Words Will Never Hurt Me…

by Melanie Edwards on July 20, 2009 · 20 comments

in Parenting

Multicultural girls

There is this thing in the Latino culture where your parents, or other relatives, will often say “terms of endearment” that if were said in the English language would be down-right insulting and offensive.

Examples:

Spanish term/phrase
English Translation
Esta gordita! She’s fat!
Negrita Dark-skinned girl


SpanglishBaby
just posted this past week about this issue. It was part of their Ask an Expert series and a reader asked, “Will my daughter be hurt by “negative” Spanish terms of endearment?” She wrote:

“My four month old son is easily entertained and smiles instantly at one’s playful interactions. However, my 22 month old daughter will not be playful until she feels comfortable with someone…The other day he told her (in a playful manner) ‘tu hermano es más bonito que tú porque el se ríe’.”

Translation? “Your brother is prettier than you because he smiles.”

I’ve never really given any of this much thought, but could certainly relate to the reader’s remarks and question. I experienced this myself and have many times been called “gorda” and “negrita“. You somehow get used to it I guess. Did growing up hearing such comments affect me? I have no clue honestly. My lack of confidence at times may partly be because of that or a myriad of other things that have happened in my life. Who knows.

In reality, no harm is meant when people say such things. It’s always in a playful manner and said “with love.” Growing up around it and in that 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 not normally 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.

But, I think with our daughter, there will be a very distinct line between jokes and jokes that involve self-image. In today’s society, and with the culture she’s growing up in, it’s something my husband and I have to really consider.

My favorite part of the expert’s advice to the reader who posed the question:

“When your children are older and better able to understand what is being said, the terms will provide you with an excellent “teachable moment” for discussing cross-cultural communication, which is one of the 21st century skills necessary for success in the global economy!

Discussing cultural differences and how she should understand and even embrace many of them, is something that I strive to teach my daughter.

Any thoughts? Did you grow up hearing “terms of endearment” that were more hurtful than loving?

Photo credit: Loligallardo

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Li July 20, 2009 at 1:19 am

Growing up, I did hear similar terms of endearment you can be 5’4″,weigh 100 pounds , get some curves and family will say how you’ve gotten “gordita.” Growing up I was always la negrita as opposed to my sister who is very fair skinned. I think as a child, I didn’t understand it as a term of endearment, rather I got a complex because I felt like the outsider. As I got older and learned to understand where these types of terms stem from – LOVE – I overcame those negative feelings that are associated with hearing such terms. In fact, my boyfriend calls me La Negra (I have an olive complexion and he is very pale) and I never took it to mean anything negative . To the contrary, I love it, since my uncle who passed away was always referred to by my aunt as “Negro.” But I often wonder what others might think if they heard this comment and understood the translation to mean something racist.
Learning “cross-cultural” communication is very important.
Thanks for posting!

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2 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:05 pm

@Li, I’m sure others would be horrified if they didn’t already know the cultural value behind the terms. Which is why, I suppose, in the end it’s good to teach our kids the differences so they can better understand other people they’ll meet along the way.
P.S. My mom has an uncle we call “Negro” and lives/lived in NYC. I can’t remember if he’s still alive.

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3 Faiqa July 20, 2009 at 1:31 am

There are a lot of phrases that have to do with skin color (relative lightness or darkness), beauty, weight and even height in my heritage.

And yeah, I come from a family where people don’t know how NOT to make fun of each other. But, you know what? The physical stuff has always bothered me. My cousin has twins who have very dark skin and she calls them the equivalent of “darkie…” Honestly, it drives me crazy.

I’m very immersed in my heritage and committed to teaching my daughter its “ways”, but I simply can’t condone the aspects of humor that incorporate making jokes that promote rivalry, focus negatively on physical appearance or even poke fun at perceived intellect or mannerisms.

I think, *for me*, I do recognize the importance of intention, but that in no way diminishes my conviction when I find something to be simply wrong. It feels wrong, again *to me*, to draw attention to someone’s physicality in a negative way, even if it’s meant to be funny. It’s kind of like if sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny are highly present in my heritage, I’m not going to propagate that. What’s I believe to be wrong is wrong, and I won’t teach my daughter to tolerate or accept it just because it’s part of our heritage or in the name of cultural sensitivity.

I understand that’s a dramatic parallel, and not really the same thing… but it is, to me, kind of…

One also has to be particularly cautious when dealing with children of a sensitive temperament. In the end, it’s more important for me to be sensitive to the *feelings* of others rather than to aspects of my heritage that I find questionable.

I feel that one of the fundamental benefits of living in a global community is that we can keep what we like and leave what we don’t.

Wow. I had a lot to say, huh? Great topic, great post. :)

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4 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:10 pm

@Faiqa, All great points Faiqa. I’m glad to see that my culture is not the only one that has these “downfalls”. Glad because it just means that we all have something in common no matter how many differences there are. It seems you can always find *something* similar. But, I agree…there’s a difference between teaching our kids about our heritage/culture and their ways and just teaching them to be mean. I think there’s a lesson in all this…”sure, that’s the way it’s been in our culture, but we can be above that.”

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5 Mami2Mommy July 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I remember being called “cachetona” – chubby cheeks. And yes at times it did bother me. To this day I still cringe when I hear it! Love the topic and interested to hear what others say. Gracias!

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6 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:11 pm

@Mami2Mommy, aaah yes! How could I forget that one! I too was (and still am!) cachetona. So was my daughter. Where do these people come up with this stuff? LOL

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7 Boricua in Texas July 21, 2009 at 8:07 am

I was born 10 days late, so growing up, I was always reminded of what a big baby I was. My mom recalled fondly how the nurses at the hospital nicknamed me “la pelota.” It did not bother me.

What bothered me were comments made as I got older, some of which were made in good nature, but others maybe not so much. I was always pretty tall for my age, and I had a great uncle who kept telling me I should play basketball. It made me feel like a freak, but he meant well.

My brother’s long time girlfriend, however, teased me a lot when I was a teen, and I did not have the thick skin to take it. I had a crush on one of my brother’s friends, and she made fun of my expression every time I saw him. Right in front of him. “¡Mírale la boca!” Or she made fun of my big feet (size 11) and my nose (not small). It made me very self-conscious about my appearance.

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8 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:12 pm

@Boricua in Texas, I’m sure it did. So sorry you had to hear all that growing up. I’m not sure why the older folks don’t realize that what they’re saying can actually hurt someone.

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9 Ana Lilian July 21, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Thanks so much for following up on our post. We definitely thought it was an important issue to address and it would sure stir up some controversy. One of those concerns not everyone wants to speak out loud since it does involve so many deeply ingrained cultural issues.
I can´t even imagine my father remotely understanding why calling anyone “La Gorda” would be offensive.
Yes, we all grow used to these affectionate terms, but I just don’t believe they translate well to when children are at an age where they use these same terms to create nicknames for their peers and many of them are created to be offensive or as a put-down. Kids are just imitating what we do at an age where they’re not completely able to discern.
Anyway…this is definitely a very rich topic.
Thanks so much!

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10 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:13 pm

@Ana Lilian, You’re so right Ana. They *are* hearing all this in a prime age when they’re still learning what’s appropriate, what’s right, and what’s hurtful.

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11 Denene@MyBrownBaby July 30, 2009 at 9:47 am

It’s amazing how each culture has similar—if not the same—stories. In my culture (I’m African-American), this happened a lot, too… older family members would constantly call me “blacky” or “darkie” because my skin is dark brown, or call my hair “nappy” because it was (and still is) super curly and coarse, or “bubble butt” because I always had a large, well, you know. I grew up with such a complex, and it took me more than half my life to get past it and get comfortable in my own skin—you couldn’t pay me to sit in the sun, or be seen without pressed hair, and I would literally walk on my butt to make it get flat (my mom’s suggestion). Once I was able to see the light, I stopped all of that nonsense, but more importantly, I promised myself that I would never, EVER do that to my kids. I have two daughters now—one who is a rich Hershey’s chocolate with long, loose-curled hair, the other a rich mahogany with short coarse hair. They look nothing alike, but they are both stunning in their own way and for their own reasons, and I tell them this every day. They are perfect just the way they are. Unfortunately, I’m still surrounded by people (mostly family) that insists on making horrible comments about the difference in their skin color and hair texture and body shapes. But my kids have a mother who will correct them quick. I don’t play that mess.

Thank you for such a revealing post; I really enjoy your site, and it’s nice to be able to see that even though we come from different cultures/backgrounds, our HUMAN experience overlaps in many wonderful ways.

See you around!

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12 Melanie (Modern Mami) August 2, 2009 at 12:16 pm

@Denene@MyBrownBaby, I CANNOT believe your mom suggested you walk on your butt. That is incredibly sad. My mom used to brush my hair constantly when I was very little to try to get my curls out. The result? I now have the worst little curls in all the wrong places and a mix of straight/wavy hair in other spots. I promised myself that I would teach my daughter to love her curly hair and wear it well.

I can so sympathize with you and having to deal with the comments. Old folks just won’t ever learn, huh? ;)

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13 Karen October 23, 2009 at 10:24 am

I found your article very helpful. My husband is hispanic and his friends would comment on any weight I gained saying “Ya estas mas gorda, verdad.” I always took this negatively because the way I was raised you didn’t tell anyone that they were getting “Fat”. But many times my husband tried to explain to me that they didn’t mean any thing by it. Although to me it still hurt, Im glad I found this article it gave me better understanding.Thanks

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14 Melanie (Modern Mami) October 25, 2009 at 7:37 am

@Karen, I’m so glad that my post helped! I know it can be hard to understand if you’re coming from another culture. As your husband said, the don’t really mean anything by it.

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15 BoriIrish April 13, 2010 at 6:58 pm

I’m a little late in finding your blog, but it’s excellent! Anyway, I’m half Puerto Rican and half Irish. All my life my PR family made fun of me for being *too* light skinned. My son is really fair like me, and they’re constantly telling me to throw him in the sun. Conversely, four years later, my Mexican mother-in-law still can’t get over how “white and beautiful” my son is. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

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16 BoriIrish April 13, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I'm a little late in finding your blog, but it's excellent! Anyway, I'm half Puerto Rican and half Irish. All my life my PR family made fun of me for being *too* light skinned. My son is really fair like me, and they're constantly telling me to throw him in the sun. Conversely, four years later, my Mexican mother-in-law still can't get over how “white and beautiful” my son is. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

Reply

17 BoriIrish April 13, 2010 at 2:58 pm

I'm a little late in finding your blog, but it's excellent! Anyway, I'm half Puerto Rican and half Irish. All my life my PR family made fun of me for being *too* light skinned. My son is really fair like me, and they're constantly telling me to throw him in the sun. Conversely, four years later, my Mexican mother-in-law still can't get over how “white and beautiful” my son is. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

Reply

18 Generac Generator September 28, 2010 at 1:39 am

Thx for this usefult article, see the Generac Generator

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