Spanish Lessons

One of the best Spanish idioms I know (not that I have a whole roster tucked up my sleeve, ready to deploy at the opportune moment) is the dismissive, vaguely religious, and appropriately morbid (I did learn it in Mexico, after all, a country with a fondness for dark humor), “Tú no tienes vela en este entierro.” In English: You don’t have a candle at this burial. I’ll get to what that phrase implies, but first, the background.

My Spanish instructor Alberto starts at the very beginning, as he likes to do, by talking about the verb velar. Literally translated it means “to ensure.” But back in the day—I mean centuries ago—it meant “to look after” or “to care for” (someone, something), with the specific connotation of caring for this someone or something at night. In the daytime, your brother would watch over your aging and infirm abuelo, Alberto explains, pulling his lips over his teeth to suggest a doddering, toothless grandpa. But at night, it was your turn to velar por abuelo.

The Spanish word for candle is vela, still used today, which also comes from the verb velar. Picture watching over grandpa’s bed in an earlier century, your candle sinking lower in its wax and spilling over the sides of its holder, which of course has a finger loop for you to grab so that you can slip out of the bedroom once he began snoring and sneak back to your room in your night shirt, dressed like Ebenezer Scrooge (or perhaps like me as a child in my Felicity-the-American-Girl-Doll-night-dress ensemble, which I loved very much and wore with the ribbon cinched tight around my throat).

“But, uh oh!” Alberto says now, eyes widening. “One night you forget to velar por abuelo and—que triste—he dies.” Alberto drops the toothless grandpa impression and invokes a mourning Mexican mother, pulling an imaginary black shawl around his head. “So you have a wake at the local church, a mass for the body, and if you’re a family member, you bring a candle—a vela.”

Picture it: Everyone is standing around mourning abuelo, preparing to put his worn-out body in the ground, where the following October it will be led back home to your family’s altar on Dia de los Muertos with a trail of marigolds and all of abuelo’s favorite foods set out so that his spirit can snack on pan dulce or tamales or tlayudas or whatever it is abuelo loved most to eat in life. At the mass and subsequent burial—Spanish word: entierro—one would be able to tell family members from non-family members based on who held velas. And so when a busybody neighbor or ex-lover of abuelo’s or second cousin thrice-removed steps into the huddled circle of vela-toting family members and tries to assert their opinion about coffin style or funeral hymns, abuelo’s widow could turn on them and hiss, with those round vowels and snapping consonants native to Spanish, “Tú no tienes vela en este entierro!”

Which is to say, You don’t have a candle at this burial! Which, more to the point, is to say, It’s none of your business! And which is why this phrase is still employed today even when there are no velas or abuelos or entierros in sight.