Spanish popular culture landmarks that you should know
You’ve studied Iberian culture inside out and the when you hit a bar with some friends, suddenly you feel completely lost, because you haven’t got the faintest clue what they are talking about, right? What random cultural terms are they using?
Let’s be honest: you won’t often find a chance in your local bar to talk about Cervantes or the battles that took place during the Eighty Years’ War. However, it is highly likely that you will hear someone mention the “empanadilla de Móstoles”, a “finstro picador”, “Espinete”, “Oliver and Benji” or a certain “Pepe Leches”. Therefore, we’re giving you a list of this kind of elements linked to the popular culture of this picturesque country. Ready? Alright, here are some Spanish popular culture landmarks that you should know.
The “empanadilla de Móstoles”: It refers to a common prank often repeated since 1986. On New Year’s Eve that year, the comedy duo “Martes y 13” (“Tuesday and 13”) did a gag before millions of people, which had them imitating a popular radio hostess, Encarna Sánchez, when a peculiar scene ensued, as a listener called in to explain how things were going with her son, who was completing his military service in the army complex at Móstoles. Apparently the listener was frying some patties (“empanadillas”) while she spoke to Encarna and, distracted while focusing on the frying pan, she ended up telling the radio presenter that her patty was doing the military service in Móstoles. For some obscure reason that, 25 years on, many still can’t even fathom, the expression became extremely popular.
Chiquito de la Calzada: During your stay in this country you must have come across things like “Jarl”, “picador” or “finstro”. You might also have heard a joke, likely a really bad one, told in a strange tone of voice and with an Andalusian accent. If you have, then you have witnessed an impersonation of the “Chiquito de la Calzada” (Roadside Shorty): a man that, many years ago, used to be a Flamenco cantaor all the way out in Japan. A couple of decades ago he came back to Spain refashioned as a comedy front man that, according to many, was ahead of his time, since his style focused not so much on the wit of the joke, but on his delivery: he used some version of “Spanglish” filled with practical jokes, while he made strange gesticulations that evoked an obscure image of a sped-up Joe Coker of sorts. He became so famous, he even took part in three films.
“Gallina Caponata”: You might have heard a very tall colleague of yours being called “Caponata”. That’s easy to explain: the name refers to a character from Sesame Street, shaped as a giant yellow bird. Yep – it’s “Big Bird” (also known in Latin America as “Abelardo”). The Spanish version of the show boasts an actress representing the bird, so it was turned into a female character. Why did they choose an Italian name (“Caponata”)? And why did anyone assume it had to be a hen (“gallina”)? These issues still today spark some of the bitterest arguments around.
Espinete: Heir of Caponata, Espinete was a pink hedgehog with a big child’s spirit that lived in the Spanish Sesame Street during the 80’s. It has become the symbol of an era that was innocent and free of worries. However it wasn’t going to live in our country in the beginning. Apparently he was destined to be the face of Israeli Sesame Street, but the project was cancelled. As Henson had a spare puppet, it was sent to Televisión Española as a means to reduce costs.
Calleja’s stories: if you have told a strange and hard to relieve story is very likely that someone will say “tienes más historias que Calleja” (“you have more stories than Calleja”). In Spain, more often than not “cuento” (story) is used to refer to fairy tales as well as to denounce false stories. “Calleja” has a curious origin: during the Spanish post civil war there was a publishing house with that name that printed and sold classic fairy tales such as “Little Red Ridding Hood”, “The Little Lead Solider”, “The Three Little Pigs” and many more.
Pepe Leches: in a dark bar someone will always say “I see less than Pepe Leches”. Many people believe it’s about a mythic character such as the English John Bull, or the French Marianne, however recent investigations claim that the character may be a Spanish Civil Guard from Madrid called “Pepe el leches” (“dar leches” means to hit someone) who was almost blind and who may have taken out his bad mood on farmhands from Madrid.
The “tebeo”: A common expression among people over the age of 40 is “esto está más visto que el tebeo” (“this is more common than tebeo”). It refers to a situation or a fact that has become boring from being brought up so often. “Tebeo” in this case points at the comic-strip and graphic-tale magazine called “TBO”, which was extremely popular until the eighties. It was so popular and famous that comics in Spain are called “tebeos”.
Oliver y Benji: are named frequently during football matches. It’s about two characters from the football themed anime series. In Japanese it was known as Capitan Tsubasa. Here the series was called “Campeones” (champions) and it was broadcast during the 90’s. The main characters were Oliver Atom and Benji Price (they were given English names as the Japanese ones were too complex) and they were capable of the most incredible football feats. It inevitably became a hit in a country were football is called “the king of sports”.
There are many more characters and contexts. These are the most important, but we don’t dismiss increasing the list: fashions change and the generations with them. You can already see many people calling the cynics of their group “Doctor House”.