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Batatas or Camotes? Or What is a Latino?

Submitted by on November 27, 2011 – 2:09 pm21 Comments

Girls with Heads Together Hugging by Spirit-Fire

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 In fact, the outdated Latino/Hispanic label has succeeded in performing a neat trick; it has “minoritize” individuals of Spanish speaking heritage and has engendered polarized views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?


Share, por favor!


  • It is really funny how sometimes we get confused with our own hispanic culture. About a month ago, I wrote a piece on Cambur, Platano o Guineo… it is a fruit… but for example:

    In some of Latinoamerica countries banana is a banano & banana or bananita is a hard candy you get from the “bodega.

    In Cuba is platano, but with that sweetness and texture it would be impossible for the dominicanos to make their famous mangu for breakfast. Dominicans love Platanos (Green Plantains)

    A banana is also used as a recreational boat. ;)

    At the end the only thing I am sure of is that Its yellow, popular and yummy… its soft, sweet and can be eaten even as bread.

  • Love this post! And I can definitely relate. Growing up in a Spanish-only home with my Mexican grandparents, I was very fluent in Spanish from a very young age. BUT…I didn’t know any Mexican slang. (I knew the “bad” words, but that’s it!) So, when talking with my Spanish speaking boyfriend, whom I later married, I used the slang I picked up from watching telenovelas. Whenever I wanted to say “That’s so cool!”, I’d say “Que chevere!”, which only garnered strange looks from my Mexican boyfriend. After a few dates, he asked me why I kept saying “Que chevere” and what it meant. I of course was shocked and couldn’t believe that he, being born and raised in Mexico, had no clue what “chevere” meant. I now know that in Mexico, we use “Que padre!” “Que suave!” or “Que chido!” :P

  • Jennifer says:

    Growing up with a Mexican mother and grandmother and a Peruvian father, I learned fast that there were usually at least 3 names for everything…the english (American) name, the Mexican name and a Peruvian name. Candy, dulce, caramelo. Ice Cream, nieve, helado. Cake, pastel, torta. Yes, and piloncillo was always funny to discuss in our household. Good times!

  • there are so many things my MIL says that make my mouth drop, because to me they are vulgar words. but in her parts, they are not.

    my 89-year-old grandma recently visited us for two months (well, stayed with my mom) and i was reminded of so many words in spanish we used growing up that, over time, i shed for a replacement spanish word. she calls the stroller ‘el bogecito’ which i like a lot.

  • Ericka says:

    I recently had a similar conversation with a friend about the word gis (chalk). Some people call it tiza…never in my life had we hear of each other’s words and we are both from Mexico. I loved your post. I say camote. :)

  • Lisa Renata says:

    I have to say I LOVE this article!

    I love getting together with spanish speaking friends of different origins and comparing notes.

    Now to answer your question.

    What do I prefer Latina or Hispanic? Growing up in and near the LA area, Latina was the term to use, so I was use to it. I justified it by thinking- all (Latino’s) language is derived from the Latin. Right? But I still wasn’t too sure about the term. Then I moved to the east coast where the term Hispanic is used to describe, well, me. Personally when I think of Hispanic, I think of someone of Spanish decent (directly from Spain) and although I know many of us have some sort of ancestral connection to Spain, I don’t see myself as Hispanic. I see myself as being part of Latinoamerica. Do I make any sense? (Probablemente no, yo sola me entiendo. Ja!)

  • I have been watching maybe a bit too many telenovelas. It’s research of course. One of the reasons I am hooked is all the words they use that have never heard. One of my new favorites is reactionar. I need to find a way to drop the word reactionar into a casual conversation. I think the more we can enjoy versus use our differences to separate the better. great post!

  • Such a great post! It’s very interesting how we are all alike but so different! I love that everyone has there own flavor, even if from the same country.

  • Even within each Latin American country there’s such incredible diversity! Take Peru for example. Would you consider an Andean village, an Amazonian tribe, and a city person for Lima, all to be part of the same culture. I think Andean culture and Amazonian culture are different cultures altogether.

  • Always ending with the “chazz”: my parents say “sweet potato” with a Cuban accent! What is Hispanic or Latino? This is a question that I’ve been trying to answer since I wrote my senior essay in undergrad, through my masters, PHD, and now in my blog. In a piece I wrote called “Our America,” I argue that Simon Bolívar’s dream of a united, one America, failed as he “George Washington’ed” through upper South America, liberating countries from Spain’s colonial rule. However, in 21st C. U.S., through immigration, gov’t bureaucracy, sped up by the connectivity of technology and social media, we are Latino/Hispanic, as if we–Colombians, Cubans, Uruguayos, were one. Heck, just in Colombia, my parents motherland, an abyss separate costeños from Bogotanos. Imagine country to country! I think you’re onto something when you say, what really unites us is that we all have one Latin mami…

  • [...] It looks like this is an issue that a lot of people struggle with, here’s a neat post and discussion on the Tiki Tiki Blog about this subject from a Latina/Hispanic perspective. [...]

  • Monica says:

    Indeed, a lot of people struggle with this definitions, including myself, a non-Spanish speaking Latina. Although I speak Portuguese and I’m from Brazil, I consider myself a Latina not only because Brazil is part of Latin America, but because I believe we share common values, history and political aspirations. Many Brazilians don’t think like me, mostly because of the language. But if even among Spanish speakers there are many differences in vocabulary, Portuguese is not that far from Spanish that we cannot join the Latinos as a minority group in the US.

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