Spanish Language Blog

Paisa Pues: How to Speak Spanish Like Pablo Escobar Posted by on Sep 28, 2016 in Spanish Culture

This month a new season of Narcos took Spanish learners and narconovela addicts back to 1980s Medellín, home to Pablo Escobar and one of the bloodiest episodes of the 52 year-long conflict that formally ended on Monday. The Netflix original is a bingeable opportunity to learn Spanish with TV, but it’s missing more than colorful slang by leaving out the notorious Paisa accent of Medellín and the cartel that was named after it.

In Cartagena on Monday, after the months-long Colombian diálogos de paz, the final peace accord was signed in Cartagena between the Colombian government and the FARC, ending more than fifty years of conflict in Colombia.

It’s hard to watch an episode of Narcos today and reconcile the images on your screen with the fact that 20 short years ago, it wasn’t just a novela, but daily life in Medellín.

colombia dialogos de paz

The historic handshake between President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Timochenko of the FARC upon the official signing of the peace agreement. Photo by Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana via Flickr under CC BY 2.0.

Throughout the Colombian Internal Conflict, Medellín and the department of Antioquia, of which it’s the capital, have been some of the areas most severely affected. Warring drug gangs, guerrilla movements, rogue paramilitaries, murders, kidnappings, and large-scale displacement of Colombians have plagued Medellín for so long that narco culture is now often seen as almost inseparable from the culture of the Paisas, as the people of Medellín are known.

Ask anyone in Latin America what their first association with a Paisa accent is and they’re more likely to answer Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel than they are world-famous hospitality or social urbanism.

This is because Paisa Spanish and the parlache street slang of Medellín are replete with idioms referencing death, slang reflecting the violence of everyday life, ironic usted-induced formality, and an unmistakable accent that sounds as provincial as it does predatory.

Netflix’s series, inspired by one of the many telenovelas that were better in Spanish, does a good job of bringing us the vibes and visuals of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín, but without the trademark speech of a true Paisa, half of the story is lost in translation.

The Sibilant Sounds of Paisa Spanish

Narcos has gotten rave reviews in the States and the English-speaking world, but some Spanish-speaking audiences haven’t been quite as impressed.

Many articles have appeared in hispanophone media since the show’s debut criticizing it for its “pésimo acento“, its poor attempt (or lack thereof) at a Paisa accent. But what’s the difference between an authentic accent and the ones that leave Latino viewers giggling and switching over to watch Patrón del Mal instead?

Aside from sharing many features with general Colombian Spanish, the Spanish of Medellín and Antioquia has enough quirks of structure, use, and pronunciation that this speech variety, spoken by a relatively small population, is recognized far and wide in Latin America.

In addition to the use of vos as the second-person pronoun, Paisa Spanish uses usted in a way that can seem almost comical to other Spanish speakers. Reserved for formality elsewhere, Paisas use usted in almost any situation, with husbands and wives or mothers and children more often than not addressing each other with the formal pronoun.

But it’s the accent that most strongly marks Paisa speech, more than anything the highly sibilant, airy ‘s’ sound that might make you think you’re hearing a Colombian Sean Connery. Additionally, the ‘a’ is characteristically made from further back in the throat, somewhat closer to the sound made in English words like “taught” and “bra”.

In 1996, the University of Antioquia completed a study of parlache, the narco-influenced speech of youths and poor communities in the marginalized comunas of Medellín and the surrounding areas. The linguists who led the project found that many parlache expressions have undeniable links to violence, death, and narcotrafficking:

El estudio indica que una gran proporción de las palabras del Parlache están relacionadas con la violencia y la cultura de la muerte, arraigadas en las comunas de las grandes ciudades desde la década de los ochenta.

Even though the writers behind Narcos did their best to write an authentically Colombian and even Paisa script, the “‘ménage’ de acentos” ruins it for most Latinos in the audience.

To an English-speaking audience it sounds like high-brow nitpickery, but imagine for a moment a rendition of Al Capone and 1920s Chicago in which the characters sound like German immigrants and farmers from the Deep South and you’ll begin to see the problem.

Lost in Translation: The Sociolinguistic Significance of Sounding Narco

The reason Capone can’t have a Southern twang is the same reason Pablo Escobar can’t speak with the neutral slightly foreign-sounding Spanish of the Brazilian actor who plays him in Narcos: we have drastically different, subconscious cultural associations with different accents.

Just as 1920s Chicago sounds like black-and-white mafia films, in Latin America 1980s Medellín sounds like narcotraficantes. In one of the many critical reviews of Escobar’s accent in Narcos, an article from the Nuevo Herald helps explain the authentic details that are missing from the Netflix original by giving an example of what fell short in the scene when Pablo enters Congress as one of its newly appointed members:

…en la escena donde Escobar entra al Parlamento colombiano como uno de sus miembros, el acento de un paisa hubiera subrayado el dolor de haber sido no sólo desairado sino también expulsado de la casa de gobierno poco después de haberse sentado. En la serie, ese dolor se entrega visualmente: la chaqueta deportiva casual de Escobar y una corbata mal puesta contrastan con los trajes oscuros de los parlamentarios. Escobar resiente a la gran mayoría de esos miembros, y contra esos mismos oligarcas ha arremetido públicamente en varias de sus campañas.

The classic Paisa accent of Pablo’s more authentic parallel in Patrón del Mal is a picture of culture and class conflict, speaking in an accent that plants images of simple provincial folk and drug-dealing street toughs in the minds of his colleagues and the public. The real Pablo Escobar’s speech was inseparably intertwined with the narcocultura that rose to Latin American fame in the late twentieth century.

For most of us sitting on our North American couches Netflixing the weekend away, it makes little difference if Pablo is Brazilian or Colombian or Cuban or Spanish, as long as the subtitles are on. But as Spanish language learners, learning in cultural context should be one of our highest goals: it not only helps us learn the language better, but it allows us to better understand people, the world they live in, and the language that world has given birth to over time.

Plus, speaking Spanish like the real Pablo Escobar is probably one of the coolest ways to impress your Spanish-speaking friends.

A Paisa Primer: Vocabulary for Narcos

Whether you’re tuning in to Narcos or Patrón del Mal, you’ll hear plenty of Paisa words and expressions for violence, narcotrafficking, and daily life. Here’s a short list of some of the most common suspects of Paisa slang:

  • Medallo: Medellín
  • “Bien o qué?”/”Bien o no?”: common Paisa greeting, simply meaning “cómo estás?
  • “Qué más?”: another typical Paisa greeting, like “qué tal?” or “cómo estás?
  • Pues: In most other varieties of Spanish a filler word used similarly to English “well”, it’s also used as a filler in Medellín, but differently–the pues in Medellín often comes at the end of a sentence or phrase and is heavily emphasized.
  • Hágale pues: Perhaps the most Paisa of all Paisa phrases, it means something like “sure”, “go ahead”, or “why not?” The emphasis comes at the end–hágale PUEEES.
  • El parce(ro), el socio: friend
  • La comuna: The 16 Comunas of Medellín are the administrative divisions that carve up the city and often mark boundaries between different gang territories and socioeconomic strata. Frequently the phrase las comunas is used generally to refer to the poorer comunas on the outskirts of the city, where gang violence and narcotrafficking are most present.
  • Los combos: Local criminal bands that are usually loosely associated with one of the guerrilla movements or paramilitaries.
  • Acostar, arreglar, lamber, mascar, cascar, quiñar: to kill.
  • El sicario: assassin.
  • La finca: prison (literally the “farm”).
  • El muñeco: a person assassinated or violently murdered (literally a “doll”)

If you want to sound even more narco, check out Colombian Spanish’s Complete Guide to Spanish and Slang in Narcos and this summary of the Universidad de Antioquia’s study of parlache in the Colombian daily El Tiempo.

And to hear a true Paisa in context, here’s a mashup of Pablo saying many of these phrases and others in his unmistakable Paisa accent in Patrón del Mal:

It’s interesting that Medellín and Pablo Escobar have once again risen to fame at the same time as Colombia ends the half-century of war that ravaged Medellín, gave birth to the Medellín cartel, and created the peculiar Spanish that rose to narco-trafficking fame for all the wrong reasons.

If you’re still not quite comfortable watching the everyday shows that Colombians and other native speakers watch at home, Narcos is a fantastic show for Spanish with training wheels. But when you finish season 2 and find yourself itching for more, give Patrón del Mal a try. It’s also right there on Netflix, and it’s full of authentic cultural context that can teach you much about the Colombia of thirty years ago and the Spanish of today.

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About the Author: Jakob Gibbons

I write about language and travel on my blog . I often share my experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is my specialty.


  1. Isaiah:

    Este fue un buen puesto, me encantó la serie Narcos. Esto también me dio una mejor comprensión de la jerga.

    • Jakob Gibbons:

      @Isaiah Qué bien que ha sirvido para algo, gracias por decirlo! 🙂