In short – ‘chamba’ is an extremely common word in Mexican Spanish; it’s used mainly as a synonym of the English word ‘work’, but can also refer to a job, side gig, etc.
There’s a little bit of debate regarding the origin of ‘chamba’ because it means different things in Spain and certain Latin American countries. In Spain it’s associated with a ‘fluke’ – and thought to be derived from an old Portuguese term –, while in some South American countries it means ‘ditch’.
But when it comes to ‘chamba’ as a slang term for ‘work’, it’s generally accepted that it actually derived from English (plot twist!) … more specifically from the word ‘chamber’.
A little bit of history …
Back in World War II, the USA signed an agreement with Mexico to let Mexican men work in American fields to compensate for the men who were off fighting the war.
Anytime the workers needed to renovate their contract or look for a new job, they visited the Chamber of Commerce. Eventually it was referred to simply as the ‘chamber’ and then the ‘chamba’.
Nowadays the word ‘chamba’ is so popular that it’s used not only in Mexico but all across Central American!
So how exactly do you use it? Well, let’s find out!
Uses / Meanings of ‘chamba’
‘Chamba’ can be used in the following ways –
- As a synonym of ‘paid work’
- As a synonym of a ‘stable job’
- To describe a ‘job position’
- To describe a ‘gig’, ‘freelance job’ or ‘informal work’
- As a synonym of ‘trench’ (Colombia and Venezuela)
- As a synonym of ‘fluke’ (Spain)
As a synonym of ‘paid work’
In general, whenever someone talks about a ‘chamba’ in Mexico, they’re referring to a ‘paid job’.
Vanessa – ¿Qué hace tu hermano en pijama a las dos de la tarde?
Daniela – Se graduó hace dos meses y ahora anda sin chamba ni quehacer.
Vanessa – What’s your brother doing in his pajamas at two in the afternoon?
Daniela – He graduated two months ago and now he has no job and nothing to do.
As a synonym of a ‘steady job’
Many people in Mexico refer to their steady job as their ‘chamba’.
Un padre e hijo planeando una cena familiar por teléfono
Hijo – Puedo llegar al restaurante a las 8PM.
Padre – ¿Qué no sales de la chamba a las 6:30?
Hijo – Sí, pero mi novia sale hasta las 7:30.
A father and son planning a family dinner over the phone
Son – I can get to the restaurant at 8PM.
Father – Don’t you leave work at 6:30?
Son – Yeah, but my girlfriend doesn’t finish until 7:30.
To describe a ‘job position’
It’s also used to talk about a specific role or ‘job position’.
Penélope – ¿Qué pasó, por qué tan emocionado?
Mihael – ¡Me dieron la chamba de gerente!
Penélope – What happened, why are you so excited?
Mihael – They offered me a manager’s position.
As a synonym of a ‘gig’, ‘freelance job’ or ‘informal work’
When it comes to understanding the nuances of ‘chamba’, context is your best ally!
Although it’s often used to talk about your full-time job, it can also refer to a ‘side job’, a ‘gig’ and the likes!
Martina – Wey*, me ofrecieron una chamba de repostería para una boda, pero tengo mucho trabajo…¿te interesa?
Federico – Va que va. Dale mi contacto al cliente.
Martina – They offered me a baking gig for a wedding, but I have too much work … are you interested?
Federico – Yeah, sure. Give my number to your client.
*Erika’s top tip – ‘wey’ is the super popular equivalent of ‘dude’ or ‘bro’ in Mexican Spanish.
Lalo – ¿Entonces te dedicas a la música?
Pam – Quisiera…pero por el momento solo es una chamba de fin de semana.
Lalo – So you work in the music industry?
Pam – I’d like to … but for now it’s just a side job on the weekends.
The diminutive ‘chambita’ is mostly used in this sense –
¿No te gustaría tener tu propio taller en lugar de hacer chambitas para otros?
Wouldn’t you like to have your own workshop instead of doing gigs for others?
As a synonym of ‘trench’ (Colombia and Venezuela)
It’s also worth bearing in mind that ‘chamba’ has a completely different meaning outside of Mexico / Central American.
If you happen to be in Colombia or Venezuela, chances are ‘chamba’ means a ‘ditch’ or a ‘trench’!
La chamba se inundó en la temporada de lluvias y eso retrasó la construcción.
The ditch was flooded in the rainy season, and this delayed construction.
As a synonym of ‘fluke’ (Spain)
In Spain ‘chamba’ refers to ‘luck’ NOT ‘work’.
It’s a bit like the English word ‘fluke’.
El Barça ganó de pura chamba.
Barca won by pure fluke.
‘Chamba’ has two syllables:
- ‘Cham’ is said like ‘chahm’
- ‘Ba’ sounds like ‘bah’
/ chahm-bah /
Similar words / expressions to ‘chamba’
This is the verb form of ‘chamba‘ and you can use it pretty much as you would the English verb ‘to work‘.
Híjole, no puedo venir a la fiesta…me toca chambear.
Darn, I can’t come to the party … I’ve got to work.
In some northern states in Mexico people use the term ‘jale’ instead of ‘chamba’.
This term has actually gained popularity in the last few years and has started to spread to the rest of the country.
¡Se me hizo tardísimo para ir al jale!
I’m so late for work!
Ganarse la papa
This phrase literally translates as ‘to earn the potato’, and it’s akin to the English ‘to make a living’.
Todos tenemos que ganarnos la papa de alguna forma.
We all have to make a living somehow.
Perseguir la chuleta
If you’re not particularly fond of potatoes, you can also say ‘perseguir la chuleta’, or ‘to chase the chop’!
Bueno, ya me voy a perseguir la chuleta.
Okay, I’m off to work.
Hopefully you’re now able to use ‘chamba’ like a true native AND, as a bonus, you even know where it came from (yippee!).
If you wanna learn more Spanish vocab, then make sure to check out our amazing list of ALL the expressions and colloquial uses of ‘caer’!