‘Era’ vs ‘fue’

I was eating delicious tacos de mixiote when I first stumbled upon this quagmire.

The radio announced that a certain Juan Gabriel had died – who I later learnt was the Mexican equivalent of Prince. My friend was distraught.

I said to her: “Cuanto lo siento. Estoy seguro que FUE un buen hombre.” (“I’m so sorry. I’m sure he was a good man.”)

My friend rolled her eyes at me, deciding to forgive my grammatical slip, and said, “Sí, ERA un buen hombre.”  

Given the emotional moment I asked no questions, but for days and days I racked my brains:

Why do we use ‘era’ if Juan Gabriel has passed away? Isn’t ‘fue’ used for finished things? Not always, I was to learn. 

Read on to hold sway with ‘fue’ and never again commit an error with ‘era’.

In short – although both ‘era’ and ‘fue’ translate to ‘was’ in English, the key to using them is understanding whether the thing in question is “finished” (in which case we’d use ‘fue’) or “unfinished” / “repeated” in the past (yep, here we’d call on our good pal ‘era’).

Take yesterday, for example – that was a good day, wasn’t it? So, we say “Ayer ‘fue’ un buen día.” We can agree that yesterday is no more (it’s finished!), so we use ‘fue’.

But let’s say we saw a cat in the window yesterday. He was so cute (“Era tan tierno.”). As far as I know the cat is still alive (and still just as cute as ever), therefore I must use ‘era’.


1. ‘Fue’ is ‘went’ (3rd person preterite of the verb ‘ir’).

Ella fue a la tienda. = She went to the shops.

2. ‘Fue’ is for past facts (because, well, these things have already happened; they’re finished actions).

El alunizaje fue en 1969. ¿O no? = The moon landing was in 1969. Or was it?

3. ‘Fue’ is for what or who did something (finished action, ain’t it).

No fui yo; fue él. = It wasn’t me; it was him.

4. ‘Era’ sets the scene for a story.

Era un día soleado cuando me desperté. = It was a sunny day when I woke up.

5. ‘Era’ describes a thing or a person from a long time ago.

Mi mamá era rubia. = My mum was blonde.

6. We can sometimes use ‘era’ or ‘fue’ interchangeably, but there’s a slight nuance in meaning …

Mi intención era/fue mostrarte. = My intention was to show you.

When to use ‘fue’

Before we plunge into the deep dive, you need to know that ‘fue’ is single. Seriously. ‘fue’ isn’t interested in getting attached. So, you’ll use ‘fue’ for third-person singular, by which I mean: he, she and it. 

‘Fue’, coincidentally, can translate to ‘went’ because it’s also the past form (3rd person singular preterite) of ‘ir’ or ‘to go’.

Three simple examples –

Juanita fue a su casa.

Juanita went home.

El año pasado Jack fue a Oaxaca. Dijo que le gustó bastante.

Last year Jack went to Oaxaca. He said he liked it a lot.

En la junta me fue bien.

The meeting went well.

‘Fue’ also means that a singular something or singular someone ‘was’ something for a limited time.

It can be for stating facts about people –

Lázaro Cárdenas fue presidente de México desde 1934 hasta 1940.

Lazaro Cardenas was president of Mexico from 1934 until 1940.

And sometimes it’s for reflecting on something that’s well and truly over –

¿Te acuerdas de cuando fuimos a la playa hace dos años? Fue un lindo viaje, ¿no?

Do you remember when we went to the beach a couple of years ago? That was a nice trip, wasn’t it?

You’ll also use ‘fue’ to describe who or what did something –

 Julio encuentra un desmadre* en la despensa

Julio – ¿Quién hizo esto?

Laura – Fue el gato, creo.

Julio stumbles across a mess in the pantry

Julio – Who did this?

Laura – It was the cat, I think.

*Erika’s note – a desmadre is Mexican slang for a big ol’ mess!

Dos personas escuchan un ruido muy fuerte

¿Que fue eso?

Ay relájate, wey. Sólo fue un coche arrancándose.

Two people hear a loud noise

What was that?

Chill out, dude. It was just a car jumpstarting.

With all of the above examples, attitude is very important. The attitude being that the thing you’re talking about is one hundred percent finito. It’s no more. It’s over.

When to use ‘era’

First of all, you must know that ‘era’ is a bit more open-minded as to who it deals with, meaning that (luckily for you!) ‘era’ is the conjugation of ‘ser’ for ‘yo’ (‘I’), él (‘him’) , ‘ella’ (‘her’) ANDusted’ (formal ‘you’) in the IMPERFECT tense (yippee!).

‘Era’ is an opener for a story to set the scene and therefore a word you’ll see in a lot of books –

Nieto – Dime cómo te hiciste esa cicatriz.

Abuelo – Bueno, era un jueves y llovía a cántaros.

Grandson – Tell me how you got that scar.

Grandfather – All right, it was a Thursday and it was raining heavily.

‘Era’ isn’t just an opener of course. You use it to describe how something/someone WAS a long time ago –

Mi papá era muy gruñón la verdad. Supongo que es porque trabajaba como burro.

My dad was very grumpy to be honest. I guess it’s because he worked like a donkey.

Nueva España (¡México!) era un territorio rico en materias primas.

New Spain (Mexico!) was a territory rich in raw materials.

You see how in the first example we’re not describing how my dad was on a particular day, but how he was as a person during my childhood?

The same is true for the second example; New Spain/Mexico being rich in raw materials is a state which continued for an unspecified amount of time in the past (and perhaps even into the present!).

Bringing me on nicely to my Juan Gabriel mistake. You see, Juan Gabriel was a great guy – period. Although he died, he never stopped being a great guy when he lived.

So –

Juan Gabriel ‘era’ un tipazo.

Juan Gabriel was a great guy.

If we use ‘fue’, the situation changes a significant tad –

Yo – Juan Gabriel ‘fue’ un tipazo…

Amiga – ¿Ah sí? ¿Qué pasó después? ¿Se volvió violento o qué?

Me – Juan Gabriel was a great guy …

My friend – Oh yeah? Then what happened? Did he become violent or something?

Érase’ (once upon a time)

Did you ever see that movie Érase una vez en México? No? Me neither to be honest.

But guess what it’s called in English …

That’s right. It’s called “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”.  

Érase means ‘Once Upon a Time’. No-no. It’s got nothing to do with an eraser. It’s the combination of ‘era’ and ‘se’ and the first ‘e’ has an accent to denote stress. You pronounce it as EH-rah-seh.

Naturally you’ll see it in a lot of fairy tales (good reading practice for Spanish students – believe me, I know).

“Érase una vez un caballero que salió por el mundo a buscar la vida y las aventuras.”

“Once upon a time a knight travelled the world in search of life and adventure.”

Era’ as in a period of time

And don’t forget that ‘era’ also means ‘era’ – like in English – that is to say, a period of time, an epoch. 

¿No vivimos en una era increíble? Podemos hallar tanta información útil sobre “era” y “fue” con unos clics.

Don’t we live in a wonderful era? We can find so much useful information on “era” and “fue” in only a few clicks.

Tricky difference section

We try to make things as clear-cut as possible, but you’re bound to see and hear examples of ‘era’ and ‘fue’ that’ll make you think – “Hey, but I read in an article …” 

Language isn’t science; it’s art, and art is subjective. 

Sometimes the decision to use ‘era’ or ‘fue’ comes down to attitude …

‘era’ = what I’m talking about still has some relevance to now.

‘fue’ = I’ve moved on.

Pues, mi idea era entrar por atrás.

Well, my idea was to go in the back entrance.

In this example, our speaker may still believe in the idea and is perhaps trying to persuade others to follow his/her plan.

If we change it to ‘fue’, the difference is subtle but significant –

Pues, mi idea fue entrar por atrás.

Well, my idea was to go in the back entrance.

Here the speaker has abandoned the idea and is all ears to a new plan.

Another example –

Ese hombre era muy amable.

That man was very nice.

Here the speaker is probably reminiscing about a man who was nice and kind (and that never changed!).

Ese hombre fue muy amable.

That man was very nice.

This time the speaker is likely talking about a man who he met once and found to be kind. The important thing here is that the speaker is referring to a concrete moment in time that is now OVER.

And another –

Conocí a una mujer que se llamaba Gabriela – era una buena amiga de un primo mío. 

I met a woman called Gabriela – she was a good friend of a cousin of mine. 

Here it’s possible that Gabriella is still a friend of the cousin, but maybe they drifted apart and no longer see each other as much (if at all). Easy to change that though by changing ‘era’ to ‘fue’.

Conocí a una mujer que se llamaba Gabriela – ‘fue’ una buena amiga de un primo mío.

I met a woman called Gabriela – she was a good friend of a cousin of mine. 

This ‘fue‘ version implies that something happened between Gabriela and the cousin. Who knows what happened …. maybe they got together and things got weird. In any case the friendship is over.

Last but not least –

Hombre – Hola, creo que la conozco. Usted ‘era’ profesora en la UNAM, ¿no?

Mujer – Sí, lo era…pero ya me jubilé.

Hombre – Ah bueno, ‘fue’ una muy buena profesora.

Man – Hi, I think I know you. You were a professor at UNAM, right?

Woman – Yes, I was … but now I’m retired.

Man – Ah ok, you were an excellent professor. 

Here the man compliments the ex-professor and acknowledges / places emphasis on the fact that the woman is no longer a professor in the here and now.

Or he might say …

Ah bueno, ‘era’ una muy buena profesora. 

Ah ok, you were an excellent professor. 

Here the emphasis is on the fact that the woman WAS a good professor, instead of the fact that she isn’t a professor anymore. The meaning is essentially the same in both examples, but there is a slight nuance there.

Final thoughts

Eso fue todo – that was all.

I mean to say this article is finished now. Done and dusted. I hope you’re feeling better with ‘era’ and ‘fue’ – I certainly am – and can now use them to describe past events with more aplomb. Remember that in a nutshell ‘fue’ is for the finished facts and ‘era’ is for descriptions of how things were.

If you want to sink your teeth into more Spanish grammar, then head on over to one of the following –

‘estuve’ vs ‘estaba’

‘cualquier’ vs ‘cualquiera’

‘aún’ vs ‘todavía’

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

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