5 Popular Mexican Refranes Explained

Written by Carmenlucia Acosta 

Mexican Proverbs, known originally as Refranes or Dichos are a big part of Mexican traditional culture. They consist of quotes, words, and riddles that often rhyme with each other, holding some truth in them. Often used in the day-to-day lexicon of a Mexican family, refranes have a deeper meaning. People have often mistaken the true meaning of refranes by trying to translate their literal meaning. However, this is not the case. In order to understand a refran, it is important to connect the words with some context, and remember: whatever you do… do not take them literally! 

1. “De Tal Palo, Tal Astilla”

If we were to translate this Mexican refran word for word, it would read “a chip off the old brock.” This, of course, doesn’t make much sense as a phrase that is said daily. However, its true meaning is similar to what we all have said at some point in time: “Like Father, Like Son.” This quote doesn’t always necessarily refer to a son that is similar to his father. It can be used when comparing other family members as well. 

The refran “De Tal Palo, Tal Astilla,” goes far beyond comparing family members as it is meant to indicate that the small characteristics always come from a bigger something. This all simply means that we stay true to our origins and surroundings. We are shaped by how and who helped formed us. Our character and individuality is shaped by our life lessons and the people we have met along the way.

 

2. “No das paso sin huarache”

Mexican huaraches or sandals are traditional pieces of Mexican culture, holding a vast and rich history as well as process-making tactics. “You don’t take a step without a sandal.” As you can imagine, this refran’s true meaning is not your mom reminding you to put your shoes on before heading out. Instead, it talks about convenient people. About those who always seek to gain some sort of benefit or something of value out of a particular situation. It is meant to alert that a person’s intentions are coming off as advantageous. 

Certainly, we all want to take care of our own selves, however there is a fine line between being on the lookout for yourself and taking advantage of other people, things or situations for your personal gain.

 

3. “Se comio la torta antes del recreo”

The last word on this refran is key to understanding its true meaning. “To eat the sandwich before recess.” Recreo, in English recess, is the one event we all look forward to in elementary school. It's the break from our classes, and the time to put school work aside to distract and enjoy ourselves by playing, chatting to our friends, and eating lunch. ourselves. In this phrase, the word recreo refers to marriage.

This refran is another way of expressing that someone got pregnant before marriage. In most traditional Mexican families, this idea is still quite controversial. The expression can also be used when referring to performing intimate relations with someone who isn’t your boyfriend, or spouse. It is true that these ideals are outdated and old-fashioned, however, many Mexican quotes date way back to ancient times where the view on life was radically different than it is now.

 

4. “Echarse un taco de ojo”

The word that stands out in this short refran is tacos, and while tacos are truly delicious, this quote does not refer to actually eating eye tacos...gross! “Echarse un taco de ojo,” or “eating eye tacos,” refers to seeing who is present in a particular situation. It can be at the beach, at a club, party, restaurant, and anywhere really. This Mexican refran is typically said amongst friends and peers who want to look for people to interact with. 

Also, this phrase can serve as a joke. When someone says they went to “echarse un taco de ojo,” they refer to enjoying the pleasure of seeing attractive people in an event or place. It speaks to appreciating the beauty of other human beings without actually having to surpass the embarrassment of speaking to them. Surely, we all enjoy this, as long as we don’t have to interact with them in any way… Oh! My social anxiety!

 

5. “El muerto y el arrimado a los tres días apestan”



We all have welcomed guests into our homes. This Mexican refran is often used when said guests last a tad bit too long. “A dead body and a freeloader stink after three days.” Even though it is unlikely that we know how dead bodies actually smell, we can surely imagine that it must be stinky and unpleasant. This quote compares dead bodies and guests who both, “stink” after a few days. 

Each person is used to having a set routine which usually changes when guests visit. There is nothing wrong with this, however, when the visit lasts longer than planned, that’s when it becomes an issue. The phrase might be used by Mexicans when the guest overstays, interrupting the daily routine, and becoming a bit of a burden to the host. It hints a person that it's probably time to leave, in order for things to go back to normal. 


The purpose of refranes is quite simple. They all seek to teach a valuable lesson, following the philosophy of constant reminders. The shorter and catchier the refran is, the likely it will stick into someone’s mind. Most of them are very old, meaning that they have been passing down from generation to generation. For centuries, Refranes have not only taught lessons to millions of Mexicans, they have also and most importantly, tied many generations together granting them nationwide quotes that are respected and acclaimed which today are part of a beautiful Mexican culture.