In short – ‘¿qué pasa?’ (present tense) literally translates as ‘what happens?’ and ‘¿qué pasó?’ (preterite tense) as ‘what happened?’. The former asks about something occurring in the PRESENT, while the latter refers to the PAST.
HOWEVER, ‘qué pasa’ and ‘qué pasó’ are also used as greetings in certain Spanish-speaking countries, which is often a source of confusion for learners of Spanish.
‘¿Qué pasa?’ can be used in the following ways –
1 As a synonym of ‘what’s going on?’ or ‘what’s happening?’
¿Qué pasa en la colonía? ¡Hay muchas ambulancias! = What’s going on in the neighborhood? There are loads of ambulances!
2 As a synonym of ‘what’s the matter?’ or ‘what’s wrong?’
¿Qué pasa, Mariana? ¿Te sientes mal? = What’s wrong, Mariana? Are you feeling ill?
‘¿Qué pasó?’ can be used in the following ways –
1 As a synonym of ‘what happened?’
¿Qué pasó anoche? = What happened last night?
‘¡Qué pasa!’ and ‘¡qué pasó!’ can BOTH be used as informal greetings in certain Spanish-speaking countries, kinda like the English expressions ‘what’s up!’ or ‘how are you doing?’.
¡Qué pasó, carnal! = What’s up, bro!
¡Qué pasa, tío! = How are you doing, bro!
‘Qué pasa’ vs ‘qué pasó’
Amongst the many meanings and uses of the verb ‘pasar’ in Spanish (the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE) dictionary has a staggering list of sixty-four different meanings!), one of the most commonplace is ‘to happen’ or ‘to occur’.
So, if someone asks you the question ‘¿qué pasa?’, they’re usually asking one of two things:
1 ‘what’s going on?’ (i.e., what’s happening RIGHT NOW)
2 ‘what’s the matter?’
¿Qué pasa en casa de los vecinos? ¡Están haciendo muchísimo ruido!
What’s going on at the neighbors’ house? They’re making a lot of noise!
¿Sabes qué pasa en Ucrania? Leí un tweet al respecto, pero no he podido informarme más.
Do you know what’s going on in Ukraine? I read a tweet about it, but I haven’t had the chance to find out more.
¿Qué pasa hoy contigo? Estás muy distraída …
What’s up with you today? You’re very distracted …
¿Qué pasa, mi amor? Pareces molesto. ¿Dije algo malo?
What’s wrong, honey? You seem upset. Did I say something I shouldn’t have?
¿Qué pasa? ¿Por qué lloras?
What’s the matter? Why are you crying?
*Erika’s note – ‘mi amor’ is an extremely popular pet name in Latin America.
On the other hand, if someone asks you ‘¿qué pasó?’, they’re asking you about a past event, problem or situation –
¿Sabes qué pasó cuando mis abuelos migraron a México? ¡Es una historia muy interesante!
Do you know what happened when my grandparents migrated to Mexico? It’s a very interesting story!
Un gerente sale de una junta con inversionistas
Analista – ¿Qué pasó? ¿Sí nos aprobaron el presupuesto?
Gerente – Sí, tenemos luz verde.
A manager returns from a meeting with investors
Analyst – What happened? Did they approve the budget?
Manager – Yes, we got the green light.
The only time that ‘qué pasa’ and ‘qué pasó’ are interchangeable is when they’re used as informal greetings.
In MANY Spanish-speaking countries people greet each other with both phrases, in a similar way to ‘what’s up’ or ‘how’s it going’ in English.
¡Qué pasó, Joaquín! ¡Tanto tiempo sin verte!
What’s up, Joaquin! Long time no see!
¡Qué pasa, amiga! Qué gusto encontrarte por aquí, ¿cómo has estado?
What’s up, girl! Nice to see you here, how have you been?
Erika’s top tip – there are actually A LOT of fun and interesting greetings in Spanish! Make sure to check out our list of all the different ways to say ‘what’s up’ in Spanish if you wanna know more!
Expressions with ‘qué pasa’ / ‘qué pasó’
Qué te pasa, calabaza
Mexicans are famous for their fun expressions and plays on words, many of which rhyme.
Such is the case with ‘qué te pasa, calabaza’, or ‘what’s up with you, pumpkin’.
It’s an oldie, but a goodie!
¿Qué te pasa, calabaza? ¿A poco ya te vas de la fiesta?
What’s the matter, pumpkin? You’re leaving the party?
Qué pasó, mi valedor
In Mexican slang ‘valedor’ basically just means ‘pal’ or ‘bro’.
‘Qué pasó, mi valedor’ is a popular greeting in Mexico City, especially in the downtown area. However, depending on intonation, it can also be used as a way of taunting the person you’re speaking to.
Alguien se retira en un juego de póquer
¿Qué pasó, mi valedor? ¿No que muy machito?
Someone folds in a game of poker
What happened, bro? I thought you were a tough guy?
Mexicans also like to use unrelated words as euphemisms for similar-sounding words.
If someone comes up to you and says ‘qué pasión’ (or ‘what passion’ in English) in a friendly manner, it’s very likely they’re simply saying ‘what’s up’ –
¡Qué pasión, cabrón! ¡Qué milagro verte!
What’s up, dude! Long time no see!
Hopefully you’ve now mastered the difference between these two phrases, and maybe you’ll even feel confident enough to whip out a ‘qué pasa’ or ‘qué pasó’ the next time you greet your Spanish-speaking friends!
Oh, and if you wanna keep expanding your Spanish vocabulary, don’t hesitate to check out our list of all the different ways to say ‘can I help you’ in Spanish. It’s a SUPER useful phrase!