My Life in Peru

An Expat Mom Shares Her Experiences with Peruvian Life, Travel and Food

Who are You Calling Gordita?

Posted on | February 8, 2011 | 9 Comments

Gringo Honeymoon

Image via Wikipedia

It seems like a lot of expats have a hard time with the idea of Peruvian familiarity.

There was a time in the US when people had nicknames. The tall guy was called Stretch. The short guy was called Half-Pint. The overweight dude was called Tubs.  The girl with light hair was called Blondie.  People look the way they look, and it wasn’t considered an insult or affront for someone to notice.

That’s the way it still is in Peru. Everyone has nicknames. EVERYONE. Sometimes it’s as simple as the diminutive of your actual name – in my case, everyone calls me Kelita.  It’s like someone named Margaret being called “Maggie”.

In some cases, the nickname seems to come from nowhere. My husband’s name is Arturo, but he’s been called Johnny all his life – except here, they spell it Jhony.  And pronounce it sort of “hyownee”.  His brother Roman is called “Pocho”. I don’t know why – my husband isn’t even sure why everyone calls him Johnny.

By far the most common nicknames (or chapas) are those based on physical appearance. I have a theory – that might be completely wrong – that Peruvians notice differences and comment on them simply because the American Indian physical appearance is fairly standard. Black hair, dark eyes, dark skin – so anyone’s difference is noted. It makes it easier to call that person out of a crowd and to describe him or her to others.

That’s why my oldest son, who is lighter skinned and has a slight Asian slant to his eyes, is called Chino. My younger son who is considerably shorter than his classmates is called Chato (shorty). Chato actually has several nicknames at school, like Ratatouille, because he’s active and loves to climb things, like the character in the movie.

This is a commercial for Gloria Milk, about just how common the nickname “Chato” is in Peru (and if you don’t want YOUR kid to be a Shorty, give him milk!)

Husbands and wives often call each other Gordo or Flaca (fatty or skinny) – or the more loving diminutives, Gordito and Flaquita.

And this is where it gets weird for a lot of Western foreigners in Peru. We’re raised in a society where “we’re all special” and it’s considered rude to point out physical differences.  Peruvians don’t feel that way at all. When they call you “Blanco” (whitey) or Rubio (Blondie) or “Robofocos” (light-bulb thief – if you’re really tall!), it’s a term of endearment.

In the US, the term “sambo” is racist and has strong feelings attached; in Peru, zambo can be a loving nickname for someone of mixed African and Indian blood, like Zambo Cavero.

The trick for us Gringos is to understand that in the vast majority of cases, no insult is intended when someone calls us by a nickname because of our appearance. In fact, it’s usually a way of saying “Hey, I like you enough to notice you”.  If you’re teased about a facet of your appearance or life, you need to learn to laugh at it and give as good as you get.  If you let it hurt your feelings or make you angry, your hard feelings will not be understood by the Peruvians around you.

I was at my mother in law’s house one afternoon, and a distant family member happened to be visiting. At the time, I had very light hair.  During my conversation with this man, who was quite a joker, he started teasing me about my hair and asked if it was my natural color. At first I was a little surprised that someone I’d just met would ask me such a personal question.

But instead of feeling insulted, I answered “Don’t you know you should never ask a lady a question like that?” with a smile. I then went on to ask this completely bald man “But tell me, is your color natural?”

It broke up the whole room! Five years later, he still talks about it.  If I’d been upset or angry over what I felt was a breach of etiquette, it would have made the visit uncomfortable for everyone. Instead, I accepted it for the good-natured ribbing that it was and gave back in kind.

And I find that in most cases, that’s the best way to respond. Remember that Peruvian culture is different from your home culture. That doesn’t make it better or worse – just different. Things that may upset you now, things that you perceive as rudeness, may in fact be the same things that endear Peru to you in the future.

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9 Responses to “Who are You Calling Gordita?”

  1. Tweets that mention Who are You Calling Gordita? | My Life in Peru --
    February 8th, 2011 @ 16:29

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karikuy and AMFD, Joshua Berman. Joshua Berman said: RT @Karikuy: My Life in Peru: Who are You Calling Gordita? #Peru #Culture #Travel #expat […]

  2. Abe
    February 9th, 2011 @ 00:51

    This posting was excellent. To show you how nieve I was during my last visit to see family there. Everyone kept calling one of the kids Gordo. I thought that was short for Gordon. And they called the littest one Baby Gordo. So I asked why. That’s when I learned about the nickname for everyone. What was funny was Baby Gordo got his nickname because he would nurse from any woman that would give him her breast. (Now that was weird for me to see)

  3. Kelly
    February 9th, 2011 @ 10:37

    I think everyone in Peru calls the babies “gorditos”. Everyone always asks me “como estan los gorditos?” when they want to know about our boys – and they’re not even babies anymore!

    As far as the nursing – I agree, that took some getting used to. I think nursing is great, and have no problem with public nursing – but I was still a little taken aback at first to see two friends that had babies at the same time nursing which ever baby came to them. Actually, they were nursing three babies at one time between the two moms!

  4. Jackie
    November 26th, 2011 @ 13:35

    I read this when you first posted it back while I was still living in San Diego but making plans to move here. My boyfriend at the time who I was coming to live with wanted to talk about my body, and I was really upset with him, trying to explain how rude that was that he was asking about what I was doing to lose weight. Poor guy, he was really thrown off, and tried his best to explain to me that EVERYONE talks about other people’s bodies, just like they talk about food. I knew this, and especially as a anthropologist I understand this, but as an Anglo, it was really off putting to accept. Poor guy. He even told me one time about a month into living here that he wanted to call me Gorda but was afraid I’d punch him. Coming from a super flaco like him, it would’ve been humiliating to me at the time. Now I just think it’s funny. About 2 months into living here, I finally accepted it. Even after losing 25lbs, I am gordita. And it’s no big deal. That’s not saying I want to be picked on constantly for my fat, but for someone to affectionately call me gordita or gordilla is fine. I will definitely come up with a good nickname for that person, too! I do love how people love a good joke here. It’s so refreshing to make fun of each other in an affectionate way!
    Jackie´s last blog post ..Stressing out and Christmas in summer

  5. kathy
    February 9th, 2012 @ 23:11

    Well honey if you don’t like it, don’t go to peru. Why don’t you criticize other countries they have even worst nicknames than the peruvians. Se nota que no tienes nada que hacer querida, para ponerte a analizar esas cosas. Buscate una vida.

  6. Kelly
    February 9th, 2012 @ 23:50

    Wow. Puede ser q’ necesitas leer de nuevo, mamita linda.

    I think maybe you should read my post again. I didn’t criticize Peruvians AT ALL. In fact, my point is that extranjeros that complain about the nicknames should get over themselves and learn to accept it as a part of Peruvian culture.

    Perhaps you might take it on yourself to read a few more pages of my site; you’ll see how much I love this country and the people – y tengo una vida muy buena. :)

  7. Nisha
    February 10th, 2012 @ 00:13

    She clearly misread your post. I love your blog, I think you get us pretty well XD We have to be able to laugh at ourselves sometimes Kathy, relax ^^

  8. Mom
    February 10th, 2012 @ 10:36

    You hit it out of the park again. I am proud of you.

  9. Victor Manuel
    February 11th, 2012 @ 17:36

    Another case of Lost in translation.

    I liked your article.
    You´re right We use nicknames to call even our beloved people. And for the toddlers usually gordito, gordita or enano, enana (midget ) LOL.
    It will look like childlish behavior, or when the foreigners look `couples kissing passionate on the streets or holding hands that´s even weirdest to most of the foreigners and the only explanation is those guys don´t have enough money to pay a room lol.
    But if you know us even the adult people use to kiss each other and hold hands when walking on the streets. It´s something cultural. In USA not even those who are married use to hold the hand of their partner, and I was sad when I saw a guy walking ahead of his wife who was pushing the stroller of her baby.
    I don´t know if that is something regular for the couples but I saw a lot of that distant relationship in USA.
    I´m sure we have a lot of shocking habits.
    Nobody is obliged to repeat our habits. Maybe the mix with people coming from other cultures will gave us other perspective. But I´m sure We aren´t cold heart people. But some times too much sweet can get us sick.

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    I got tired of life happening while I made other plans, so I quit my job and came to Peru. I live here with my Peruvian husband, two sons, three dogs and various other family members, depending on the weather.

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