Intermediate and advanced students of Spanish learn that the word “hubiera” is used as the past subjunctive and often appears in conditional sentences such as “Si hubiera sabido, no habría ido” (If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone)***. Confusion comes, however, when one hears a sentence such as “Si hubiera sabido, no hubiera ido”, a relatively common construction in parts of Latin America. While this isn’t how grammar books present conditional sentences, it is technically correct to use “hubiera” instead of “habría” in many instances. Today, I’m going to share a number of examples from my notes as to how “hubiera” can be used in non-textbook ways. Most of these examples are from Mexican speech, but they apply to many areas of the Spanish-speaking world outside of Spain (where “habría” reigns and “hubiera” is often rendered “hubiese”):
- Me hacen preguntas que nunca me las hubiera esperado. = They ask me questions I never would have expected.
- Nunca me imaginé que José Miguel hubiera sido sacerdote. = I never imagined that José Miguel would be a priest.
- Hubiera preferido morirme antes de escuchar eso. = I would have preferred to die before hearing that.
- Vine solo por ti… de lo contrario hubiera lanzado patadas y rasguñas para impedir que llegáramos aquí. = I only came because of you… otherwise I would have kicked and scratched to avoid us coming here.
- Estuve pensando en que si se pudiera regresar el tiempo quizá hubiera tomado otras decisions. = I was thinking that if time could be reversed, perhaps I would have made other decisions.
- Me tiró al suelo y me hubiera ahorcado si los otros no lo apartan* de mí.
- No dejo de pensar en lo que hubiera pasado si tú y Jerónimo no llegan* a tiempo. = I can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if you and Jerónimo hadn’t arrived in time.
(*Correct grammar would also use the past subjunctive in the second clause of these sentences: “hubieran apartado”, “hubieran llegado”… but these examples reflect actual speech).
In each of the above examples, the word hubiera is used as a substitute for habría. These sentences would be perfectly correct, and many would argue more correct, if habría were used instead.
“Hubiera” also has another use and, to the extent I can tell, this one is largely limited to Mexico. It means “should have” in the following examples:
- ¿Estuviste en la ciudad? Me hubieras dicho para vernos. = You were in the city? You should have told me so we could meet up.
- No le hubieran dicho de la fiesta. Ahora ya no es sorpresa. = You all shouldn’t have told him about the party. Now it’s not a surprise.
- No te hubiera molestado. = I shouldn’t have bothered you.
- Hubiera ido allí. = I should have gone there.
The latter example would likely be said “Debí haber ido allí” in more conventional Spanish, but in Mexico it’s especially common to use “hubiera” for this purpose. Whether this is considered grammatically correct, I cannot say, but if your travels are outside of that country you’ll probably want to stick with “deber” to convey the idea of “should”. I’ll leave that as the subject of a future post.
For a musical example of how “hubiera” is used in colloquial speech, check out this beautiful song by Carlos Rivera: “El hubiera no existe“.
***If you’re not familiar with the past subjunctive, you’ll want to read up on it before digesting this post. Check out the tutorial at this site: https://studyspanish.com/grammar/lessons/imperfect-subjunctive.