Mexico has its own language not instructed by Spanish schools and phrase books: Mexican slang. It’s an informal language whose meanings shift in a heartbeat from insults to compliments, a language Mexican people manipulate deftly and instinctively in all sorts of contexts. The following three Mexican slang words and phrases will give you a base for you to attempt to understand and blend in with the locals.

Mexican slang word #1: Cabrón

A cabrón can either be a badass or a real jerk, a male you talk about with disgust or fear.

There’s also the feminine version, cabrona. Same standards apply: There are the the revered, awe-inducing cabronas and the detested ones.

Then there’s “qué cabrón,” a phrase used to describe a thing or situation as opposed to a person. This, too, can be positive or negative, but it’s got a particular edge to it. For example:

1. Narcos entered a popular restaurant and collected the cell phones of all the customers, warning them not to make any phone calls or act out of the ordinary. The narcos ate peacefully, returned the cell phones, paid everyone’s bills, and continued on their way. Qué cabrón.

2. You ran out of water, and the government isn’t sending more water to the Centro Histórico for three days. You just had a party and now have a sink full of beer glasses, skillets full of chipotle sausage residue, and greasy plates. Qué cabrón.

Insider tip for Mexican slang mastery: For added flair, add an “ay” before cabrón when used for people, and mix it up with an “está cabrón” instead of “que cabrón” in the case of situations.

Mexican slang word #2: Madre

In the quintessential Mexican read, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz has a great passage about the significance of la madre (“the mother”) in Mexican slang and culture.

The madre is identified with all things negative, the padre with all things positive. This, argues Paz, is a reflection of two historical and cultural factors in Mexico.

The first is the idea of the long-suffering mother, the passive recipient of pain and burden who is, to use another classic Mexican slang term, chingada (meaning “screwed,” for a polite interpretation).

The second is the historical resentment and resignation towards the woman whom Paz claims is the mother of modern Mexico — La Malinche. La Malinche was a Nahuatl woman who aided Cortéz in the colonization of Mexico, translating for him, offering insider information, and giving him a son.

So la madre is not treated kindly by Mexican slang. Whether you feel squeamish about it or not, be prepared to hear at least one of the following Mexican slang phrases on a daily basis:

1. Qué madres: what the hell? As in, the sudden explosion of firecrackers on any random street corner, the drunken antics of your friend after too much mezcal, the thing floating in your soup.

2. Que poca madre tienes: literally, how little mother you have, this Mexican slang phrases when directed at you means that you’re so rude and act so badly that it’s like you had no mother to raise you.

3. Es poca-madre: The hyphen and the use of the verb “ser” makes all the difference — it translates as “amazing.” So if Mexico kills in soccer with a 5-0 victory, it’s definitely poca-madre.

4. Hasta la madre utterly sick of something. Your boyfriend’s behavior could drive you to feeling hasta la madre, and so could consistent rain every afternoon or the incessant barking of the dog next door. You’re at the end of your rope, the breaking point. To translate the phrase directly, you’re almost “to the point of motherhood.”

5. Padre: Means “cool.” Plain and simple. So if you score great concert tickets for you and your friends, it’s padre.

Mexican slang word #3: Huevos

There’s a whole linguistic universe surrounding huevos here, so let’s just stick to the most commonly used.

1. Qué huevón/huevona: “What a lazy egg.”

2. Qué hueva: It translates literally as “what egginess.” Eggs here have the same association with laziness with an additional component of boredom. For example, you could toss out a “que hueva” at the suggestion of watching soccer on TV.

3. Qué huevos: A brilliant expression that translates most accurately as “what balls” but really, contextually, means so much more. In the most literal sense que huevos can be used to express admiration for some great courageous act. It can also be used, however, to express repulsion for rude behavior.

A version of this article was previously published on August 18, 2009, and was updated on February 14, 2022.