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Questioning Latino Terms of Endearment

Submitted by on April 7, 2010 – 7:53 am10 Comments

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.

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  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tiki Tiki Blog. Tiki Tiki Blog said: On the Tiki Tiki: Questioning Latino Terms of Endearment http://goo.gl/fb/mZF5V [...]

  • Jo Anna says:

    Really excellent post, Melanie.

    I grew up in that exact same Latino family (only Mexican, and from South Texas). I have 7-year-old boy/girl twins, who I swore I would strive to raise exactly the same way to disprove all these ridiculous theories about “boys being boys” and “girls being princesses.” Needless to say, that plan didn’t quite turn out, but that’s a whole ‘nother story. Or is it? Because despite myself, I found I resorted to so many of the girly Spanglish terms of endearment for her, and so many of the macho little man terms for him. I didn’t mean to, but now wonder if calling her “muneca” has impacted just as much as if I had dressed her in pink lace and ribbons every single day. And when we call him “guatoso” or “contrecho,” but don’t intend for it to be name calling, and are sincerely saying it “with carino,” are we subconciously reinforcing that behavior?

    Am now realizing that I call my nephew “gordito” and my new baby cousin, “cachetes.” With love or not, I think this has really got to stop. The world is a cruel enough place to have to start your life off with a negative (albeit unintended) self image.
    .-= Jo Anna´s last blog ..WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE ON SPRING BREAK?? ALL WEEK?? WITH NO SCHOOL?!? AND WHO’S IDEA WAS THIS?!?!? =-.

  • Thanks Tiki Tiki for sharing my post with your readers. Can’t wait to hear if my family was the only one!
    .-= Melanie (ModernMami)´s last blog ..10 Places to Find Work at Home and Freelance Jobs =-.

  • Allena says:

    Once I started moving in Latino circles, I learned about “pansita” I think that’s how u spell it- to describe women with a little meat but still hot? At least that’s how I was taught. I would not like to be called that, personally, but I am a white girl, so there u go.

  • You are right, Melanie. To an outsider, Latino culture can seem brutal when it comes to terms of endearment and nicknames. As you noted though, the context of the terms are clearly not intended to hurt and kids pick up on this often before they even know there is sometimes another meaning to the term. Thanks for sharing an often-overlooked insight into the nuances of Latino culture.

  • Veronica says:

    To this insider, Latino culture is cruel.

    I wasn’t called “gordita” until I actually did start gaining weight. Being called that set me off to be hyper-aware of my body. I vividly remember the first time I was called that, I was asked why I was getting so “gordita.” I replied, “because it’s the winter and I’m not riding my bike all day long.” I couldn’t had been more than 9.

    And I’ve seen how being called “negrita” might not be considered bad, but at the same time seen the lighter skinned cousin get called “muneca.”

    And in the body-size obsessed culture we are raising our children in now, the hell if I’ll let anyone call my daughter “gordita.” I have a firm rule, no negative body language, not even in Spanish.

    Am I being too touchy? I’m just trying to provide a safe home for her to grow up in. She’ll get called fat eventually…I think everyone does who isn’t stick thin. I just don’t want it to be from someone she’s supposed to know is going to protect her.
    .-= Veronica´s last blog ..Authors should be treated the same as companies =-.

  • Carrie says:

    Veronica, I am with you in that it gets harder to explain that these things are said con amor, as our culture becomes more Americanized, as more of us live far from our families…

    I’m not into pointing out my daughter’s physical characteristics beyond telling her how strong she makes her body by eating well and exercising…I have memories of “nalgona,” “tetona,” “narizona,” — not all said to me, but even hearing that stuff is affecting.

    On the one hand, this Latino trait can be so affectionate and tender, and on the other, so harmful.

    We are colorful though.
    .-= Carrie´s last blog ..Dulce de Leche and Vlogging Latinas =-.

  • Sra. López says:

    This is something I struggled with as a “convert” to Latino culture.

    I grew up in an Anglo family, and if my parents had called me half the things that pass as “loving” in Latino culture, I think it might have crushed my little ol’ soul ;)

    As the new white girl in a Latino family, I had a lot to adjust to. Being called “gordita” drove me to tears. Finally my husband had to tell them that white people are more sensitive and asked them to stop saying it to me. LOL.

    I’ve gotten better at the “ribbing” that is dished out, but my feelings do get hurt at times. Our children on the other hand, take it completely in stride. They are called everything from “cabezón” to “alas de pollito”, and they laugh it off, or strike back with their own witty comment.

    I think a balance has to be sought. There are some comments I don’t allow, such as my Suegra bemoaning the fact that the boys got “ojos feos”, (brown), instead of my blue eyes — and we try to avoid comparing them directly as one being smarter, cuter, lighter skinned, etc. I think those sort of comments are not good for the children, but the rest of it is all in fun and perhaps it helps them grow a thicker skin so that the inevitable childhood bullying becomes like water off a ducks back to them.

    Being coddled as I was only makes for overly sensitive adults, and tú sabes, la vida es dura. It’s better to be prepared for it with a strong sense of resilience and humor.
    .-= Sra. López´s last blog ..Turn about is fair play? =-.

  • Celia says:

    Reading this is like being at home- it’s all so true! Growing up Mexicana we always “bagged on eachother” out of love. It was hard to not take “pecosa” and “huerita” to the mirror with you everyday. I grew up hating my freckles and fair skin because I felt like there’s more to me than what I look like (which was way different than my sisters.) But the friends I have that did not grow up with that Latino tough love, experienced the same hang-ups. My dear friend is still called “Red” even at her 34 years; and because of her hair. Her freckles are red. It seems that no matter the culture, you are an easy target as a kid and no one means any harm. I suppose it’s a way of developing a thick skin. But I’m starting to wonder if developing confidence is the better route.

  • [...] in them.  And I suppose waiting with a net in case they fall… This day…my baby soared.This past spring was our school talent show.  My daughter had been persistent in her desire to perf…entire school.  Can you imagine going through the horror of having all the kids in school laughing [...]

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