Friday, September 7, 2007

Just call her "La Gorda"

"Maitsey", "Maitingles", "Maitsits". . . . our family has a million names for little Maite, and the list is forever getting longer. If you´re not a family member, and not familiar with all of our pet names, you can just call her "La gorda". (Fat girl). None of us will take offense at this; babies are often referred to as "La Gorda" or "El Gordo" (for a boy). Believe me, it sounds much cuter in Spanish.

Spanish speakers have a terrific propensity for nicknames. Common nicknames are: "Negro" (blackie) if you´re dark skinned; "Turco" (Turk) if your origins are from anywhere in the middle East (Arab of any kind, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, etc.); "Chino", (Chinese) if your descendents are from any country in the far East, or even if your eyes have a more Asian shape; "flaco" (skinny) if you are particulary thin, (or not. Can be used generically). "Enano" means midget, and is usually used for small children. Luis used that one on Lucas. If you are from the U.S. you will be referred to as a "Yankee". Luis had a friend from Georgia who took great offense at this. If you come from Italy you will be dubbed "Tano", and if from Spain, you are a "Gallego".

The nickname "gordo" (fatty) is common as well, but it is used in an affectionate way, by family, and very close friends. It doesn't necessarily mean you are chunky, either. Luis tried it on me once, but my cultural sensitivity wasn't quite up to it. ("It doesn't mean you're fat", Luis argued. "It's just a affectionate name." "Fine", I responded, "then why not call me "flaca" (skinny) if its all the same?") The use of "gorda", unlike many other nicknames, can be offensive, depending on who says it and way it's said. In other words: use it with extreme care.

On a more generic level, you can, and will be referred to, at any given time, "Mama", "madre" o "comadre" if you are female. It has nothing to do with your age, or if you are in fact a mother. Maite is frequently referred to as "Mama" or "Mami" and Lucas gets "Papa" or "Papi". Ruben, Luis' father, uses "viejo" (old man) indiscriminately; it's his favorite name for Lucas.

What is it about Latinos and their nicknames? In the U.S. we are so careful not to offend, lest anyone thinks we are a racist, or just a plain jerk. Imagine, going around in the U.S., referring to people as fatso, midget, or blackie . . everyone would hate you. I always try to say things correctly, in the English speaking world, so here in Latin America I felt, initially, a mixture of amusement/surprise/horror at the stuff I´d hear. Don´t people have pyscological issues when they go through their whole life being called "fat boy" even if it's said lovingly? I mean, isn´t it degrading in some way to be called "blackie" ? I have to keep my North American feminist conciousness in check when I hear important women referred to as "chicas" (girls) or "minas" (chicks). Will Christina Fernandez, the likely winner of the upcoming elections, be referred to as a "girl president"?

I´ve been asking around, and no one seems too concerned about any of this. Rather, people here seem to pay more attention to the way the nickname is said, the context, and who is saying it. Issues of race are not as sharp and as debated as they are in the U.S., and feminism, as I know it, hasn't seeped too much into the Spanish language.

So be it. I am an observer, not a judge. And I'm the first one to recognize the fun of a nickname; just ask Lukeño and Maitena. I've got to go now. "La gorda" and "El enano" are calling for their "Yankee" mother.


Alejandro said...

Funny post!

It's great to see my old culture through the fresh eyes of a foreign observer. It's true that context is everything. "Yanqui" (yankee) can be used in an offensive or derogatory way. I remember I was shocked and did take offense when my brothers called me "yanqui" to tease me just because I was living in the US, or if I temporarily used a construction that was suspiciously an anglophone translation like "aplicar para un trabajo." "Negro" (also "grone") can also be very offensive - people use it to refer to low class Bolivian or Paraguayan day laborers - or even Chileans, probably more so in Neuquen, where there are many. So, be careful how you use it!

Miss you guys. besos
ale, "el negro"

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