Does 'Sí, Se Puede' Mean 'Yes, We Can'?

More About a Common Rallying Cry Used in Spanish

Sí se puede
"Si se puede" can be loosely translated as "Yes, we can" or somewhat less loosely as "It certainly can be.". Jose Mesa/Creative Commons.

Sí, se puede is a common rallying cry heard at pro-immigration events across the United States, and it is often been used at other political events. Most of the news media have translated the phrase as meaning "Yes, we can" — even though there's no "we" verb form in the slogan.

The phrase gained an uptick in popularity in both English and Spanish when "Yes, we can," was adopted as the primary slogan used by the Obama presidential campaign leading up to President Obama's election in 2008 and reelection in 2012.

History of the Phrase

Sí, se puede is the motto of the United Farm Workers, a labor union for farmworkers in the United States. The phrase was the rallying cry attributed in 1972 to Mexican-American farm worker Cesar Chavez, an American labor leader and civil rights activist. He popularized the cry during a 24-day hunger strike protesting farm labor laws in Phoenix, Ariz. that restricted laborers rights. In 1962, Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association. The association later became known as the United Farm Workers.

Is the Usual Translation of Sí, Se Puede Accurate?

Is "Yes, we can" an accurate translation? Yes and no.

Since there's no plural verb nor a first-person verb in that sentence, the typical way of saying "we can" would be podemos, from the verb poder.

So "Yes, we can" is not a literal translation of sí, se puede. In fact, we do not have a good literal translation of the phrase.

clearly means "yes," but se puede is problematic. "It can" comes close to its literal meaning but leaves out the vague sense of emphasis and completion that se provides here.

So just what does se puede mean? Out of context, it would be translated loosely as "it can be done." But context matters, and as part of a group chant, the translation of "yes, we can" is entirely appropriate.

Se puede is a phrase of empowerment (puede is a close cousin of el poder, a noun meaning "power"), and "we can" conveys that thought well even if not a literal equivalent.

Other Places the Phrase Has Been Used

Use of "Sí, se puede" has spread beyond its original context. Some other examples:

  • Sí Se Puede! (note the lack of an opening exclamation point) was the title of an album by the rock group Los Lobos. Proceeds from album sales were to the United Farm Workers.
  • Sí Se Puede has been used as a slogan for the Colorado-based "Law School ... Yes We Can" program, which encourages students from that state to consider a legal career.
  • ¡Sí, se puede! is the Spanish title of a 2002 bilingual book about a fictional janitors' strike.
  • The slogan has been used as a chant at sport events featuring Spanish-speaking athletes.
  • Belisario Betancur, president of Colombia from 1982 to 1986, used the slogan in his campaign.
  • A political coalition in Spain used the slogan "Unidos sí se puede" during the 2016 elections. Unidos means "united."
  • The airline Aeromexico faced legal challenges when it used the phrase "con Aeroméxico sí se puede" in its advertising. (Con is a preposition usually meaning "with."

Principles of Translation

Some of the best advice for translating to and from English and Spanish is to translate for meaning rather than to translate words.

Review the principles of translation; usually, there is not much difference between the two approaches.