‘Refranes’ (also known as ‘dichos’)are basically sayings in Spanish that convey a – somewhat universal – message, teaching or warning.
They’re extremely common in Mexico, so if you’re immersing yourself in Mexican culture, chances are you’ll come across one (or several!) of these phrases at some point or another.
Most Mexican ‘refranes’ are written in verse or rhyme so that they’re easier to remember. Think of English proverbs such as ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’ or ‘no pain, no gain’ and you’ll get the gist!
Of course, proverbs and sayings are reflections of society, so whilst some have an almost identical counterpart in English or an equivalent of sorts, others are a true insight into Mexican values and morals.
‘Refranes’ have been passed down from generation to generation: some may seem judgmental or obsolete by today’s standards, but others have stood the test of time and are still relevant!
So, without further ado, I present to you 45 (yep, you read that right!) Mexican sayings.
1 Haz el bien, sin mirar a quién – Do good without asking anything in return
This ‘refrán’ (the singular form of ‘refranes’) advises us to ‘do good without looking at whom’, meaning that we should do good deeds without expecting anything in return.
It’s basically telling us to do good for the sake of doing good (i.e., no ulterior motives, please!).
2 Ni tanto que queme al santo, ni tanto que no lo alumbre – Do everything in moderation
This literally translates as ‘not so much that it burns the saint, not so much that it doesn’t light it up’.
In many Mexican households it’s customary to set up little altars to the saints. One or more lit candles are normally placed next to the image of the saint and, well, if they’re placed too close it can be a bit of a fire hazard, but if, on the contrary, they’re placed too far away, the candle doesn’t actually shed light on the saint.
In the same way, both being impulsive AND being overly cautious can have negative consequences, so it’s often best to sit somewhere in the middle / practice moderation.
3 A falta de pan, tortillas – Value what you have instead of what you want
In Mexico tortillas are usually cheaper than bread. A family may be struggling financially and still manage to eat their meals with freshly made tortillas, so the phrase ‘in the absence of bread, tortillas’ refers to those moments when we may not have exactly what we wish for but, if we take a closer look, we might actually start to appreciate what we already have.
It’s also about being resourceful and getting by as best you can.
4 Al mal tiempo, buena cara – It’s better to face a negative situation with a smile on your face
Mexican grandparents always recommend ‘giving bad weather a good face’, which basically means that keeping calm and composed is the best way to find a solution to a problem.
In short, we should face problems with the best possible attitude in order to weather them (get it?).
5 A darle que es mole de olla – Roll up your sleeves
‘Mole de olla’ is a very traditional and flavorful Mexican broth, made with beef and vegetables cooked in chili sauce.
‘A darle que es mole de olla’ – which could be roughly translated as ‘let’s get to work, because it’s mole broth’ – is akin to the expression ‘roll up you sleeves’, although it’s also implied that the task at hand should be done with a positive attitude.
6 Más vale prevenir que lamentar – Better safe than sorry
The Spanish version of the popular saying ‘better safe than sorry’ is ‘más vale prevenir que lamentar’, which literally translates as ‘it’s better to prevent than to lament’.
7 El valiente vive hasta que el cobarde quiere – The oppressor will stay in power only until the oppressed revolt
This popular saying translates as ‘the brave man lives until the coward wants’, and it’s a reminder of the power of the people to fight oppression.
8 Más vale paso que dure y no trote que canse – Slow and steady wins the race
‘A steady step is better than a run that tires’ is the translation of this common ‘refrán’, and this one DOES have an English equivalent: ‘slow and steady wins the race’.
It obviously means that you’ll get better results by being consistent and disciplined, rather than being hasty and careless.
Fun fact: BOTH phrases take inspiration from the Greek writer Aesop’s tale “The Tortoise and the Hare”.
9 El que a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija – It’s not what you know but whom you know
Perhaps you’ve already noticed that ‘refranes’ rely heavily on metaphor and analogy.
The Spanish phrase ‘el que a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija’ is very similar in meaning to the English proverb ‘it’s not what you know but whom you know’, but the former paints a more vivid picture (it translates literally as ‘he who approaches a good tree will be sheltered by good shade’).
It basically recommends that we surround ourselves with good, knowledgeable and/or powerful influences, so that we can get ahead in life.
10 A palabras necias, oídos sordos– Let negative comments go in one ear and out the other
This ‘dicho’ advises us to give ‘deaf ears to stubborn words’; it’s just a way of saying that we shouldn’t pay attention to venomous or petty comments.
11 A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda – The early bird gets the worm
This straightforward proverb literally means ‘God helps those who get up early’ and we can liken it to the English saying ‘the early bird gets the worm’.
12 Más vale pájaro en mano que ciento volando – A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
The Spanish version of ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ is ‘better to have a bird in the hand than a hundred flying’, and it has the exact same connotations as its English counterpart.
As a warning
13 Camarón que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente – You snooze, you lose
This ‘refrán’ paints an interesting picture: ‘The current carries away the shrimp that falls asleep’.
Are you imagining the poor little shrimp drifting around aimlessly right now? Well, this slightly amusing mental image serves to warn us about the dangers of not paying attention to the opportunities around us and/or being lazy.
Its message is very similar to that of the English phrase ‘you snooze, you lose’!
14 Agua que no has de beber, déjala correr – Don’t meddle in someone else’s business
This one literally translates as ‘if you’re not drinking the water, let it run’.
It warns us not to touch running water (i.e., a river, stream, etc.) unless we’re actually drinking from it.
In other words, DON’T stick your nose (both literally and metaphorically!) in affairs that don’t concern you!
15 La niña es risueña y le haces cosquillas – You’re asking for trouble
Imagine the following scenario: your co-worker’s pet peeve is loud chewing. They simply can’t stand it. Another co-worker knows this and decides to tease them at lunchtime by noisily chomping their way through a sandwich.
Well, if you’re in Mexico, you might tell them, ‘la niña es risueña y le haces cosquillas’ (or ‘the girl is giggly and you go tickle her’ in English), which means you’re really stirring up trouble!
You might also find this phrase written with the word ‘niño’ (or ‘boy’ in English) instead of ‘niña’ (or ‘girl’), but its meaning and use remain the same.
16 No le jales la cola al tigre – Don’t poke the bear
Going back to the previous example, you could also say ‘no le jales la cola al tigre’, which means ‘don’t pull the tiger’s tail’.
It’s the Mexican equivalent of ‘don’t poke the bear’.
17 Te va a salir más caro el caldo que las albóndigas – It’s not worth the effort
This saying translates as ‘the broth is going to be more expensive than the meatballs’ and, well, if a Mexican says this to you, stop whatever you’re doing because it just ain’t worth the effort!
Me hice dos horas a la oficina de tránsito solo para encontrarme con que hoy no abrieron. Me salió más caro el caldo que las albóndigas.
I took me two hours to get to the DMV office only to find out that they weren’t open today. It just wasn’t worth the effort.
18 Del plato a la boca, se puede caer la sopa – Don’t count your chickens before they hatch
The Mexican equivalent of the English proverb ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ is ‘the soup can fall on its way from the plate to the mouth’.
19 A caballo dado, no se le ve colmillo – Beggars can’t be choosers
This saying translates as ‘don’t look for a fang on a given horse’.
Hey, but horses don’t have fangs …
Yep, I know, and that’s precisely the point this ‘refrán’ is trying to make: don’t look for flaws in a gift, just be grateful for it.
In other words, ‘beggars can’t be choosers’.
20 A lo dado, no se le busca lado – Beggars can’t be choosers
‘To what is given, no side is sought’ is another way to say ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ in Spanish.
This one obviously rhymes, so it’s really fun to say!
21 Te vas a quedar como el perro de las dos tortas – The grass is greener on the other side
‘You’re going to end up like the dog of the two sandwiches!’ is the literal translation of this super fun ‘refrán’.
But what dog are they talking about, and why (on earth!) does it have two sandwiches?
Well, this fun phrase comes from an ancient fable by the Greek writer Aesop, in which a dog inadvertently drops the piece of meat it was carrying when trying to steal another dog’s piece of meat … but it turns out that the other dog was just its own reflection in the river, so it ends up empty handed (or mouthed?)!
In the Mexican ‘refrán’, the dog carries a sandwich* instead of a piece of meat, and it’s used to warn us about the possibility of losing something that we already have by pursuing something that isn’t ours (juggling two jobs or having an affair, for example).
*Erika’s note –a ‘torta’ is a ‘cake’ in many Spanish-speaking countries, but in Mexico it’s a very popular type of ‘sandwich’!
22 Por la boca muere el pez – Loose lips sink ships
‘The fish dies by its mouth’ is a popular Mexican saying and it refers to how fish can, in the blink of an eye, bite a hook and meet their end.
It warns us not to share information / opinions without thinking about the consequences first.
23 Botellita de jerez, todo lo que me digas será al revés – I’m rubber, you’re glue
Okay, so this one doesn’t really make much sense when translated to English (‘Little bottle of sherry, everything you tell me will be the other way around’), BUT it’s a really fun rhyme to say in Spanish.
This ‘dicho’ is the Spanish version of ‘I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you’, and in case you’re wondering … yes, it’s VERY popular amongst children as well.
24 El que con lobos anda, a aullar se enseña – Bad company corrupts good character
Remember the ‘refrán’ about the good tree? Well, this popular phrase is its opposite.
It translates as ‘he who walks with wolves learns to howl’, and it advises us against surrounding ourselves with bad influences. Just as the rest of the pack imitate a wolf that begins to howl, people are often negatively influenced by those around them!
To judge someone’s behavior or character
25 Al buen entendedor, pocas palabras – For a good listener, a few words are enough
This ‘dicho’ states that people with a sharp mind and good listening skills never need overly elaborate explanations.
26 El que es perico donde quiera es verde – Goodness, skill, or talent show, regardless of the circumstances
Another popular saying in Mexico is ‘a parakeet is green no matter where it goes’.
This means that if you have a special talent or ability, it’ll shine through regardless of the environment / circumstances.
27 Dime de qué presumes, y te diré de qué careces – Tell me what you brag about, and I’ll tell you what you lack
This one argues that if someone’s trying too hard to give a certain impression, it might be an indication of precisely the opposite.
It’s basically about overcompensating and, to be honest, it sounds about right!
28 Echarle mucha crema a tus tacos – Being full of yourself
Picture it: you’re telling an incredible story to your Mexican friends, and quite frankly, you’re bragging a little bit. Suddenly your friends point out to you that ‘you’re putting too much sour cream on your tacos’.
Huh?! You’re not even eating tacos!
Well, what they really mean is that you’re clearly exaggerating and, well, probably blowing your own horn just a tad.
Do feel free to put as much sour cream as you like on your actual tacos though!
29 De tal palo, tal astilla – A chip off the old block
This is easy one as it has an exact English equivalent: ‘a chip off the old block’.
‘De tal palo, tal astilla’ literally means ‘from such wood, such a chip’ and it has the exact same meaning as its English counterpart.
30 El miedo no anda en burro – Fear lends wings
This saying became popular thanks to a homonymous Mexican film from the 70s: both the title of the movie and the ‘refrán’ mean ‘fear doesn’t ride a donkey’.
Donkeys are usually calm and slow, so this phrase emphasizes the fact that fear makes you act hastily. It’s akin to the English saying ‘fear lends wings’, and it’s mostly used to tease people who brag about their strength and bravery but end up running away when things get tough (we all know someone like that, don’t we?).
31 Libro cerrado no saca letrado – Books are useless unless you actually read them
We could roughly translate this saying as ‘a closed book doesn’t make you literate’.
It’s mostly used to criticize people who fill their homes with classic literature and encyclopedias but don’t actually read any of it.
32 No dar paso sin huarache – To always seek personal gain
‘Huarache’ is Mexican Spanish for ‘sandal’, and someone who ‘doesn’t take a step without a sandal’ is a person who always considers their own self-interest before taking action.
It’s mostly used to chastise someone who only offers to help out for personal gain, but it can also be used to express admiration for someone who plans ahead and always has a strategy.
33 Tanto peca el que mata a la vaca, como el que le agarra la pata – If you help someone do something bad, you’re as guilty as they are
This literally means ‘the one who kills the cow sins as much as the one who grabs its leg’, and it serves to condemn and hold accountable those who allow or help others to do bad deeds, whether directly or indirectly.
It’s the perfect phrase for when people complain about all the bad things happening in the world, but don’t actually bother trying to do anything about it.
As a popularly known truth
34 Cuando el río suena es que agua lleva – Rumors usually bear some truth
This ‘refrán’ loosely translates as ‘the river makes sounds because it carries water’.
It refers to the fact that all rumors probably have some degree of truth to them.
I don’t suggest using this one around conspiracy theorists … things could get out of hand pretty quickly!
35 Cría fama y échate a dormir – Your reputation precedes you
This one translates to ‘breed fame and go to sleep’, and its message is that the reputation you build will precede you (for better or worse) wherever you go.
36 Lo que no fue en tu año, no es de tu daño – Someone else’s past is of no concern to you
Let’s say you’re hanging out with your Mexican pal, and he confesses that he’s a bit jealous of his partner’s ex. Well, that’s your cue to tell him ‘lo que no fue en tu año, no es de tu daño’, which means ‘what didn’t happen in you time, doesn’t harm you’ (it sounds way cooler in Spanish, trust me!).
He’ll immediately know what you mean and probably give you an accepting nod.
37 El que nace para tamal, del cielo le caen las hojas – The universe will conspire in your favor
Do you have an awesome talent / skill and big dreams?
Well, if you share this with your Mexican friend and they say, ‘if you’re born to be a tamale, leaves will fall from the sky’, know that they’re trying to cheer you up … yep, by comparing you to a tamal*!
It means that if you’re destined for something, “the universe will conspire in your favor”.
*Erika’s note – a ‘tamal’ is a steamed corn cake; they can be either sweet or savory.
38 Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo – Wisdom comes with age
This ‘dicho’ translates as ‘The devil knows more because he’s old, not because he’s the devil’ and it’s akin to the proverb ‘wisdom comes with age’.
39 El león no es como lo pintan – You can’t judge a book by its cover
‘El león no es como lo pintan’is often used as a way of saying that someone may not be as fearsome as they may first seem, but it’s also used to talk about how appearances are deceiving in general, just like the English proverb, ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’.
40 Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres – When in Rome (do as the Romans do)
‘Wherever you go, do as you see’ is the Spanish equivalent of the popular proverb ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’.
It advises us to follow local customs in the places we visit, either out of respect or to avoid unnecessary attention.
As motivation to enjoy life!
41 Para todo mal, mezcal. Y para todo bien, también – Regardless of the circumstances, life is better with mezcal
Mezcal is an alcoholic beverage distilled from the fermented juice of agave, and a traditional Mexican beverage that rivals tequila in terms of importance, tradition, and popularity!
The phrase, ‘for all evil, mezcal, and for all good, too’ is usually said while toasting with a shot of mezcal, and it’s basically a fun excuse to share some mezcal with friends, be it on a special occasion or a run-of-the-mill day.
42 El muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo – Life goes on
1. As a reminder that life goes on after a loss, whether it be the death of a loved one or letting go of something bad that happened in the past.
2. It also has a more sinister side: it can refer to those who BENEFIT from an awful situation, such as the death of someone or a divorce.
Lidia – ¿Qué hizo Aldo con la fortuna de su padre?
Felipe – La derrochó toda en fiestas. Bien dicen que el muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo.
Lidia – What did Aldo do with his father’s fortune?
Felipe – He squandered it all on partying. That’s why they say, “El muerto al pozo y el vivo al gozo”.
43 Barriga llena, corazón contento – A good meal makes us happy
It’s not uncommon for Mexican people to say ‘full belly, happy heart’ after a delicious meal and, well, it just means that you’re likely to feel happy and content after a hearty meal.
This one might seem a little bit on the nose, but it actually speaks of the importance of taking care of oneself and of the relationship between having all basic needs covered and emotional wellness, a privilege that not everyone has.
44 Échate un taco de ojo – To check (someone) out
If your Mexican pal suddenly invites you to ‘get an eye taco’, don’t panic! It’s not an invitation to taste some exotic dish, they’re simply letting you know that there’s someone very good-looking around.
In this sense, ‘échate un taco de ojo’ is somewhat similar to the English ‘check (someone) out’, BUT it can also be used to say that someone is attractive.
Here’s an example –
Paco – ¿Qué tal estuvo el concierto?
Andrea – La música no me encantó, pero me eché un buen taco de ojo.
Paco – How was the concert?
Andrea – I didn’t dig the music, but the band members were really hot.
45 Lo comido y bailado nadie te lo quita – I regret nothing!
Last but not least, we have: ‘nobody can take what you’ve eaten and danced away from you’, which is a VERY popular Mexican ‘refrán’ that many people use to say that they don’t regret what they’ve done, regardless of the consequences.
But more than that, this ‘refrán’ recommends that we live our life to the fullest, because in the end, the good experiences we’ve had (such as dancing and eating delicious food) are all that really matter.
And, well, that’s Mexican wisdom in a nutshell!
Phew!!! That was QUITE the list of Mexican ‘refranes’!
Hopefully you’ll pick your favorites and try them out with your Mexican pals!
Oh, and if you’re interested in expanding your Spanish vocab even further, then make sure to check out our article on ALL the expressions and colloquial uses of ‘mero’ in Mexican Spanish!