Questioning Latino Terms of Endearment
I love being a Latina. I love our culture and all that comes with it. But, there is this thing in the Latino culture where your parents, or other relatives, will often say “terms of endearment” that if said in the English language would be down-right insulting and offensive.
When they say “Esta gordita!” they don’t really mean “She’s fat!” – though that’s the translation. Same goes for “negrita” which translates to “dark-skinned girl.”
They’re all meant to be loving terms. Es un poco raro, I know.
The blog, SpanglishBaby, has a wonderful “Ask an Expert” series and recently a reader asked, “Will my daughter be hurt by “negative” Spanish terms of endearment?” The woman was unhappy about the grandpa telling her child a sibling was prettier because he smiled more. He called the unsmiling 22-month-old an “uraña.” The expert, Lori Langer de Ramirez, wrote:
“In English it is not customary to call people by nicknames that call out their salient physical features – unless you are doing so in a teasing way – or worse – as a means of hurting someone’s feelings. In the Spanish-speaking world, however, it is common to hear these words being used as terms of endearment.”
Now, I’m no stranger to such “loving” comments, but since I became a mother, to even think of someone telling my daughter that a sibling is prettier, just makes my skin crawl. Especially at such a young age, before a child can interpret the meaning behind the statement or even decipher the tone!
While I had never really given any of this much thought, I can certainly relate to the question. Growing up, I experienced this myself and have many times been called “gorda” and “negrita.” You somehow get used to it, I guess. I’m not sure at which point I realized that it wasn’t intended to be harmful or derogatory. I’m sure my Mami reassured me many times by saying, “Es de cariño.”
We have a funny way of showing nuestro amor.
Did growing up hearing those comments affect me? I have no clue, honestly. My level of confidence – or lack of it – may partly be because of these terms or perhaps because of many other things that have happened in my life. No se.
The truth is that no harm is meant when your familia says such things. It’s always in a playful manner and said “with love.” Growing up around it, and in the Latino culture, you know that to be true. But, now that I have a daughter and enough negative images out there to compete with, I’m certainly more aware of how hearing such things could cause some harm.
I’m normally not one to be overly cautious of how I say things. My husband, his family, my family, and our friends, all pretty much joke in the same manner and don’t hold back. It’s just known that you have to take the jokes to survive in our circle. In fact, if we don’t make fun of you, we probably don’t like you. This probably seems backwards, but the fact is that energy is spent on those we care for.
I think with our daughter, though, there will be a very distinct line between jokes and jokes that involve self-image. In today’s society, and with the multiple cultures she’s growing up in, it’s something my husband and I have to really consider.
Langer de Ramirez, the SpanglishBaby expert, added in her response:
“…the terms will provide you with an excellent ‘teachable moment’ for discussing cross-cultural communication, which is one of the 21st century skills…”
We love to talk with our 4-year-old about cultural differences and how she should understand and even embrace many of them. It’s something we strive to teach our daughter.
You can already hear our baby girl say, “Did you know I’m from three countries? Puerto Rico from my mom, Trinidad from my dad, and the United States, where I was born.” I think we’re on the right track.
Did you grow up hearing cariñitos, “terms of endearment” that were more hurtful than loving? Is this only a crazy Latino thing?
Melanie Edwards is a ModernMami™. As a working mother, she provides an honest depiction of the everyday humor and drama in the life of today’s wife, mother and woman from a Latina perspective. She blogs regularly about the special concerns faced by working mothers. Melanie, originally from Puerto Rico, has been married seven years and has a 4-year-old daughter. You also can find Melanie on Twitter.