As a Brit living in Mexico, I’ve discovered that many people are intrigued by whether or not I eat spicy food. I once had an entire conversation with a waiter in which he asked me where I was from, what language I spoke, where exactly England was, and finally ended with the question he was really trying to ask: do you eat spicy food?

Having experienced so much curiosity around the level of heat that I can handle, I was well prepared when a friend asked me if I like chilli while a group of us were out for drinks in Oaxaca city. I waxed lyrical about my love of chillies, the great variety found in Mexico, the level of spice of each chilli and just how much I could handle. What began as stifled giggles among the group became full-on belly laughs, with some of the group almost crying with laughter.

Albur would have me both intrigued and confused for years to come

I giggled along nervously, like a child who doesn’t understand a joke, while I rapidly ran through what I had said, looking for possible mistakes in my Spanish that could have caused such amusement. Suppressing giggles, one of my friends said, “so you really like Mexican chilli, then?” and the whole table fell about laughing again. At that moment, it clicked: ‘chilli’ must have a double meaning, and it didn’t take long to work out what that double meaning was. My cheeks went puce as I ran back over what I had been saying through their filter, my blushing face making everyone laugh even more.

This was my introduction to albur, a Mexican play on words that would have me both intrigued and confused for years to come.

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Most albures have to do with sex. “[It’s a] way of talking about sex without talking about it,” said Dr Lucille Herrasti, professor of linguistics at the Autonomous University of Morelos. Like in many societies, many Mexicans view sex as a taboo subject. “Using albur is a way to generate the meaning behind the words without using the actual words,” Herrasti added, noting that albures have to be funny in order to make the ordinarily prohibited subject more approachable. She explained how objects that have phallic characteristics – such as the chilli – are used to craft double entendres. The result is that one can be innocently talking about making salsa from chilli, and someone else will hear something more salacious.

It’s a way of talking about sex without talking about it

Growing up in England, I am no stranger to the double entendre. The UK is rather fond of double meanings, and I learnt at a young age that often what people say isn’t what they really mean. I spent my youth watching shows ripe with covert sexual references, like Are You Being Served, Blackadder and ‘Allo ‘Allo!, and listening to the incredible linguistic wordplays on the BBC Radio 4 show, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Even Shakespeare gave us multiple double entendres in his work. The title of his play, Much Ado About Nothing, is a cheeky play on words where ‘no-thing’ was a reference to female genitalia.

Herrasti explained that, in Mexico, albures can take multiple forms. There is the use of hidden meanings in words, as well as the rearranging of words and phrases to create new meanings. Some more tame albures also come from using words with similar sounds to create alternatives to traditional expressions, in much the same way that Brits might say ‘oh sugar’ rather than using a more charged swear word. While some see albur as childish or in bad taste, for Herrasti it is an art form, where the quick-witted speaker has “a really good ability with language”.

I love playing with words – I am a writer, after all, and a love of words comes with the job. Learning Spanish opened my world up to a whole new language with which to toy. However, wordplay in a second language is a greater challenge than wordplay in your mother tongue, and despite having a solid grasp of Mexican Spanish, albur can still leave me for dust.

I am not alone, apparently. Gregorio Desgarennes, who teaches Mexican slang to non-native speakers in his home city of Oaxaca, says that foreigners not only have to translate the words but then look for the hidden meaning behind them, which makes understanding albures – often passed back and forth between friends in rapid fire – extremely difficult. Beyond that, he explains that the hidden meanings can be so well veiled that they are hard for even Mexicans to understand.

The origins of albur are as hard to pin down as the quick tongues of its users. Herrasti explained that academics who have been investigating the origins of albur believe it to have come from the mines of central Mexico, where groups of miners used it as a way to entertain each other. Yet most Mexicans whom I have spoken to claim that its roots go much further back to the Spanish conquest, with the indigenous population finding a way to play with the Spanish using the language imposed on them.

Desgarennes explains that as he sees it, albur represents resistance “to speaking ‘well’” and a transgression from the norm. He describes albur as short form among the working class that tells the other person, “we both come from the barrio [a lower-class neighbourhood]” and automatically creates a sense of trust. The more complicated and complex the albures get, the more trust is built.

Albur is such a recognised part of Mexican culture that there is now a competition every year to find Mexico’s best albureros, or wordplay masters. Each contestant comes to the table with an original albur to which their opponent must respond within five seconds with another albur. This back and forth continues until one person is unable to retaliate and is knocked out of the competition. Almost like a display of masculinity, the albur competition was long dominated by men until 20 years ago when Lourdes Ruiz, a female market vendor from Tepito, a working-class neighbourhood of Mexico City, was crowned the ‘Queen of Albur’, a title that no-one has been able to strip her of since.

The Queen of Albur is now leading the way in the world of wordplay, and Mexico City residents can enrol in a diploma in albur fino, or ‘refined albur’, taught by Ruiz herself. Offered free of charge, the course attracts participants from across the socioeconomic spectrum who want to learn from the best. For Alfonso Hernández and Rusbel Navarro, who run the course alongside Ruiz, albur should be seen as far more than just funny sexual euphemisms. For them, it is a kind of “mental chess” that involves a linguistic mastery.

Albur transforms everyday words into another transgressive language experience

An important form of cultural identity among Mexico’s often marginalised working class, albur, Hernández and Navarro explain, is also a way of using humour to laugh in the face of power – and more importantly – horror. “Albur transforms everyday words into another transgressive language experience. Therefore, with albur, those who survive tragedies can live [with] them with humour.” It is much like the old saying, “if you don’t laugh you will cry.”

This explanation makes a lot of sense in a country as complex as Mexico. Mexicans see tragedy in the news daily, and yet laughter and playfulness are everywhere you go. Film director Guillermo del Toro spoke further to this point when asked how he was able to reconcile his dark films with his always-happy personality. His response was simple: “I am Mexican.”

Opinions about albur seem to be divided in the country: some consider albur linguistic poetry, while others feel it is juvenile and derogatory. Between 2014 and 2016, it was widely reported in Mexico that Unesco had declared albur to be of intangible cultural heritage, which, while apparently untrue, sparked a debate among Mexicans about this form of speech. According to a study conducted by the Strategic Communications Cabinet, only 21% of the population felt that albur was a form of Mexican ingenuity.

Ingenious or not, for us foreigners, it will likely continue to be a source of confusion. Despite my training, from Shakespeare to Blackadder, I am resigned to the fact that for as long as I live in Mexico I may never truly be safe when talking about how well I can handle my chilli.

Lost in Translation is a BBC Travel series exploring encounters with languages and how they are reflected in a place, people and culture.

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