This essay is about a couple of conversations I recently overheard on a message board that have left me thinking about how we, people of Latino/Hispanic origin, are similar, but not.
A group of women with various Latin-American roots were discussing words used for sweet potato in their home countries and culture, and the other conversation was about “piloncillo” (unrefined whole cane sugar) and the alternative and slang words used for it, which brought up other slang words from other Latin-American countries that could get the innocent and unawares in trouble.
After those conversations, I was left thinking that the overall terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” don’t really describe us, overall. They are generic and they work because it helps non-Latinos get that we’re from a particular Spanish-speaking tribe. But, within the tribe there is a richness of culture, and a diversity of people and tradition. I use it for convenience and because it’s popular, to be sure.
But, just what is the definition of an Hispanic? What’s an Hispanic-American? What really is Latino culture? How can those umbrella words cover us all when we have such specific cultures within our native, or ancestral countries?
The literary magazine, PHATI’TUDE! is seeking writers to address the issue for an edition titled ¿What’s in a Nombre? Writing Latin@ Identity in America. From the submissions information:
Although Spanish speaking people around the world are often grouped under the singular terms “Latino” or “Hispanic,” there exists great diversity among these cultures with regard to race, class, country of origin, accent, and cultural distinctiveness. They may be immigrants or born in the United States; may be fair-skinned or dark-skinned, or have cultural roots in the European, Native American, African or Asian communities.
They may speak Spanish, English, be bilingual, speak “Spanglish” or not speak Spanish at all. In fact, the outdated Latino/Hispanic label has succeeded in performing a neat trick; it has “minoritize” individuals of Spanish speaking heritage and has engendered polarized views in the media of such communities.”
This question of identity, of specifics in culture, are highlighted for me in the following recent online conversations about piloncillo (a Mexican dark sugar) and batatas, camotes and boniatos.
The more I hang out with people who have roots in other Latin countries, the more I learn about other cultures, other traditions, other foods. I love the history my Mexican-American and chicana friends have shared. I love the joy of life my Colombian friends show me. I love the fresh foods of Peru. I am in love with the elegance of my Venezuelan friends. I love the sweets recipes shared by friends from Argentina and the accents of my Dominican friends.
And, the more I know them, the more I feel I teach people about my own Cuban culture — like we don’t eat chiles, for example, and we’re not all loud and hot-to-trot! (Growing up in Miami in the ‘70s, I thought everyone was either Cuban, or not. The message of diversity within Latino culture never penetrated until I was an adult and I revel in it now.)
We do have great commonalities, to be sure. But sometimes I think the most enduring commonality we as people of Hispanic Heritage have is this: We all have Latin Mothers.
Two Conversations on Slang and Diversity
What’s a Piloncillo?
In the first highlighted conversation, the players are Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Cuban, and non-Latina American.
The question: “What’s piloncillo?”
An answer comes back that it’s a piece of sugar, found in Hispanic markets.
And another chimes in to say that in Mexico, piloncillo also is called Dulce Macho.
And then a warning is offered by another: Just don’t call it “panocha.” That’s also slang for lady-parts.
“If you googled it and found the different words that are used, you might have seen that because it’s a common one used in Latin America outside of Mexico, and you never know when you walk into a Mexisuper in the US if you’re going to need to use synonyms to describe something you are looking for. Trust me, I know people this has happened to!”
And someone else comes back and says: Panocha is also flatbread.
Then, a warning about what not to say in South Florida: “Don’t comment on the ripeness of the papayas.”
And finally, advice for the Mexican in Argentina: Ask for dulce de leche, not cajeta.
Que tricky it is!
Batata, Camote, Boniato?
Second conversation: What’s the correct word for sweet potato? Batata, camote, boniato?
The players are non-Latina American, Mexican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Costa Rican, Venezuelan.
Turns out, batata, camote, boniato, are all correct, according to the group because it depends on where you are from.
In Puerto Rico, it’s batata or batata mameya.
In Costa Rica it is camote.
In Venezuela, they use batata for sweet potato.
In Mexico, camote wins.
The Dominicans call it batata.
Cubans use the word boniato, someone else said. (Note from Carrie: My parents just call it “Sweet Potato with a Cuban Accent…)
Latino Culture Y Tu?
Do you use the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” comfortably?
And, if we don’t use Latino or Hispanic, what the heck do we use?
Have you gotten in trouble using the wrong Spanish word at the very wrong time?