Working your Spanish (The Bogotá Post)

The latest edition of The Bogotá Post, Bogotá’s finest English-language newspaper, has come out, and once again yours truly had a piece on the world’s finest language: Spanish. I was commissioned to write about local work vocabulary and phrases, so I put my nose to the grindstone and made it happen.

There was one hiccup, however, with what I submitted: several of the phrases had decidedly racist overtones, and these ended up getting nixed. I totally understood the decision, and I’d felt a little squeamish including them myself. As well as just downright unsure of how offensive or inoffensive they really were, so shame on me, then, for not asking around. I got help and feedback on the column from three Colombian friends, but none of them are people of color, if that designation even lends itself to being used accurately in this very blended country. I simply pointed out the racial and historical connotations of the phrases in question, withholding any further judgment or admonitions. In the future I’d definitely do due diligence and make sure to ask a more diverse group. The editors at TBP are great, though, and they asked me what I thought of their edits and let me make my case for a few other changes. The phrases were:

trabajar como negro pa’ vivir como blanco (or pa’ ganar como blanco) (to work like a black in order to live/earn like a white)

trabajar como esclavo (to work like a slave)

and, muy negrero (an employer who pays slave wages, exploitative)

The most concerning phrase was the first one, and you can certainly see why. I’d heard and read it, but had never used it and never would. The second phrase isn’t even very common, and I’ve always felt unsure and iffy about the last one (though it is very common). Part of me did want to keep them just because I’m more of a descriptivist than a prescriptivist with language, fascinated by what is used, right or wrong, and trusting readers to use their best judgment and ask their own questions about tactfulness and appropriateness. But, I too care about always being respectful and inclusive, and I’m careful with the words and phrases that I include (which, like it or not, becomes to teach) in this blog. I can’t just assume that readers will ascertain in what contexts certain phrases are OK, if ever. Or they may simply lack the means to do so. I felt that the editorial rephrasing of that section was very tasteful, and I’m at peace about it.

So, with no further ado, here are ways to talk about work in Colombia, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m interested in hearing about other people’s inadvertent toe-steps when wading into the waters of language and race (or other touchy topics), and, as always, I welcome any and all contributions to the vocabulary.

Maybe you teach English, maybe you work in a Colombian office, maybe you do freelance internet stuff from home–whatever your situation, odds are you do some form of work in Bogotá. And at some point or another, you’re going to need to know the basics of how to talk about your job. So, let’s take a look at some very common work-related vocabulary here in Colombia.

Every country seems to have its local word for to work: currar in Spain, laburar in Argentina, chambear in Mexico. Here in Colombia, we say camellar, and work as a noun is frequently el camello. As you can imagine, camellar conveys the idea of working hard.

Estuvimos camellando todo el día, ahora toca descansar. We were working hard all day–now we can take a break.

Tengo que dejarte, es que tengo mucho camello. I have to go now–I have a lot of work.

¡Necesito conseguir camello! I need a job!

There are a lot of ways to express that someone is working like a dog, some of which–as in English– have racist connotations and are probably best avoided. Much better to stick to expressions like trabajar como un burro and trabajar que da miedo.

Donkeys, dogs, camels- who works the hardest?

Donkeys, dogs, camels- who works the hardest?

Colombia has a different and slightly poetic way of naming resumes/CVs: hoja de vida. The leaf of life, or the page of life, as hoja is also a sheet of paper.

Pásame tu hoja de vida, a ver si te puedo ayudar en algo. Send me your resume, and I’ll see if I can help you in any way.

Work always seems to be characterized by one headache after another, and it’s common to hear problems called chicharrones. Yes, chicharrón, as in that deep-fried belly fat that comes with your bandeja paisa, which you’d think would be a good thing.

Tengo que quedarme hasta tarde hoy porque se nos presentó un chicharrón terrible. I have to stay late today because a huge problem came up.

chicharrón deep fried belly fat pork rinds

Estar embolatado is a very Colombian way of saying that you’re busy or tied up with something.

Estoy embolatada ahora, pero dame media horita y te llamo. My hands are full right now, but give me half an hour and I’ll call you.

If you want to complain that your boss or company worked you to the bone, you can use the phrase sacar la leche–they milked you for all you were worth, plus a little more. There’s also sacar el jugo, or exprimir.

Hoy fue un día muy agotador, nos sacaron la leche. Today was really exhausting–they worked us like slaves.

One verb that you can get a lot of mileage out of in the workplace is rendir with the meaning of to yield. This is used to talk about a certain amount of time or an event yielding productivity (or not).

Trabajé duro en el proyecto y me rindió mucho. I worked hard on the project and made a lot of headway.

Mañana vamos a empezar bien temprano para que nos rinda la jornada. We’re going to get an early start tomorrow so we can get a lot done during the workday.

¡Que te rinda! Hope you get a lot of work done!

Whether you love your job or hate it, knowing how to talk about it in an über-Bogotano way and deftly slipping in references to camels, milk, and fried pork rinds might just make it that much more interesting. Certainly more colloquial!

23 responses to “Working your Spanish (The Bogotá Post)

  1. I used to work at a non-profit law firm that represents low-income people, as a translator and interpreter. Occasionally, we had to accompany our attorneys to court with Spanish speaking clients, not to interpret during the hearing (well, not usually… Superior Court cases are required to provide their own interpreters), but rather to help the attorney communicate with their client before and after. One of my colleagues came back from a hearing one time with a hell of a story. While she waited with the attorney and their client for their turn in court, another Spanish speaker was giving testimony and used the expression “trabajaba como un negro,” which the interpreter chose to interpret literally as “worked like a black person.” Apparently, an African-American person sitting in the court room took horrible offense to this (because, let’s face it, if it sounds bad in Spanish, it sounds even WORSE in English), stood up, and started yelling at the interpreter and Spanish speaker who had said it.

    Lesson learned (or rather, reinforced): don’t translate idiomatic expressions literally.


    • Oh, no! That was some real tone deafness on the part of the interpreter, but I imagine that when you’re interpreting so fast it can be difficult to catch figurative speech and make sure not to translate it literally. As well as catch non-PC language and make it PC, if need be.

      My take is that more than being a derogatory comment (it’s not saying that black people are lazy or incompetent, or at least I don’t think so), it’s a sad reflection of reality. Racism is very rampant here (and in most parts of Latin America, I think, as well as the US, of course! And the whole world, but it takes different forms depending on the region), and many Afro-Colombians have to bust their ass just to hold on to a job, only to earn less than their white counterparts. Any gratuitous references to race can therefore be offensive (especially when this is supposed to be funny), and to use such language gives the appearance of condoning the status quo.

      Thanks for sharing!


      • I’m guessing the interpreter was either not familiar with the expression (thinking he was talking literally) or else was so tired, it slipped by. Interpreters are supposed to work in teams and take 20-30 minute turns, but unfortunately, due to lack of resources, that’s not always the case and it often leads to burnouts. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she was tired.

        As for the meaning of the expression, I have always figured it’s more likely a throwback to times of slavery, where black slaves were severely overworked. It’s one of those things that people have just kept repeating mindlessly without really thinking about its connotations. But you are right that racism in Latin America is still pretty rampant and more socially accepted in many cases. I can speak for Puerto Rico (which is the only place in Latin America where I’ve lived, and I lived there for 22 years) when I say that this is 100% the case in PR. I didn’t notice it quite as much when I was immersed in the culture, but the more and more I analyze it and think about it, the more I realize it’s still a major problem that nobody really quite thinks to address. Ironic, considering that Latin Americans collectively speaking are much more mixed in terms of race than the United States, where there was much more segregation.


        • You’re right; I’m being too harsh (it’s so easy to think that of course WE would have gotten in right in that rapid-fire interpretation). She must have felt terrible :(

          That makes sense about the throwback to the slavery era. We ended up taking out all references to race in the column just to err on the side of caution, but I did argue for keeping the phrase to work like a slave in English. Slavery has always existed all over the world, and, sadly, still does. If I use (I’m not sure that I do) or hear that phrase, I don’t automatically think of the African-American experience of slavery in the U.S. (for example) or any other particular instance of a certain race’s enslavement–I think of it in a very general manner. It’s obviously hyperbole, and I don’t think it condones slavery or somehow cheapens the horrors of that experience. Am I being disingenuous? I hope not. Other perspectives are welcome, and I’ll amend my views if people express that they find this phrase to be offensive.


          • No, you’re right in that slavery is a very broad term. Many civilizations have held slaves for thousands of years, and that has included even white people. I will say, though, that because slavery was abolished in the US fairly recently in terms of human civilization in general, and even after it was, there was still blatant racial segregation up until only 50 years ago, people can’t help but make the connection between slavery and African slaves. It’s a matter of connotation, rather than denotation, which in my experience, is just as important to take into account. That’s not to say your view is wrong. In essence, I don’t consider “working like a slave” to be racist. But I could certainly see how it would carry racist overtones for some people and they might be sensitive to it.

            It’s a fine line to tread and it’s easy to get carried away in being over PC sometimes.


            • Exactly. Good point about connotation.

              And I’m still waiting for someone to air their views on whether dogs, donkeys, or camels work harder! As well as some admiration for my sick Microsoft Paint skills ;)

              Looking at those donkeys and camels performing back-breaking labor while the dog is probably checking Facebook while the boss isn’t around, I’m thinking that we English speakers sound pretty lazy when we claim to be working AS HARD AS a dog. (Oh, really? As hard as a dog, you say?) Dogs just lie around and nap, maybe catch the occasional Frisbee. Though a dog’s daily routine does look like arduous work any day when compared to the sluggishness of cats. Oh, I guess herding dogs must work pretty hard. We should change the phrase to working like a sheepdog.

              It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working… like a sheepdog!

              Also found this: In olden days, the two sawyers who worked on a tree sawing planks were the top-dog and the under-dog. A dog in those days was a manual worker.


              • LOL! Yes, I was going to say, I imagine the saying goes back to times when dogs were used for some sort of labor (like helping to hunt, or pulling stuff, I guess). But you’re right, the modern domestic dog probably doesn’t do that much work. ;)


                • Yeah, just imagine a dog trying to tell his peers how hard he worked that day… They made me work like a dog! To a riotous chorus of laughter, for sure. Then he’s have to sheepishly (hehe) say, OK, fine, we all know we don’t do anything. They worked me like a donkey!

                  I’d never thought of dogs pulling things, but, yeah, there used to be carriage dogs. Dalmatians were carriage dogs in their early days. Maybe dogs are still used this way in some part of the world. And sled dogs, of course, like in the Iditarod.

                  I don’t want to take for granted what some dogs do, though– police dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, seeing eye dogs, therapy dogs, guard dogs… I guess there are dogs, and then there are Dogs. FWIW, I’ve never heard of a seeing eye camel or a bomb-sniffing donkey ;)


  2. Colombia is a deeply racist country and outrageously racist expressions get used regularly. Maybe you could do an entry just on racist expressions, so as to critique them and get people to think twice about them? There are also lots about native people, like “Indio” comido “indio” ido. You might enjoy my write up of the history of the idealization of whiteness in Colombia over at


    • Thanks for telling it like it is, Sara. It is indeed, and I think I need to think more critically about all of these terms and attitudes. When did you write that essay? I read the first few pages and will keep chipping away at it over the course of the day. Lordy, what an important and thorny topic.

      Yikes, a post on racist expressions? OK, I’ll do it. It scares me a little, but the criticism would be gold. I’ll also be thinking of racist expressions in English, too, though, things like to gyp, jerry-rig, etc.

      In case other readers are interested, this is Sara’s fabulous blog, where she wrestles with the translations of English and Spanish words and phrases in areas of human rights, social justice, and others.


    • A timely column:

      Todos hemos sido discriminados o hemos discriminado en esta ciudad inmensamente inequitativa, racista y clasista… La infame discriminación racial bloquea de tajo la circulación social. No importa qué tan talentoso sea un hombre, qué tanto trabaje y se esfuerce por progresar: si su piel no es blanca, las posibilidades de dirigir una empresa o de ocupar un cargo público destacado son casi nulas.


      • We use subtle racist language on a regular basis without really noticing. I’ll never forget the time when my high school History teacher (a darker skinned Puerto Rican woman) pointed out that it’s racist when people say things like, “Fulano es negro, PERO guapo” for example. Why “pero”? Why not “y” instead? I became very aware of it after she said it. People in Puerto Rico often say things like that and I’m sure it spreads all over the Spanish speaking world.


  3. Once again, great post! And once again, you have beaten me to a topic I was planing writing about, negrero. The phrases you mentioned are used by Mexicans as well, although I’m not sure how much of a racist overtone they carry in Mexico.

    I think the lesson I need to learn here is to get off my duff and start writing!


    • Oh, you don’t have to get off your duff to write, believe me ;)

      Well, you should still write about negrero if you’ve heard it a lot and you find it interesting.

      I would bet that Mexico is a more racist society than Colombia, not less, mostly for historical reasons. So, overtones, undertones, or whatever, I think the same implicit connotation is there. Though there may be less racism in the language towards blacks and more directed towards indigenous/mixed/brown people. We should both talk to a lot of people (especially those from groups that have historically been discriminated against) and then write about it.

      Just came back from the market– race came up in two very brief conversations (one with the greengrocer, another with some members of the anti-riot police.) The greengrocer asked me if I’d watched the national beauty pageant last night, that apparently a woman from the coast had won, and, no, she wasn’t brown, she was pretty and white like you. Don’t worry; I put him in his place.

      Then a black anti-riot police officer joked that I must eat more potatoes than he does, since I have such light skin.



  4. Well, since everyone is talking about racism…I thought I might share my own experiences (if no one minds)
    From a black person’s perspective, I get discriminated against by different people every other day. Some black people tell me that I think I’m too good or conceded because I happen to have a lighter complexion. On the other hand, some white people think that I must have one Caucasian parent due to my skin’s hue. Like I can’t be 100% negro and with my phenotype without being bi or multi-racial?? Even when I’m hanging out with my friend Denny, we go to a Supermercado store and on occasion some stranger will start speaking to me in Spanish because of mistaking me for being of Hispanic descent. Then when I say that I speak a little Spanish then sometimes I get scoffed at for not being a fluent speaker. It’s like many people judge you by appearance and make stereotypical assumptions. And I think assumptions make bad conclusions. It seems like the more melanin a person has, the more prejudice is thrown his or her way through either an insensitive remark or action. I think everyone should be conscious of how racist remarks or views of a person or group of people continue to add to the racial oppression that the world still struggles with. If only the media would illustrate the beauty of all races and nationalities without trying to label one as being either superior or inferior. (Sorry if this was off the topic of racist expressions or phrases with racist undertones)


    • I’m glad you shared your experiences, Floyd. I’m so sorry you have to live with that constantly. It’s so pathetic that anyone would strut around just because they were born with less melanin, or look down their nose at someone with more. It reminds me a little of my post on beauty pageants… beauty accomplishes exactly nothing, as does whiteness/melaninlessness. But I do think that things are slowly improving, starting at homes and at schools. I’m glad that the newspaper made the call that they did, and I’m glad that Sara and then the columnist in the article I linked to called out Colombia on their racism. Sometimes I get mealy-mouthed about those kind of things, or even here I can unintentionally live inside a bubble. It’s been an interesting thread- thanks for adding to the conversation! I feel that I need to live a little more broadly to be the kind of Spanish blogger that I want to be.


      • Thank you for researching and posting another awesome thought-provoking topic to blog about! Your most recent posts have provided me great food for thought.


  5. Yeah, this sort of expressions is a problem regardless where you live, if not targeting people of other skin colours then people of other ethnicities. Here, for example there are still some quite popular, disparaging expressions about Jews and Roma people.

    As for black people, a problem I see in Poland is that the language doesn’t even have an acceptable noun for a black person. The word that used to be considered neutral until some time ago and is still quite widely used is now often criticised as racist, but the problem is there doesn’t seem to be a readily available alternative. Some people try to bypass it by using the Polish translation of “Afro-American”. That of course has it problems too, namely not every black person needs to have come to Poland from US.


    • That’s too bad. The best thing is to shame the people who use expressions like those so that they realize that it’s unacceptable.

      Really? Surely they can come up with something. Your last statement would seem to be extreme understatement, unless a sizeable population of African-Americans (from the US) has moved to Poland? And if so, why?


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  7. I again might sound antagonistic but that’s not my intention. First, in this PC society, there are too many people looking for ways to feel offended. Believe me, being Colombian in the US, I have plenty of opportunity to feel offended and persecuted, so I have a pretty good idea of what you are talking about. After talking to other people, I think I have it easy. For example, the stories that a Chinese guy told me once were quite unbelievable. I once flew from Newark, NJ to Brisbane, Australia, with stops in LA, and Auckland; this was maybe in 2003. One of the people in our party was a traditional Sikh. What I saw this guy went through at every single airport, with no exceptions, made me feel like a first class citizen :).

    The point is, we have to differentiate between poor taste and racism. People that use the expressions that you mention most likely don’t even think of the history behind what they are saying. Saying that they are racists is like saying that you are an animal abuser for saying that you were working like a dog. Those, and many other expressions, are just said without much thought. People use them like any other construction learned in their language. Incidentally, I never heard “trabajar como un negro para ganar como un blanco,” which somehow sounds harsher than just “trabajar como un negro.” Having said that, it was a sad day when I realized that many people actually believe in the implied differences. Growing up, I thought all was a joke, all in good nature. What a surprise to learn and spot the plain racism in many people in Colombia (the classism is so evident I identified even a a child). About the link El Tiempo article, I have to say that it is extremely unbalanced and full of inaccuracies and resentment. But that reflects the current climate in Colombia.


    • I totally agree with that distinction made between racism and poor taste. But does someone on the receiving end make it? Does it matter, I mean, when you’re on the receiving end or part of the group being alluded to? In any case, I prefer to be classy, respectful, and inclusive, and I’d rather my speech not have phrases like these. But this blog is mostly a judgment-free zone!


  8. I have been on the receiving end many times, and this still happens sometimes. I laugh about it because I see the humor in it. It all have to do with context and how people say it. However, people generally have very thin skin so it’s better to stay away from any of that. However, some times you can get in trouble without noticing, which is the main point of your initial discussion (you wanted to include some expressions and the editors objected). For example, I have never used the expression “Oriental” to refer to things East Asian. However, I have been told that East Asians find it offensive. I actually have not asked anybody how he/she feels about this expression but I assume it is true. So something that seems very innocuous might not be so. A good Asian friend of mine used to say much things much worse than that to refer to Asians jokingly.


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