Body Language: How Nicknames Objectify Minority Women And Why I Don’t Care “How You Meant It”

by Guest Contributor Alex Alvarez, originally posted on Guanabee

Associate Editor Alex Alvarez takes a look at how nicknames among minorities work to keep a good gordita down and why you, shorty, shouldn’t take it anymore.

Words, in and of themselves, are without power. Their potency comes from the relationship between the speaker and the listener. As any woman who has walked by a construction site will tell you, “Hello beautiful” is different coming from a strange man whispering in your ear than from your mother. It’s through these relationships that words can becomes tools, bridges, weapons or any other sort of melodramatic metaphor you want to use. If relationships are defined by power —who has it, who doesn’t, who wants it and who is in the position to bestow it—language, then, is a means of both establishing power in relationships and also of demolishing and subverting it. A “thanks, beautiful” aimed right back at a strange man is surprisingly effective.

While writing my response a few weeks ago to an article in “San Francisco Weekly” that “roughly” and incorrectly translates the Spanish word “negro” to the English word “nigger,” I realized most of the Guanabee readership already understands the nuances that appear in, yes derogatory, but complicated Spanish-language labels. And the same could be said for other ethnic minorities, (or at least the pockets of them that are represented in popular culture and media), who use certain pet names and phrases wrought with prejudice, but excuse them with a flippant, “This is how we are. And, besides, we don’t mean any harm by it.”

But “this is how we are” is not an excuse. Why? Well. It’s not how I am. So it’s not how we are. Adaptation is possible. It just takes effort and exposure to different ways of thinking, even if I have to drill it into you during family holiday get-togethers. It is not enough for us to merely explain — and thus, on some level, excuse — the differences between Anglo and Latino, or Black and White, or any other minority versus majority as they relate to potentially hateful speech. Instead, let’s take a look at why these differences exist and what, exactly, they result in accomplishing, based on history and cultural context. What does a language say about the people who speak it? And vice-versa? Let’s find out! Hokay? Hokay.

But, um, first: A preface of sorts. It’s important I make it known that I don’t feel I’m qualified to write about slang and language as it pertains to anyone who is not Latino or Anglo. As I alluded to above, anything I would have to say about the experience of any other group would be merely observational and the result of a sort of clinical detachment. It’s not my experience. I can’t offer anything except, “Well, from what I observe… this seems to mean this. And isn’t that interesting?” But it is interesting. And it is important to discuss these observations. So, that said, do let’s continue:

Such A Colorful People, No?: Nicknames Based On Appearance

Many terms of endearment in Spanish are based on appearance. “Cute” little nicknames like morenita, negrita and güerita abound. The diminutive “ita,” as it’s used here, translates to “little,” therefore effectively rendering it’s object to be both small and, presumbably, a possession belonging to the speaker.

I’m specifically using the feminine because it’s more common. You do hear women refer to sons and lovers (Interesting, that.) as their “negrito lindo” or whatever, but they don’t usually make a habit of shouting these out from their lawn chairs at strangers. At the more overtly sexualized end of this particular spectrum, there are adjectives like “thick,” often used in the Latino-American and/or Black communities to describe a woman’s body admiringly, while simultaneously working to keep her objectified and, thus, manageable. By reducing a woman to parts, she is made to be a thing rather than a person. She is her sex and her body. And not much else. Of course, it is important to note that such nicknames are rarely ever explicitly used as the result of some sort of calculating thought process; the most damaging aspect of such nicknames are the fact that they have been so deeply entrenched in common vernacular that they have become largely unremarkable. However, with the prevalence of stereotypically White, upper-middle class families and customs depicted in popular culture and the melding of ethnic and racial groups in neighborhoods, schools and the workplace, many minority women who would otherwise have been raised in a very insular culture are exposed to different relationships between, say, bodies and language. And vice-versa. More and more Anglo women are exposed to the idea that “thick” is a compliment and allows women to break free from the slim body associated with high fashion, high culture and exclusivity. In reality, this is merely trading one set of handcuffs for another. In the end, regardless of the intent, it all adds up to misogyny and using language as a way of demonstrating superiority over the female body. Case in point: This helpful guide to defining “thickness.” [NSFW]

“Gordo/a,” “gordito/a,” “flaco/a” and “flaquito/a” are also quite common. Quite literally, they mean “(little) fatty” or “(little) skinny.” Take the Univision TV series “El Gordo y La Flaca,” (see figure below) starring Raul de Molina and Lily Estefan. It would be odd, I think, for English-speaking, Anglo audiences to wrap their heads around a show in which the hosts were referred to exclusively by their bodies. It does seem, cultural difference aside, like a less professional title than, say, “”The Today Show” or “Live with Regis and Kelly.” On a personal note, I cannot tell you how much I wished my parents would have called me “sweetie” or “pumpkin” instead of “my little fatty.” Kinda stings when you’re going through puberty. To have complained about this, of course, would make me seem like an “acomplejada,” or like I had a complex about my weight and appearance. Which would have been pretty much exactly on the money. Growing up, I had always noted the difference between my family’s lack of barriers and delineations when it came to discussing bodies, particularly women’s, and the unspoken barriers among Anglo families on TV. And perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all this is that my family member didn’t mean anything by it. They weren’t actively try to make me aware of my body. They loved their gordita, after all. But, growing up in an increasingly multi-cultural world, I was exposed to different ethnicities’ relationships to their and others’ bodies. And I would have really preferred that verbal distance between my body and the world around it. Acomplejada as that makes me.

Such physically-conscious nicknames reduce the object to nothing but a body and, while innocuous to some, they are wrought with (somewhat) unspoken criticism, even if only in the sense that it makes one aware of their weight and form each and every time one stops to think about their nickname. Particularly for females.

Fine-Ass Females And Who’s To Blame

Speaking of which: Have you noticed that there seems to be an inordinate amount of men, especially young Black and/or Latino men, who use “female” as their default term for a woman? Why use such a strangely formal-sounding moniker? Especially in a casual setting like, say, a Burger King parking lot where all you want to do is go home, eat some French fries and not have to ponder why some people believe shouting what a “fine-ass female” you are is a compliment. In this context, the use of “female” is used to verbally exacerbate the difference between the speaker and the object. “Female” takes on a more clinical tone, as with some object of interest that is being looked at and studied. Appropriate, then, that such a phrase would be deemed fit to murmur into a stranger’s ear, as if she were nothing but a curious vessel for one’s study and enjoyment.

In talking about this with Cindy, she mentioned her observation that you don’t find “female” used in older TV programming or song lyrics, but that it seemed to slip into popular use with the rise of certain genres of rap. Which would seem to make sense. It’s almost a cliché at this point to say that certain types of rap treat women like nothing but money-hungry and a sum of easily-accessible holes. But hearing the same criticism like a broken record does not, again, excuse the language and imagery used in these genres. But, point is: We know it’s there. The question, then, is why? What systems are in place that keep this degradation going, despite this knowledge? In “Misogyny, gangsta rap, and The Piano” bell hooks places the blame not on the music industry or musicians, but on dominant culture:

    “The sexist, misogynist, patriarchal ways of thinking and behaving that are glorified in gangsta rap are a reflection of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. As the crudest and most brutal expression of sexism, misogynistic attitudes tend to be portrayed by the dominant culture as an expression of male deviance. In reality they are part of a sexist continuum, necessary for the maintenance of patriarchal social order. While patriarchy and sexism continue to be the political and cultural norm in our society, feminist movement has created a climate where crude expressions of male domination are called into question, especially if they are made by men in power. It is useful to think of misogyny as a field that must be labored in and maintained both to sustain patriarchy but also to serve as an ideological anti-feminist backlash. And what better group to labor on this “plantation” than young black men.”

She continues by saying that this does not lift the blame from young, Black men most often associated with gangsta rap, but that making it simply a “Black male thing” is neglecting the larger picture in favor of pointing fingers at an easily identifiable – and socially acceptable – scapegoat.

Which goes back to my main point in this feature: Those in power use language as a means of ensuring that those without it know it. Take the name “morenita,” for instance. It refers to a dark-skinned girl. Dark skin is not safe from being exoticized in Latino culture, and connotes a certain level of eroticism and sexual availability that is also experienced in Anglo and mainstream culture. As such, the term is both a positive in that it is asserting a level of attractiveness and desirability, and a negative, not only because it reduces its object, but because it is also entangled in the belief that to be darker is to belong to a mysterious and forbidden lower class and lower social and economic stratum. Even lighter-skinned poor people who work outdoors are exposed to the sun and are therefore tanner than those who get to sit inside playing cards and eating pastry crafted of guava and tears.

Sexy Morenitas And Güeritas Lindas: Why Aren’t You Pissed Off Yet?

There is also the issue of “reclaiming” derogatory terms. What troubles me is that a lot of what I observe among minority women who define themselves by using “morenita” or “caramel delight” or some such is that, well. I’m fairly sure it’s not usually the result of a thoughtful exploration of race and sexism. I think it’s the result of women either not being exposed to or not being interested in discussions on racism, xenophobia and sexism. At least, that’s what a sparkling, animated .gif on a MySpace page says to me. I see a lot of complacency among Latina and/or Black women, with a variety of factors playing into keeping them that way. Glamorization of the “video vixen” culture, lack of resources promoting feminism and equality among minority women, family, machismo… but it all, ultimately, comes down to language. If we are who we say we are, but who we say we are comes as a result of what we’re called, then well, it’s a difficult system to break out of. I admit I’m saddened that we’re not more saddened. And I’m enraged that we’re not more enraged.

The fact is, Spanish, as with any language, is colored by many factors about which one can learn, yet not fully understand unless one grows up with these factors as “an insider.” Factors like, say, race relations among Hispanics, which is further complicated by the different experiences with colonialism and slavery found among Latin American countries and Spain. Class differences, linked with race relations, are also reflected in language and change from place to place. Machismo, too, colors the “language of romance” with undercurrents of misogyny. Spanish is a language that contains many slurs and derogatory terms, both overt and subtle, that aim to keep those with less power down. But the fault is not squarely on the Spanish-speaking and/or Latino community. This extends to all groups that are disenfranchised or minorities. At some point, historical and cultural contexts cannot be used to excuse self-inflicted harm and misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia within groups. The Black community, both Hispanic and not, is subject to the same “assault by language.” It’s a phenomenon that exists within these groups, but whose origins have a long and complicated history which, ultimately, comes down to the use of language as a means of oppression, implemented by those in power – more often that not, the White patriarchy.

The language we use influences the way we process and express ideas, but it also has an impact on how we mold the thinking of newer generations. The argument “Oh come on! We do it out of love! It’s harmless” is just not viable when people are harmed. It’s not enough to “think before you speak.” You have to get others to think, too.

(Latoya’s Note: This post has been edited for length and clarity.)