When we first arrived in Medellin, someone referred to my children as monos. Mono in Spanish means “monkey” so, for obvious reasons, I was a bit taken aback. “Sure, Jack has a lot of energy, “ thought I. “But are you, as a complete stranger, allowed to call my children monkeys?!”
It turns out that mono in Colombia also means “blond” or “light-haired.” This of course is puzzling to me on a number of levels, starting with the fact that few monkeys are actually blond in color so this word doesn’t make sense, and ending squarely, once again, in resignation that Spanish is unnecessarily complicated. Why can’t we be rubios as we are in the rest of Latin America?
But after six weeks, I was used to being referred to and often addressed as mona. “Mona, your food is here.” “This is your bus, mona.” I was also often addressed as niña [girl] in the same context — “Here is your change, niña” and “Niña! Watch out!” — despite being quite profoundly no longer a niña. I was informed by Colombian men that being called niña was viewed as a compliment, that they used it to warm up stern middle-aged bank tellers and grumpy going-grey cashiers, because it made them smile.
Now, in Santa Marta, I’ve been demoted further. Here, I’m nene [baby]. And not from men; they call me mi amor [my love] or mi corazon [my heart], both of which the wall-eyed avocado vendor outside our building can work in six or eight times in a single transaction. No, the women all call me nene. The nurses at the hospital. The cashier at the grocery store. But they all seem to address each other with the same endearing condescension.
My out-of-body, post-feminist, am-I-okay-with-this moment is overshadowed, however, by the other startling things that Colombians call each other. “I’ll help you after the gordo [chubby dude].” “Hey, flacca [skinny chick], how’s it going?” “Do you want salt on the mango, negro [dark-skinned person]?” A friend of a friend refers to her husband chino because his eyes are vaguely slanted. No one here appears to blink at any of this.
(For context here, I will mention that all the ads in Colombia for new apartment buildings and beauty products — everything aspirational, in fact — feature people that look a lot like Eric and Retta. Not as Whitey McGringo as Jack and me, but certainly not reflective of the complexion of actual Colombians. The only Afro-Caribbean I’ve noticed in an ad — despite making up 11% of the population — was on a cleaning product. And I have never seen an indigenous person in an ad, except for tourist sites featuring them as part of a “People Zoo” tour. Also, the residents of our fancy-pants, doorman-and-pool building look profoundly different (e.g. much paler) than the doormen themselves or the fishermen working the nets that we look out upon. So it’s clearly not a lack of racial hierarchy that makes causes “negro” to be an acceptable appellation.)
I realize that this apparent blaséness toward pointing out people’s otherness may not be the whole story; the ubiquity of something does not necessarily indicate its okayness in a culture (see: “gay” as a still-common middle-school insult).
But this casualness makes me incredibly uncomfortable. In my (liberal, politically-correct, US-ocentric) experience, reference to any physical characteristic of another person puts you on shaky ground. Regardless of original intent, there’s a strong chance that someone is going to be offended in the interaction.
Unless, of course, I am part of the group I am commenting on. I can talk all day about the experience of being a (white) woman in the US (and unfortunately for those people around me, have been known to do so on a regular basis). But the men upon whom I inflict these thoughts usually end up squirming slightly in their chairs and murmuring non-committal, “Hmmm…”s, because they know that’s the only safe option. Which is precisely the position in which I find myself when a friend discusses the experience of being gay, or from a community of color.
So I — and most of the circle I hang out with — do this odd little dance of never mentioning the differences that are staring us in the face, while simultaneously trying to prove that we are hyper-aware that those differences shape that person’s experience of the world.
It’s just weird.
Multiple other extranjeros have commented on Americans’ (hyper)sensitivity about race, gender and appearance. “I call my friend ‘nigger’ all the time and he doesn’t mind, but if I said that in the US, I’d get my butt kicked,” said our Dutch hiking companion, for example. “What’s wrong with calling him gordo?” observed someone else, when I flinched. “I’m pretty sure he knows he’s fat.” “My friends call me negro all the time. Whatever. I have dark skin,” said another.
Other Colombians I’ve talked to have hinted that this may be changing, at least around race. A woman on the long-distance bus to Cartagena mentioned to me that the government is changing the racial categories on their census and official communications, and eliminating negro for another term. And I’ve seen the sensitivity to calling the original residents of this region indigenos and not indios, which is considered a slur. But just the fact that — despite my, ahem, inadequate Spanish — I have ended up in conversations about this taboo-in-the-US topic illustrates that it’s different here.
And I’m left wondering what is the healthier or more evolved cultural norm on the topic of difference. Is hyper-sensitivity better, because it preserves people’s feelings, and refrains from rubbing their “otherness” in their face? Or does it put up walls between people, because they are tiptoeing around a gigantic elephant?
This is a topic about which I would love to have deep and meaningful conversation. Yet because you, Dear Readers, are almost exclusively steeped in (liberal, politically correct) US culture where you (perhaps rightly) assume that nothing you say will be interpreted the way you mean, I fully expect to hear crickets. And that’s okay.
A LAST COMMENT: Retta and I have been having a series of interesting conversations about this experience of being Other: how it feels to stand out at all times, to be stared at, to be a one-human circus. And how different that experience would be if we weren’t aspirationally Other. Sure, she stood out in school, which was uncomfortable, but the kids all clustered around and vied for her attention; the boys all professed undying love (at least for her blonde hair and turquoise eyes). What would it be like to be this different, but to be shunned for it, to have people shrink away from you based on your Otherness, instead of drawing closer? The over-simplified verdict from both of us: wow, that would suck.