Movin’ on up, movin’ on down

This morning I read a scholarly article in Spanish on how videos used in standard Spanish teaching curricula promote the idea that Latin Americans are, as Elaine Benes once put it in a Seinfeld episode, “a very festive people” to the exclusion of other more nuanced, sophisticated analyses and the ideological implications of such patronizing, superficial caricaturizations. It was fascinating.

I learned a lot from the article, and it definitely gave me a lot to mull over; I also learned some Spanish from it, as I’m wont to do almost every time I read in Spanish. Most of the words I jotted down were ones I’ve learned but don’t have much familiarity with; however, there were a few that I didn’t know at all– ramplón, en sordina, and gradas. The first two were, meh, medianamente interesting, but gradas, now there was a blog post just waiting to be written. It had Vocabat written all over it. Who was I not to heed that call?

So, gradas! They mean bleachers (or terraces–I never knew that bleachers was an Americanism) or stands, and I’d never heard the word until today. It seems like such a basic word–how had I gone so long without it? I couldn’t tell ya. But now that it’s in my brain, I’m certain that it won’t be leaving. In my defense, I had an incredibly diverse wealth of experiences while I was in Colombia, and these were very intimate experiences where I basically got to be part of various families. One thing I never did, though, was go to any athletic events. So it’s no wonder I didn’t know gradas, though you would think I would have picked it up somewhere. Oh well. No need to feel degraded.

Gradas are the stands or bleachers at a sporting event or the kind of seating you’ll find in a TV studio audience. (Gradería and graderío are other ways to say this in some places, though much less common) La grada encompasses the idea of the entire area of the stands and the people in them. In some countries, gradas can mean stairs or even individual steps. Good to know.

La grada

You do know how to say stairs and steps in Spanish, don’t you? I’m sure you do, and I certainly don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but let’s go over it anyway just in case there’s one shy person in the lot who’s afraid to speak up. The review will do us all some good.

Stairs can be escalera or escaleras. I would say that escaleras is much more common, but they are basically interchangeable. It probably depends on regional use and personal preference. For some reason, escalera sounds more elegant to me, but I might be imagining that. I also wonder if perhaps escalera was originally the correct way to say it, but the influence of English and “stairs” crept in. I don’t know, though. In any case, they’re synonyms, and you’ll probably hear escaleras more.

En caso de incendio

Cortázar once wrote a great short essay titled Instrucciones para subir una escalera. I love it. I once translated a beautiful essay that referenced this piece. It happens often that we grow so accustomed to the ordinariness of day to day life that we no longer need instructions on how to go up a flight of stairs . . . Here’s a witty response to Cortázar’s witty but sincere and moving piece, Instrucciones para bajar una escalera by the Antioqueño writer Héctor Abad Faciolince.

To go up stairs is subir las escaleras; you can also say subir por las escaleras, which often suggests that there was another option. That is, you could have taken the elevator or levitated yourself to the third floor, but you either chose to take the stairs or had to. To go down stairs is bajar las escaleras or bajar por las escaleras

What about an individual step? Escalón or peldaño

Peldaño comic

What if you miss a step and fall down? You can say caerse de las escaleras, caerse por las escaleras, rodar/se por las escaleras, rodar escaleras abajo, or caer/se escaleras abajo. Knock yourself out.

An escalator is escalera eléctrica or escalera mecánica.

Medellín has six flights of escalators for residents in the Comuna 13, the first public outdoor escalators in the world

An elevator is ascensor or elevador— a word I only learned once I moved back to the Spanglish-rife U.S.

If we’re talking about a really grand or wide staircase, escalinata is the more proper word. I remember learning this in a book and then hearing the gym teacher at the school where I used to work use this one time. As you can see, names eventually escape me, the topics of conversations fade over time, but the words used? Never! Well, almost never.

Image by Carmen Alonso Suarez via Flickr Creative Commons

Don’t forget that escalera is also ladder. Context should always make things obvious, but I can still easily imagine some mistranslated sign somewhere: ELEVATOR BROKEN, USE LADDER. You can also say escalera de mano if you’re talking about a ladder. It’s funny, there’s a ladder store down the street from where I live, and I’ve always found it so charming and Latin American in its single-mindedness. I guess it would be an escalería? Just imagine, selling only ladders! You don’t see many specialty stores like that around anymore.

Escalera comic

Led Zeppelin’s much beloved Stairway to Heaven? Escalera al cielo

Were you blown away by any of this new knowledge? Can you think of anything I missed? Catch you on the stairs somewhere.

11 responses to “Movin’ on up, movin’ on down

  1. Haha, the first time I heard “elevador” was in Acapulco. The way I remember it (this may or may not be true) was that I asked where the ascensor was, and they looked at me and said “¿el elevador? El elevador está por ahí, joven” and then I remember looking at my colleague with a tiny smirk and said ¡El elevador!, they can’t blame us for that one.

    Later I asked, and of course they understand “el ascensor,” but they use “elevador,” and OF COURSE they blame the gringuitos. baaaaahhhh ;)


    • Hahaha. I think it’s high time they took at least some of the responsibility for their English-borrowing ways. There are so many horrible things that the U.S. is guilty of, but this is not one of them. (I don’t think)


  2. Interestingly (perhaps) *escalera* in Costa Rica is reserved for *ladder* while *stairs* are called *gradas.* We have a local person who has compiled a “Costa Rican Dictionary” to cover the peculiarities of the CR usage of the language, but he uses the term *escaleras* for stairs. However, every person I consulted this morning with a printed picture of stairs has said *gradas* which is what I have always heard here. As far as I know, *gradas* for *stairs* is purely a Costa Rican thing.


    • Good to know! I believe that it’s the same in Guatemala– who knows, maybe in some other parts of Central America as well. Thanks so much for consulting people around you! I love informal on-the-ground polls.


  3. As for “subir las escaleras” vs “subir por las escaleras” I’ve recently noticed similar forms in Italian (“salire le scale”/”salire per le scale”). I don’t know what the exact difference between these two is- I woildn’t be surprised if it were similar to the one you described.
    Also, for some reason I’ve got hellish problems with memorizing verbs of movement in both these languages…


  4. Thanks to your amazing and at some points elegant way of describing things, I’m learning Spanish and improving my English at the same time :)). Thank you!


  5. I like the pun on the picture of the Spanish Steps. You may know all this, but in Italian they are known as the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti (named for the church at the top)–though at least the piazza at the bottom is known as Piazza di Spagna. Keats died on the second floor of the house on the right, and the poem he was writing seems to speak of a Stairway to Heaven (the challenge of poetry—but he might be speaking about the challenge of learning a new language):

    When in mid May the sickening East wind
    Shifts sudden to the south, the small warm rain
    Melts out the frozen incense from all flowers,
    And fills the air with so much pleasant health
    That even the dying man forgets his shroud;
    Even so that lofty sacrificial fire,
    Sending forth Maian incense, spread around
    Forgetfulness of everything but bliss,
    And clouded all the altar with soft smoke,
    From whose white fragrant curtains thus I heard
    Language pronounc’d: ‘If thou canst not ascend
    ‘These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
    ‘Thy flesh, near cousin to the common dust,
    ‘Will parch for lack of nutriment thy bones
    ‘Will wither in few years, and vanish so
    ‘That not the quickest eye could find a grain
    ‘Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.
    ‘The sands of thy short life are spent this hour,
    ‘And no hand in the universe can turn
    ‘Thy hourglass, if these gummed leaves be burnt
    ‘Ere thou canst mount up these immortal steps.’
    I heard, I look’d: two senses both at once,
    So fine, so subtle, felt the tyranny
    Of that fierce threat and the hard task proposed.
    (from “The Fall of Hyperion–A Dream”)

    It’s strange to think on these beautiful steps and realize that Keats must have thought on these lines as he looked out. When he died at 25, he had sold only 200 copies of his poems (he asked for a grave with no name but only the lines, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water”). Are they called the “Spanish Steps” in Spanish? And what about the dance steps which you seem so familiar with?


  6. I’m from Santander, Colombia. Over here we use “escaleras” and “gradas” interchangeably. We even say it in its plural way (las gradas) and its singular way “una grada” -just one step up :) Now, when talking about bleachers usually the word “graderia(s)” will be the most used.


    • Good to know! Thanks so much, and welcome to the blog :) PLEASE correct me whenever I need it– I always love to have the insights of natives! I do my best, but my opportunities to soak in Colombian Spanish now are sadly limited.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s