Mexican X-plainer: Demon Hands & Poop

Since I’ve recently annoyed folks by debunking Nahuatl etymologies for the “güey” and “chingona,” I thought I would compensate by discussing two Mexican Spanish words with indigenous roots.

As a kid, I loved spooky folktales, especially about “cucuys” (monsters). The story that scared me the most was “la Mano Pachona,” also called “la Mano Peluda” (the Furry Hand) or “la Mano Negra” (the Black Hand) throughout Spain and Latin America.

This apparition is said to be a disembodied, hairy, dark claw that crawls around in the darkness, attacking mischievous boys … with Spanish blood, if we believe the claims made by my Grandmother Marie Garza and my Uncle Joe Casas.

La Mano Pachona, by José Meléndez (from my book BORDER LORE).

The very idea of the thing terrified me. Once, when my uncle was telling us creepy tales on his ranch, my cousins laughed at my expression of dread.

“Ni le cuentes lo de la mano pachona al güero,” René Casas said. “O se hace cuacha.”

Now, I didn’t personally use that word, but I knew what he meant. I would shit myself if I heard the story of the hairy claw. He wasn’t completely wrong.

But wait. What the hell? “Pachona”? And “cuacha”? Where did these strange words come from?

Let me explain. Francisco J. Santamaria’s 1959 Diccionario de Mejicanismos has an entry for “cuacha.” He defined it as “mierda de gallina” or “chicken shit,” claiming that it is a “voz tarasca,” i.e. a term from the language of the Purépecha, the indigenous people of Michoacán, etc.

And, in effect, the main Purépecha words for excrement are “kuatsitakua” and “kuatsita,” both with the root /kwatsi/. To say “cow dung,” for example, one uses “wakasï kwatsíta” (“wakasï” being borrowed from Spanish “vaca”).

To poop is “kuatsini,” by the way. Same root.

It’s pretty common for the /ts/ sound to be palatalized into /tʃ/ (“ch”), especially with that “i” following it. So /kwatsi/ became Spanish /kwatʃa/, “cuacha.”

I heard one of its derivatives a lot as a kid: “cuachón,” a crude word for “fatso,” a nickname I was given by many bullies before my bulimia kicked in. The idea behind this semantic extension, I suppose, is that if you’re fat it’s because you’ve got a lot of shit inside … compare “tripón” (literally “big-intestined”).

The word’s evolved a little. You know the Spanish phrase “se hizo cagada” or “it went/was smashed to shit”? You can same the same thing with “cuacha.”

By extension, anything that is “cuacha” is a broken-up mess.

Then there’s the matter of “la Mano Pachona.” When retelling the story to kids nowadays, I always ask them, “Do you know what ‘pachona’ means?”

Some do. Some don’t. Some think it means “panzona” (big-bellied), because little kids will often pronounce that word “panchona.”

When I say no, it means “hairy,” they ask me to explain.

In Nahuatl, I tell them, “pachōntic” meant “hairy” or “woolly,” from the verb “pachōa” or “to cover.”

It was adopted into Spanish as “pachón,” something with lots of fur or hair.

So in Nahuatl, “la Mano Pachona” would be “in māitl pachōntic.”

Sounds pretty close, huh?

Of course we got lots of words from Nahuatl, but very few from Purépecha. Those hot border summers at the ranch, however, I was often wearing my trusty leather sandals, my huaraches.

And their name came from Purépecha, too: “kwarachi.”

They weren’t all that great when I stepped in wakasï kwatsíta, though!

Be well, friends! Cuidado con la mano pachona. No los vaya a hacer cuacha.

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