USC Digital Folklore Archives / Proverbs
Life cycle

Un hombre con pelo en el pecho vale dos

Background: E.M. is an 18-year-old student at USC studying Cinema and Media Studies. She is Salvadoran but as lived all over the US, so she has picked up folklore and customs from a lot of different places. Her father grew up in El Salvador, so Salvadoran culture has been engrained into her upbringing and has influenced things that she learned from her parents.


Main piece: “Un hombre con pelo en el pecho vale dos,” “A man with hair on his chest is worth two”


“So this is a proverb that my father told me- he’s from El Salvador. To me as a joke-it’s not something he believes, just something he heard growing up and he thought it was funny so he decided to share it with me.


Basically what the proverb means is that you are more of a man if you have chest hair! It’s a parody of the more recognizable proverb that exists in both Spanish and English since It’s a comedic take on the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”


It was something he would hear a lot growing up from his dad and brothers, as well as something that got repeated a lot and is all boys school. It was usually said to tease boys who didn’t have facial hair yet as that was seen a sign of immaturity or weakness. My dad says that to get revenge, sometimes the boys who were teased would shave their bully’s’ chests in their sleep! It was all in good fun though – this wasn’t a proverb that was taken very seriously or meant to be truly insulting.”


Performance Context: This proverb would be told usually among men, from older men to younger boys.


My Thoughts: I think this proverb better reveals Latin American society’s attitudes towards boyhood, masculinity, and coming of age. It is definitely used in a way such that growing chest hair makes a person part of “the group,” as the person now has something that all of the other members of the group have.

Folk speech

Juegos de Manos son de villanos (Proverb)

My informant is Alice. Alice is 50 years old and was born and raised in San Salvador, El Salvador. She lived there until she was 18 then moved to the United States and proceeded to live in Mexico for a short time before returning to the states.


Alice: “Ok so the proverb is “Juegos de manos son de villanos” and I heard that from my mother, I heard that from my grandmother, and basically anyone that was older then me. I even said it to my children when they were younger.

What is the direct translation?

Alice: “If you play with your hands you are a villain”

What does that mean?

Alice: “Basically what that means is when you start doing stuff to other people with your hands you’re gonna get into trouble, there’s gonna be a fight. So as siblings or kids when you’re pushing each other or playing rough games, you know, they escalate and they get rougher and that’s when my grandmother or mother would say to us when she would see it escalating, you know when I was playing with my cousins or siblings they’d say “Juegos de manos son de villanos!”

Is there a specific time you first remember hearing this?

Alice: “No I just heard it a ton, especially with my sister. As far back as I remember I couldn’t tell you when the first time was. I’ve always had it in my life”

Does this have meaning to you?

Alice: “Well I think it’s true! Something starts out as a game, even with teasing, this is more physical but it starts as a game and it escalates and leads to someone getting hurt. There’s a lot of truth to it”


This proverb is one that Alice had heard extremely often as a child. It seems that it was very popular and especially with her sister she would hear this warning. I think a lot of proverbs are about advice and how they are phrased make them more memorable to children and in turn are practiced more. Alice remembers a number of people telling her this one and even passed it on to her children. It is harder though to make a proverb stick in Spanish in the United States because people won’t understand it which is a barrier.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Work with your mind

The informant, C, is an 18 raised in South Central Los Angeles, California. His parents are both Mexican and he considers himself Mexican as well. He is studying Astronautical Engineering.



C-“An old family saying is ‘trabaja con la mente y no la espalda’ (Work with your mind and not your back)”

When did you first hear this?

C-“My dad used to tell me when I was younger so that I would try hard in school”

What does it mean to you?

C-“It means that you know you really have to invest in your education so that one day you can be working with your mind rather than your back”

Have you heard it other times besides from your dad?

C-“yea, I’ve heard it many more times”

Do you use it?

C-“Yea I use it from time to time. I add my own twist to it. I don’t know it depends on the situation”

Could you give an example?

C-“If you’re talking to someone who doesn’t want to try hard in school versus someone who is struggling in school. One has the motivation to do well and the other doesn’t. You just have to adjust it”

Analysis-The Mexican culture is a hard working culture that many times focuses on getting the children to work to help support the family rather than earn an education. The father of the informant clearly grew up experiencing some of this mentality, which he does not want to pass on to his children. The proverb is a way to encourage getting an education especially at a young age.

folk metaphor
Folk speech

Stubborn as a mule

The informant, J, is 18 years old born and raised in Coachella, California. His mom is from Delano, California, while his dad is from Indio, California. He is majoring in Print and Digital Journalism with a Media, Economics, and Entrepreneurship minor. He also considers himself Mexican.

J-“In the Mexican folklore there is a saying, ‘mas terco que una mula’. It means more stubborn than a mule in English”

What does the saying mean to you?

J-“It literally means what it translates to. It means that someone is being very stubborn or hard-headed and doesn’t want to change how they are thinking”

When would you use this?

J-“You would tell someone they are more stubborn than a mule, again if they are being really stubborn and don’t want to listen to reason. If they keep insisting about something and they want to be right all the time. I always yell this at my brother since he’s always thinking that he is always right”

Analysis- It can be seen that the proverb originated in a specific area of Mexico at a specific time. Mules were used to help with farming and pulling the ploughs. They are also known to be very stubborn and do not like to listen or do what the owner wants them to. Farming is also more common in northern Mexico. Therefore, the proverb must have originated somewhere in northern Mexico during the farming period before the industrialism changed agriculture and machines, instead of mules or donkeys, were used to turn the fields and harvest the crops.

Folk speech

Wise Devil

The informant, J, is 18 years old born and raised in Coachella, California. His mom is from Delano, California, while his dad is from Indio, California. He is majoring in Print and Digital Journalism with a Media, Economics, and Entrepreneurship minor. He also considers himself Mexican.

J-“My family really likes proverbs and saying. We many times have arguments through just proverbs. One of them is ‘mas sabe el Diablo por Viejo que por diablo’(more knows the devil for age than for devil)”

What does that mean to you?

J-“It means that older people have more wisdom since they have gone through more. They have more experience”

When would you use this?

J-“It is mainly used by parents on their children when the child argues. They tell them that to tell them that they know what’s best because they have already experienced something like that”

Do you use it?

J-“I rarely use it since I am not that old, but I do tell it to my younger siblings when they argue with my parents or even sometimes when they argue with me”

Analysis- The proverb shows that the Mexican culture is one that respects its elders and that has high respect for them since they are the ones with the wisdom. They also like to test their wisdom and ability through all the different proverbs that they have. The family is even teaching the young children by telling them the proverbs and using them on them.

Folk speech

Don’t Pout, There’s a Bird Coming!

Folk Piece

“Don’t pout or a bird will land on that lip!”



“It’s kind of ridiculous. Like, of course a bird isn’t going to land on my lip. But, like, kids are also crazy and would probably believe everything. When I started hearing this phrase so much it bothered me, but now as I’m older, I can see why my grandma might’ve said it. She is such a sweet old lady. Like all the time, all the time, she would tell me all of these little sayings and stuff. But yeah, no, I’m pretty sure half of them were to just behave better and keep still.”


Originally this was taught to me by my grandmother to stop me from pouting as a kid. Now I find myself teaching this to the kids I babysit.”


This piece was definitely one of the more odd ones that I came across. Why is a bird landing on the lip? Is that a bad thing? What kind of bird could even land on a lip? I mean, in a sense, I get it. You don’t want some bird smacking you in the face. It just wasn’t as clear to me as many of the other proverbs and warnings and sayings that I had heard over the years.

So, I decided to do some research. It turns out, the more popular version of this phrase is “Don’t stick your lip out or a bird might poop on it!” This was much more clear to me; bird poop is something that’s much more familiar than a bird actually landing on me. It also could go hand in hand with a kid acting like they are ‘full of shit’ when they are pouting.

The participant’s grandmother was described to me as a very sweet, kind, old lady. The participant also comes from a somewhat religious family. This all said, it could be that the grandmother thought the original saying was too crude for her grandchildren, so she changed it a little bit. Clearly, though, if the informant can remember it after all of these years, it must have been pretty effective.

The variation of this piece of folklore is quite different, but it doesn’t change the true meaning of the proverbial phrase, much like most variations of proverbs. Still, you can tie back its origins to the more popular version – or perhaps the more popular version arose from this one. In any case, like many proverbs were designed to do, it will make kids behave.

Folk speech

Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold.

“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other is gold” is a chant sung around the campfire by Girl Scouts as long ago as the 1960’s.

This chant encourages young people never to abandon an old friend for the sake of a new one. Because “old” rhymes with “gold,” I assume that the old friends are gold, and the new friends are silver. This implies that there is something more inherently valuable about old friends.

I imagine it works particularly well in a camp environment, where many young people are anxiously seeking social comfort and status. It is easy for them to get caught up in the feverish nature of it all, and abandon old friends for new, possibly more popular ones. However, this chant encourages them never to do so, as a new friend’s value cannot match an old one’s. It doesn’t discourage them from making new friends, but it does advise them to keep in mind the value of relationships that have had a chance to develop over a long time. In this way, it helps to foster an ever-expanding yet stable network of friendships within the Girl Scout troupe. I also believe it serves as a warning to young girls to avoid the cattiness and exclusivity typical of adolescents.

The informant is my mother. She remembers learning this chant at Girl Scout camp in the 1960’s from camp counselors and other girl scouts. It was often performed around a campfire. I asked my mother what the chant means to her to which she replied:

“They are both very precious…An old friend is really valuable because they know you and you’ve come to trust each other. Keeping them close while making new friends seems to make so much sense to me.”

She often repeated it to me as I was growing up. I believe she did so because it is one of the tenements she has lived her life by. She always relishes the opportunity to meet a new, interesting person, but prioritizes her long-standing relationships.

I believe it’s a particularly poignant chant, especially for children to hear. It is very tempting for children to abandon their old friends when they find new, shiny ones. This is a dangerous trap that robs them of people who know and love them. In this way, the chant is a smart, succinct warning against dangerous impulses that exist within every child’s mind.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

If it bleeds, it leads

“If it bleeds, it leads” is a common saying in American newsrooms and TV stations.

My informant is my mother, a 60-year old woman who spent most of her career working in print journalism. She learned the saying upon entering the industry in the early 1970’s. It was often performed by one journalist to another to explain why something violent had recently ended up on the front page, as opposed to other pieces written that day. My informant explained the saying as thus:

“That’s really a TV thing but it’s certainly true with the paper too. It’s true with print also. So the idea is that if there’s been violence, if somebody was shot or killed or hurt, that that would be the thing that would take dominance in the news.”

I asked her what she thought of this phenomenon:

“Yeah, so that’s—it’s a very unfortunate development in news because obviously it means that we—not that the death of somebody isn’t important but the idea that that would be—that that would dominate over bigger issues is very harmful.”

Recalling this saying brought this thought to my informant’s mind:

“It’s interesting to think of how many death images there are. You have a deadline, things are killed, yeah…”

This saying speaks to the universal human interest in violence, and the way in which news outlets have adapted to meet that morbid curiosity. Furthermore, “If it bleeds, it leads” is short, unfeeling, and declarative. It’s an example of the cynical, tough-talking, macho atmosphere that my informant describes pervading newsrooms in America. I’m not surprised that she recalled this saying with a laugh. It probably reminds her of the intensity of her old journalist friends and the environment in which they worked. This phrase also speaks to the hardening of the journalist. They encounter a lot of awful things in this world, and must get used to it in order to write about them objectively. There’s also something morbidly funny about this phrase, and my mother laughed when recalling it. Reporters have to develop a sense of humor about things if they are going to, day in and day out, face and report on the cruelty of the world.

Folk medicine

Sana Sana, colita de rana



Nationality- Mexico

Primary Language- Spanish

Occupation- Construction Worker

Residence- Los Angeles, CA

Date of Performance- 3/17/16


Sana sana, colita de rana, si no sana hoy, sanera manana.

Translation- There there, ass of a frog, if it does not feel better today, it will tomorrow

This proverb was told by Francisco Garcia, he has heard it from hundreds of people in his city Zacatecas, Mexico. He typically heard it when he was a child and injured himself. A lot of times, they could not afford medicine or any treatment so his parents would just chant the proverb and he would believe he would feel better and stop crying. He knows that a lot of people from different cultures use the same proverb in order to let their child know that the pain and injury is not permanent because it will heal and feel better the next day. He first heard it when he was about 4 or 5 years old and has told it to other children as well as his own. If he ever comes in contact with a child that has  hurt himself, many times all it takes is saying the proverb and the child will cease to cry or feel hurt.

When Francisco had said the proverb, he says it with a smile on his face to let the listener who that he is smiling because he knows everything will be okay. You usually have to rub the spot that is in pain or their head and maybe say it multiple times if it really hurts until they stop sobbing or focusing on the pain.

Francisco is from Mexico and has heard it many times where he is from. I have heard it hundreds of times as well as a child when I would injure myself. My mother, auntie or any other close relative would chant the proverb to me and I felt that I was going to be okay despite the pain. My mother and auntie are from Honduras and they have heard it when they were children as well. The proverb has almost been to every Latin American Country and has spread to the United States. That is amazing since it is just one sentence that has been able to travel so far and serve as a placebo for many children. The chant has not changed much either since it is very simple and difficult to alter.


The shrimp and the current



Primary Language- English

Secondary Language- Spanish

Occupation- Student at LA Cal State

Residence- Los Angeles

Date of Performance- 4/19/16

El camarón que se duermi, se lo lleva la corriente.

Translation- The shrimp that sleeps, gets taken by the current

Anderson learned this proverb from his mother. His mother learned this from Salvador when she was in school with the nuns. It was their way of giving out lessons in ways that the students would remember. Anderson’s mother would also tell him this when he would slack off and get low grades. He remembers it ever since she told him in middle school because it just happened to stick to him. He mostly speaks in english now but always mocks his mom with the proverb to joke around about the times she would tell him it.

This proverb is usually used when someone needs a little lesson. If someone is doing bad in school or in other things, the proverb is used to tell that if they keep slacking off, life is going to keep pushing and dragging them away. It is typically told to kids but can always be used by a passionate and wise mother.

Proverbs like these are funny yet can offer so much insight. It basically means that when a person or shrimp begins to sleep or slack off, the current which means life or problems will sweep you away and take you with it. It teaches the listener that they have to keep working hard in order to keep fighting and pushing through their struggles. Many children that hear proverbs like these usually remember them because they are catchy. Some lessons are learned through experience yet others can be learned with proverbs such as this one.