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My SoCal Life: 11 words that changed a life

Illustration by Alexia Lozano Illustration by Alexia Lozano

Ayyyyyyy!” Five-year-old Alex was howling. Someone had just slammed a car door on her finger. It was 2002, and my boyfriend, Julian, his sisters Julie and Alex, and I had just parked, on our way to a movie at El Capitan Theatre. Then Julie rubbed Alex’s throbbing finger and chanted, “Sana, sana, colita de rana. Si no sanas hoy, sanarás mañana.”

I’m a radio journalist who’d come west in 2000 to work at KPCC, and I was still reveling in Southern California’s mishmash of peoples, cultures, and languages. Hearing sana, sana, my ears pricked up: “What does that mean?”

Julian, a Mexican American who speaks fluent Spanish, told me it means “Heal, heal, little tail of frog. If you don’t heal today, you’ll heal tomorrow.” And that in Spain and Latin America, madres say this to their injured niños to make them feel better.

What a concept! The only phrase Anglo moms have in common is “Close the fridge!” (I’ve since learned that Germans say little Dieter’s owie will heal after “3 days of rain and 3 days of snow,” and that Russians say, “Let the cat hurt, let the dog hurt, and let Natasha heal.”)

I made Julian dictate sana sana to me, and as I memorized it, I realized it’s really an 11-word Spanish 101 class, including easy-to-remember verb conjugations, a slang word for “butt,” a rolled r, the other si, and the indispensable “today” and “tomorrow.”

Learning sana sana reminded me how, before my 1999 trip to Germany, a friend said, “You need an icebreaker.” So he taught me a joke, with the setup in English and the punch line in German. And wherever I went, Germans found “Aber Herr Professor, Fisch mit Messer?” (“But Professor, fish with a knife?!”) a hilarious eisbrecher. Similarly, here in SoCal, sana sana is a great rompehielo.

At restaurants, Julian usually converses in Spanish with Latin servers. Then, the server asks if I speak Spanish. “Un poquito,” I’ll often say, “but I know something you don’t think I know.”  Then I bust out sana sana. From Conrad’s and Valentino to La Casita Mexicana and The Crab Cooker, the response is always a big smile. I’ve broken the ice.

To me, ordering food in Spanish or greeting your Spanish-speaking neighbor with, “Hola, señora. Pase un buen día” is a common courtesy. But I think sana sana goes much deeper. In just a few words, it evokes warm memories of childhood, home, mom, and grandma. It’s a cultural and linguistic touchstone that 99% of Latinos know—and 99% of Anglos don’t. It also says, “I’m willing to learn.”

In 22 years of exploring my new hometown, I’ve found that these are the kinds of details that make life richer. On that day so many years ago, in a parking lot in Hollywood, Julian, who’s now my husband, gave me the keys to the city—keys that have helped me open a thousand doors.

John Rabe is the production and promotions director at KPCC. He previously hosted the radio show Off-Ramp.

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