Bilingual is Better

Photo by Vincent

Photo by Vincent

Today’s question to Ask an Expert was sent by a SpanglishBaby reader that has asked to remain anonymous to avoid any family conflict.  We really appreciate her writing to us about her concern since we can bet its cultural relevance will resonate with many.

Lori Langer de Ramirez is the expert on our panel whose areas of research and curriculum development are multicultural and diversity education, folktales in the language classroom and technology in language teaching. We feel her experience in  language and cultural assimilation perfectly qualify her to address this concern. If you want to learn more about Lori please click here to read her previous entries and visit her interactive website, MisCositas.

Will my daughter be hurt by negative Spanish terms of endearment?

“My question is more culturally related than solely language related: I think it’s very unfortunate that in our Latino culture, it seems acceptable for adults to talk negatively or in a degrading way to children. For example, calling children gordito, feo, panzón, etc. ‘pero de cariño’.

I know that a lot of our older generation Latino adults are set in their ways and do not have harmful intentions when they talk like this to their little ones, but it’s such a shame because ultimately our children’s self-esteem ends up being negatively affected, and they might even develop hatred towards their Latino heritage.

My current personal experience: 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. My father-in-law always comments to her that she is ‘uraña’. The other day he told her (in a playful manner) ‘tu hermano es más bonito que tú porque el se ríe’. This comment just about drove me up the wall on. I know he does not know better, but I can’t continue to allow these type of comments made to my daughter.

Do you have any suggestions as to what I can say to him next time he says something like this to her? I want my daughter to grow up strong and I’d like to model healthy ways to stand up for herself.”

Dear friend,

Isn’t it amazing how complicated culture can be? On the one hand, the use in Spanish of terms like “gordito,” “orejón,” and the like can seem hurtful in the United States. 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.

In my own experience, I have also been startled by these terms in Spanish. I am a native speaker of English and I grew up in the United States. My husband grew up in South America. I will never forget the first time he called me “gordita”! I recall feeling hurt and self-conscious, while also getting a vibe from him that the term was not meant to be disparaging. I also remember being appalled by the names he and his friends called each other: “enano,”, “el ojón,” and some others that probably shouldn’t be shared on a family-minded blog!

My husband and I have talked at length about the differences in North and South America with regard to these terms. We came to an understanding and moved on. My recommendation would be for you to try to have a similar discussion with your father-in-law. It might help to share with him why you feel that these terms hurt you and your children, and why you would prefer that he not use them. It would be interesting for you to hear from your father-in-law something about why he uses the terms, what they mean for him, and how they are used in his culture and family. If nothing else, this type of conversation will open lines of dialogue for you both and you will probably come to a better understanding of each other’s points of view on a number of topics.

If you can’t come to some agreement regarding the use of the terms, it might be something that you will decide to simply live with when you are visiting with your in-laws. 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! So ultimately, you may end up thanking your suegro after all!

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