A few days ago I heard a friend complaining about how racist and rude the nicknames used by the Mexican foreign exchange students at my school were. They were probably racist, yes, but rude? To the outsider with colonizer’s eyes they may have been rude, but did the other students from abroad feel this way?
One of the most endearing things about Latin America are the nicknames. Listening to the aliases exchanged between couples, friends, and family members can come as a shock to Western ears. Although they are meant to be affectionate, they often sound quite harsh. There is nothing us Westerners fear more than cold truth. Between couples, phrases such as “hola, mi gordita” (“hello, my fatty”) are often thrown around without any malicious intention. Before the politically-correct Norteamericano can lecture about the ideas of respect and being body positive, someone responds with a giggle and an equally startling comment.
Body size is not the only source of influence for Latin American nicknames. Age, hair, skin, eye color, even something like having big lips or a big nose can yield to names focusing on that discrepancy. Shorter people are sometimes called, “Frijol” or ”bean,” while people with larger ears may be called, “mono” or “monkey.” Whether making fun of the way you walk or your abnormally long arms, these nicknames are not meant to harm, but are terms of endearment meant to bring people closer together. They are part of the reason there is no direct translation for the word “awkward” in Spanish, as familiarity and warmth often replace this terrible feeling.
When I was in Ecuador I had the honor of receiving several nicknames. Among these were “nutria” or otter (because I looked like an innocent sea creature), “sambo,” the word for a person with curly hair like mine, and my personal favorite, “tía de color.” This nickname came about one day while watching the Olympic opening ceremony. My 13-year-old host brother, Jonathan, noticed how many darker-skinned people were holding their country’s flag. It seemed like most of the countries in the world were represented by black men and women, yet in the Americas, in a normal setting, they are glanced over, thought of as numbers–not respected for being a functioning part of society. Although a large portion of the world’s best athletes from Africa, Europe, Australia, South America, and North America are black, the United States joins the Americas with racism that targets all minorities.
Jonathan asked me if I had ever been friends with a black person. I laughed and stared down at my feet that, because of the hot Andean sun, were now the color of my dad’s skin. My partner, Mia, who had seen a picture of my father I showed her earlier that week laughed too, before exclaiming to my entire host-family that my dad is black. And that is when “tía de color” started. “Tía,” being slang for friend, and “de color,” pertaining to someone black. My father is a mulatto/taino from Puerto Rico, but his dark skin was good enough for them, so as far as my Ecuadorian family knows, I am black. I was the first cool black person they had met, the first black person they had approached, their first black friend.
Identifying people with their body size or physical appearance can be seen as marginalizing humans, labeling them and continuing to see them as nothing more than a hair texture or skin color, but there is something more to these nicknames than bigotry. What is pertinent to Latin American culture may be frowned upon in ours; people from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean use light, made-up names to add laughter, relaxation, and familiarity into their lives.
Identifying people with their ethnicities is racist, I’m not denying that, but when we really step back and look at our own culture, the “developed” society of the USA, it becomes obvious that we are no kinder. Our self-righteousness often clouds the fact that there is a much deeper sense of slavery in our country towards all humans. We may no longer tolerate the word “nigger” in formal situations, let our children point their fingers at people with disabilities, nor approve of demeaning jokes about women in the workplace, but we continue to impose racist laws in the south of our country, continue to complain about affirmative action, continue to fill jails with more than 60% blacks. Racism is racism in all forms, whether it is blatant or not. It may even be more harmful to oppress individuals through silent forms such as institutional oppression or micro-aggressions. Before blaming other cultures for marginalizing humans in such a palpable way, we should instead take the opportunities to reflect on our own speech and actions and the hidden manifestations of the injustices in our country.
by Luna Olavarria Gallegos