Speaking of Bichos
In American English there are a hundred names for small, unwelcome creatures. Generally, each of these terms has a specific application. Etymology and entomology aside, “termite” sounds like something that needs to be exterminated; “bug,” although it resembles “hug,” clearly contains the word “ugh.” A “critter,” meanwhile, sounds like something darting, or skittering, from one dark place inside your house to another. This term in particular refers to a small animal or creature, undefined but most likely a vertebrate. Where I’m from, you wouldn’t say “critter” to describe a bug or vice versa.
In Latin American Spanish, however, there exists a word that appears to combine most of these descriptors into a single term: A bicho is any sort of unwanted beast imaginable, as I learned on a warm summer day in the rural outskirts of Buenos Aires. Norma, a woman whose family I was living with, identified a bicho and told me in perfect porteño: –¡Che, sacAlo a la cAshay! She wanted it thrown into the street because, being a bicho, it had no business in her yard.
Norma and Juan Vera were Argentine ex-hippies living in Berazategui, on the train line from Buenos Aires to La Plata. They had been there since the 1980s, when Juan parked his old school bus in the yard and gave up his dream of touring the country for a career in photojournalism. Norma kept house and earned extra money baking and decorating cakes, and was also taking philosophy classes at the Universidad Nacional de La Plata.
Their eclectic professional pursuits may help explain why they let a 23-year-old aspiring human rights worker cum photographer live in their attic. I wasn’t much help around the house, unfortunately, and spent my days in their laundry room learning to develop politicized photos of the type of activism that was widespread after the Argentine peso crashed in late 2001.
That Norma tolerated me at all was a tribute to her patience. Despite my post-college hubris, I think I was able to sense that I wasn’t pulling my weight, and on the afternoon that she told me to deal with the bicho I puffed up a bit, imagining a spider she couldn’t handle, and told her it was as good as done.
According to the Oxford Spanish Dictionary, a bicho is first and foremost an “insect,” “bug,” or “creepy-crawly,” which was my general understanding of the term during my first eight months in Argentina. When I went outside to execute my pest-control duties, I posted a sharp eye for any unusual insects – a colorful spider, a big beetle, something that Norma might have been afraid to go near. What I found was neither spider nor beetle, nor bicho, as far as I was concerned, but more along the lines of “chicken.”
Laying wings and legs akimbo on the ground next to the front tire of Juan’s bus was a featherless, pink, few-week-old chicken with its beak open and eyes bulging from its small head. After looking around for any sign of an owner, I knelt next to it and tried to pick it up with my thumb and forefinger. It kicked, and I jumped.
After my heart rate slowed to normal, I sat down and tried to figure out what to do with a half-dead, but still very much not-dead, baby chicken. Throwing an animal into the street to finish dying didn’t seem like the right thing to do, and putting it out of its misery was a last resort, so I lifted it gently, kicking and jerking, onto a paper plate and walked with it five blocks to the conveniently located veterinarian’s office.
The vet must have thought it was strange that I was willing to pay as much as I did for antibiotics for Normito, as I had taken to calling the bird, but she administered them and explained to me that if he hadn’t recovered by morning then he was more than just sick. He could have head trauma, she explained.
I took him home and put him to bed in the laundry shed behind the house, where he would stay warm overnight.
Norma about had a fit when I told her I paid for medicine for the bird. I joked that it was her fault he was sick and that that was why I had christened him with her name. “Well, have fun dealing with your pet chicken tomorrow,” she said, smirking.
Normito never recovered, and my dream of a having a pet chicken never materialized. The next day I realized I needed to put him down, despite lacking the tools to do a proper job. I learned many things about bichos that day, including that the word applies to more than just insects, that sometimes it’s best not to meddle, and that stepping on a cockroach is much easier than cutting off the head of a chicken with a shovel.