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Mexican Hand Signals

by Pat Hall

Many years ago I worked at the reference desk in the library of the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. One day I noticed one of the other reference librarians, a man named Luis, motioning with his hand. To my uneducated eye he was just waving his hand around at library patrons on the other side of the counter. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that his hand signal meant "just a minute", "right away", and "a little bit". He said that if he were busy with one library patron, he could communicate across the room with other people using his hand to tell them that he would be with them soon.

I loved the idea and he taught me how to do it. You hold your right hand up and, separating your thumb and index finger by just a little space, then you make your hand move back and forth just a little bit. Your thumb and first finger are facing towards you and the rest of your hand is facing the person you are "talking" to. I started using this helpful gesture and it has become a daily routine for me.

A word of warning: when I returned to Canada, I was working again as a reference librarian, only at the University of Alberta. One of my first days there, I saw someone at the reference desk, looking for help. I was quite a distance away from the reference desk and so I leaned around the book shelves and made my hand signal for "be with you in a minute". You should have seen the odd look he gave me! He left before I got back to the desk, probably because he didn't want to talk to a mad woman. I was never able to use this wonderful gesture in Canada.

Luis had explained to me that this hand gesture was just one of the many hand gestures used in Mexico. I became very interested in Mexican hand signals and started to watch people really closely to see if I could spot any other hand signals.

One of the first gestures I noticed was the hand signal for "no". You shake your hand from side to side with the index finger extended and palm facing outward.

This is not an unfriendly gesture because you are probably smiling when you do it. Make sure you use your index finger and not your middle finger or you could be in for a lot of trouble! This gesture is used widely and is easily understood.

Mexicans communicate "yes" by holding their index finger up (as if to point) and then curling it up and down repeatedly and quickly. Your palm should be facing out.

I really like another gesture, the one for "thank you". It is so handy when the person can't hear you and this gesture says it all. When crossing the street and a vehicle stops for you, it is polite to make the thank you gesture. Raise your arm with your palm facing your face to say "Thank you!" Don't forget to smile! Most people nod with a slight bow when they make this gesture.

Speaking about a "slight bow" brings back a memory of an occasion when I was teaching English to a couple of young Mexican men. Both of them had a great sense of humour and were quite outspoken. One day, we were looking at pictures of people of various nationalities doing typical greetings, and they were learning that vocabulary. I mentioned the word "bow," and one of them pointed out the deep bow that a Japanese man in the picture was making. I said Mexicans bow, too. The two of them said emphatically that Mexican don't bow. When I made the above "thank you" gesture that is so widely used in Mexico, they answered simultaneously, in great astonishment, "We do bow".

So be aware that Mexicans do bow on certain occasions.

A hooked finger and thumb means money. It looks like you're holding a coin. It's used to emphasize the word when you say it, or if you don't want to say it at all. Another word of warning: don't use this gesture to ask someone to come to you. That's impolite.

The above gesture is the proper one to use in Mexico for "come here." Wave your fingers up and down in a motioning gesture.

This international gesture for money is also used in Mexico. More commonly known as the "pay me" gesture, it is signaled by repeatedly rubbing one's thumb over the tip of the index finger and middle finger. It resembles the act of rubbing coins or bills together and is generally used when speaking about money.

Thinking about money, here's a Mexican hand gesture meaning "a lot of money". It looks like you're holding a big roll of bills.

Form a cone with your hand by joining all of your fingers, and then shake them. This gesture means that there is "a lot" of something (other than money). You can use one or two hands.

The concept of cheap or stingy is conveyed in Mexico by tapping a bent elbow with the palm. This refers to the idea of wearing a sweater or jacket even though the elbows have been worn out.

Holding your clenched hand, palm facing outwards, up to your chest and pushing outwards toward the person to whom you are "speaking" indicates "you are irritating me".

Holding one hand almost up to your shoulder and then swiping it down quickly, little finger against your body and thumb outward indicates that you are asking someone to lend you money. You end the gesture with the palm up in the traditional gesture of begging.

This gesture, with the palm up and the fingers curled up, the hand bobbing up and down, is not a begging gesture, but rather it signifies that someone is lazy. Be careful, though, because this gesture can also mean BIG BALLS.

Waving your fingers up and down in front of your face or neck, as if fanning yourself, signals "ouch", something hurts. This can also be a mocking gesture, accompanied by the words "lero, lero, candelero."

The gesture below, with the thumb and little finger extended, signals "idiot!"

Some gestures used in Mexico are used in the rest of the world as well.

With the thumb held near the ear and the little finger pointed at the mouth, this international gesture is commonly understood to mean "call me," as it resembles a handheld telephone.

This gesture is also used to say, "I'll call you" or to tell someone about a call.

My father used to laugh and say that he could use one particular gesture world-wide. He traveled extensively and observed that the following gesture is international.

This "bill please?" gesture is made by scribbling an imaginary cheque in the air at the waiter. It is executed by touching the index finger and thumb together and "writing" a checkmark, circle, or wavy line (as if signing one's name) in the air. Sometimes the other hand is used to indicate the paper that is being written on.

The OK gesture above is performed by connecting the thumb and index finger into a circle, and holding the other fingers straight or relaxed, away from the palm. The gesture originated because it was commonly used by divers. It signifies "I am OK" or "Are you OK?" when underwater. In most English-speaking countries it denotes approval, agreement, and that all is well or "okay". Although this gesture is recognized in Mexico, it may sometimes have a negative or offensive meaning, resembling as it does a certain unpleasant part of our anatomy. Be careful with this one in Mexico.

This international peace sign is used widely in Mexico.

After reading this article, I hope you start noticing some of these gestures and maybe even begin using them. Only in Mexico, of course.

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Pat Hall is a retired Canadian who has been visiting and living in San Miguel for the past 24 years. Many years ago Pat worked in the library at the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Puebla for three years where she also studied Spanish. In Canada she worked as a librarian, library science instructor, and language teacher (French, Spanish, German, Latin, and English as a Second Language). The last 5 years of her working life were spent as a translator, translating official documents from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish. She has recently published a book, Speak To Me: Travels and Exploits of a Language Lover, available on Amazon, about her adventures traveling and pursuing her passion for languages.

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