To some, these Spanish terms may sound rude, offensive or worse. But for many individuals raised in Latin American countries or Spanish-speaking homes in the US, they may evoke happy memories of affectionate nicknames used by parents, family members or close friends. As times change and cultures clash across an increasingly multicultural Los Angeles County, a recent panel discussion examined the potential of language to foster closeness, create divisions or even incite hate incidents.
Titled “The Power of the Words We Use: Their Beauty and Their Harm,” the public event was held April 8 at the San Fernando Library and explored the use of language and culture-specific terms, and their impact on the Latino/a/x and other ethnic communities.
The discussion was the second in a series being presented by the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol (SFVS) newspaper, with the support of a grant provided by the California State Library. The mission of the grant is to help increase public awareness of the statewide Stop the Hate program, which supports hate crime survivors and prevention measures.
While hate speech and hate incidents have been at an all-time high, Spanish-language nicknames and terms of endearment (cariños) appear to be under increased scrutiny, noted panel moderator Diana Martinez, editor of the SFVS. Do those of other cultures who speak a different primary language have the right to police the words of others? As an example, she cited a previous panelist who said he had recently been chided at his grandchild’s preschool for affectionately referring to his grandchild as bicho (a little bug).
Pragmatics and Impact of Language
“The Spanish-speaking world is huge — 23 [countries] claim it as an official language and therefore the meanings change; slang is very localized,” explained panelist Ana Sánchez-Muñoz, Ph.D., a professor of Linguistics and Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), who specializes in minority languages. “For [Mexicans] a bicho is a little bug, but in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, it is not.”
Such distinctions are explored as a subfield of linguistics called pragmatics, which studies the context or culture-specific aspects of language. For example, if someone compliments a person by saying their jacket is nice, an American would probably reply, “Thanks.” But if you were given a compliment in French, you would likely be expected to deflect the compliment. It would be considered big-headed to say, “Thank you.”
Learning a new language is the first step, but “learning the rules of how and when to use what [words or phrases] comes with [increased] knowledge of the particular culture.”
“In a diverse setting, such as Los Angeles, pragmatics is crucial to understanding one another,” continued Sánchez-Muñoz. “We tend to judge one [another’s] linguistic behaviors based on our own. … That would work in a very homogeneous setting. However, when co-existing with several languages, several cultures and several ways of understanding the world, that can be problematic.”
Panelist Cesar Arredondo, a journalist who has been published in the SFVS, La Opinión and many other news outlets, grew up in Mexico and cultural nicknames were the norm in his family. Looking back on the experience as an adult, he now wonders how his friends and siblings were affected by seemingly affectionate and “harmless” cariños.
“My brothers and I are all different colors … and my three sisters are all shades of brown,” explained Arredondo, whose family is of mixed heritage. “I can tell you that I was treated differently because I was white. I knew my privilege was based on being white; I was called el güerito — it sounded cute. … But my friend was called el negro [because he was dark-skinned]. … We don’t bother to ask people how they feel about [what] they are called and it’s important to keep that in mind before we do it.”
Facing Racist Language
During the discussion, participants addressed concerns initially brought to light when former LA City Council President Nury Martinez was caught using questionable and racist language during a meeting with fellow councilmembers, and then LA County Labor Federation President Ron Herrera. Both Martinez and Herrera resigned in the wake of the scandal. The issue was also explored during the first panel discussion in January.
In the secretly recorded audio of the meeting, Nury described local indigenous immigrants who reside in Koreatown as “little short dark people.” She also referred to the Black child of a city council colleague as changuito, which literally translated means “little monkey,” a term historically used as a racist slur against Black people.
Luis López Resendiz, the Indigenous Interpreter program director for CIELO (Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo), a nonprofit that works with Indigenous communities in Los Angeles, said he believes that both terms are undeniably “racist” noting that such discrimination remains prevalent within the Latino community.
“It’s important to note that the Latino politicians were talking about a community that has often been erased in history. … People have this idea that [Indigenous] communities disappeared a long time ago … that our languages are not spoken, [which is not true],” said López Resendiz, who speaks Mixtec and is a member of the Ñuu Savi community.
He explained that hearing the recording felt like a huge betrayal because these same politicians had met with local Indigenous community members during their political campaigns. In fact, many community members had viewed the politicians as allies.
Regardless, the organization’s own work continues, including community efforts involving the 17 Indigenous languages that are spoken in LA County. As a result of a tragic incident that happened in 2010 — when Manuel Jaminez Xum, a 37-year-old Guatemalan day laborer, lost his life due to a misunderstanding with police officers who didn’t realize he didn’t speak Spanish — they worked with the Los Angeles Police Department to create Indigenous language cards utilizing English phonetics.
Breaking the Cycle
Arredondo said he is fascinated by the power of language, both in Spanish and English, and how it can be “used to empower people or to put them down.”
He believes that not everyone who uses racist language is necessarily a bad or racist person. He recalled his own painful memory when he unthinkingly resorted to racist language as a 12-year-old boy when he was playing with a close friend and he put her down for being Indian out of anger because she was beating him in a game of basketball.
“It still hurts to remember what I said. And when I said it, I couldn’t take it back,” he recalled, getting choked up over the memory. “I remember the look on [her] face. I broke her heart because we were good friends.”
Arredondo said he eventually realized that it was learned behavior from others in his village — “from family members, from friends, from neighbors. … I didn’t know any better.” He said the good news about learned behavior is that it can be unlearned.
“We need to accept the biases we have so we can work on them,” continued Arredondo, adding that it’s our personal responsibility to correct our wrongs.
“We do it by sharing our stories without judging, but rather trying to learn from each other, learn from somebody else’s mistakes or the good things they do so we can do better in the future,” he said. “Ultimately, change starts with us.”
Sánchez-Muñoz agrees that acknowledging our shortcomings is a necessary first step.
“Language will change when we change how we feel and how we act. And we don’t know when [or] how long it will take — probably very, very long because humans have very deep biases within ourselves,” she said. “The next generations will do better. It takes awareness and education and looking at ourselves and listening to our most vulnerable communities.”
According to López Resendiz, the key to making positive changes for all is to become good allies.
“The Latino community is going to be the biggest minority in the United States in a couple of years,” said López Resendiz. “It’s important [that they] make space for all communities and not speak for other communities that we don’t represent and … to learn to take a step back so that communities who are at a disadvantage can also have a voice.”
I am disappointed that people continue to say that Nury Martinez called the little boy changuito. She stated, “parece changuito” referring to his behavior and not his looks. What bothers me the most is that people of my ethnicity act offended by those words when in our culture this is a very common phrase. It is used very often to describe children’s behavior when they are jumping around nonstop.
Kudos to the SUN newspaper for creating a forum for an open discussion of “The Power of the Words We Use–Their Beauty and Harm.” April 8 was the second segment of three public gatherings designed to create a Safe-Space to talk about the power and impact of Words.
The beauty of attending these forums is they give us an opportunity to learn the full range of emotions that result from certain words used to judge, define, or stereotype individuals because of their ethnicity, culture, coloring, the group they identify with, and other differences.
The April 8 panel discussion was Excellent! Panelists offered their unique perspective and candidly answered questions from the audience. They provided an abundance of rich food for thought.
The SUN has taken on a colossal endeavor, but one with unlimited potential for having a meaningful impact on Valley residents and beyond. If we are open to the idea that our Words create the conditions we experience of our world… there is hope. Why? Because we control our Words.
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