weren’t enough, Spanish words can vary from one part of our small island to another! When I was a student at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, if I referred to a nickel as a “ficha,” people asked me if I was from Ponce. In the San Juan area, they call nickels, bellón de cinco.

I teach Spanish to adults from my church, and one of my students recently asked me how to say, “weak tea” in Spanish. I replied, “Té ralo,” but when I looked at the online translation of the word ralo, another definition came up. So I posted the following on the Puerto Rican Genealogy Facebook page to which I belong:  I remember my mom calling weak tea, té ralo” or “té ralito,” but online translations say “te débil.” “Debil” does mean weak, but I didn’t think it applied to tea or coffee strength. How have you all heard it expressed? Here are some of the answers I received.

—Either ralo or aguado.

 Ralo applies to drinks, also when someone doesn’t have too much hair and it is fine we say “tiene cabello o pelo ralo.”

—Ralo means sort of like sparse/watered down/not concentrated … keep in mind that a translation is not the same as a transliteration and often times using an app or a specific source which is only specific to a particular region will not take into consideration colloquialisms/regionalisms etc.

Okay, that last answer was probably more information than I needed. Ha ha!

A few days later, I posted another question: Do you consider empanadillas/empanadas to be the same thing as pastelillos? My mother always called her meat turnovers empanadillas, and I always thought that pastelillos had fruit filling, like for example, un pastelillo de guayaba. However, at food trucks and other food vendors, I often see pastelillos de carne o de jueyes on the menu. Is it because of a regional difference in lingo? My mother was born in Adjuntas, but her family moved to Ponce at some point.

I got all kinds of answers! These are a few of the 27 comments that were posted.

— I always thought of the meat filled as pastelillos. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I heard empanadas used as the same thing.

Pastelillos and empanadillas differ due to the “plantilla” used. The pastelillos use the really yellow plantilla while the empanadillas use the whiter and larger plantilla. The pastelillo is usually closed using a fork while the empanadilla is closed by fold/twisting the edge. (To which I responded, “I close my empanadillas with a fork, like my mother did. I fill them with seasoned ground beef that includes capers and raisins.”)

— I was taught that Pastelillos were pork and Empanadas were beef.

Empanadilla was what we called our meat turnover or savory turnover Pastelillos were dessert or sweet turnovers. Both were made with the same masa from scratch (honestly never knew there was something else you could use). I started calling them empanadas later in life because I heard other people doing it and different cultures also called them that.

—When I was in high school in Trujillo Alto, we ate lunch at a corner little restaurant and we had a choice of pastelillos de carne o de guayaba. I always heard the crispy thin turnovers called pastelillos even in other areas of the island. Empanadas had a thicker different dough and had more filling in them. That is what I remember from my days. But I learned that when the Cubans and Dominicans moved to PR some of our names for things were changed. Even my mother started using the new names because everyone else was. Years later I went to the grocery store and saw so many of the produce names changed. Now I think only the older generations remember the original names.

—To me they were pastelillos no matter what was inside. After the Argentineans came they started calling them empanadillas. Pastelillos are usually fried, can be huge (volas), the empanadillas look like a meat pie and usually made in the oven.

—No, absolutely not, they are variations. Epanadillas/empanadas are larger in size. Pastelillos are smaller. They both contain meat, like beef, pork, ground turkey, cheese, guayaba paste or crab meat. But it is also true that though our island is small we do call our dishes by different names.

When the Argentineans came to Puerto Rico…?  I never knew about that. Fodder for another blog? And what do you call those tasty turnovers that you grew up eating?