Suarez, campesinos and la lengua fuerte

21 Dec

The furore surrounding Luis Suarez’s punishment for allegedly calling Patrice Evra ‘negrito’ got me thinking about things getting lost in translation. We might never know if Suarez knew what he was saying would be considered inappropriate or if it was intended to cause offence, but it made me think immediately that perhaps those at the Football Association judging the case hadn’t heard of diminutivos – turning a word or a name into a diminutive term, the intent being to informalise and frequently in Latin America as a way to give someone you know well and like a nickname that reflects your liking of them – or their relatives the augmentivos, having the same effect but adding ‘ote’ among other suffixes to make something bigger. (Though clearly, the latter isn’t quite as cute or endearing if you’re a woman in her thirties and don’t want to be nicknamed as big; sometimes augmentivos are pejorative).

"Campesino" women transporting goods at Villazon, Bolivia.

"Campesino" women transporting goods at Villazon, Bolivia.

When I was staying in Cochabamba, a city in Bolivia, as a charity volunteer living with a local family, it wasn’t long before my host mother and sister started to refer to me as Melcita, meaning ‘little Mel’ (in Spanish, add ‘cita’ to anything female or ‘cito’ to anything male and you make it a diminutivo); it was a big term of endearment, a way to reflect that I was more than a lodger, but part of the family, loved and liked and welcome. It was amusing when the host family of another English volunteer were really unsure how to do this with their visiting friend: her name is Charlotte, the ‘ote’ ending of which already sounds to a Latin American ear unaccustomed to such names like it has been given an augmentivo, but a male one – and one that essentially means ‘Big Charlotte’. She wasn’t big or butch. The name itself was lost in translation as they weren’t sure how it was pronounced, and from there great confusion sprung in terms of how to acknowledge her high standing among the family in their traditional way.

Negrito is the name my teenage host sister gave to her little dog, which was black and extremely dear to her. It reflected love and friendship. Suarez undoubtedly didn’t intend to reflect any love for his opposite number, but it isn’t a bridge too far to consider that he used the word entirely without malice as a nickname, a slang term. Even Suarez’ club has published a blog (you can read the Liverpool blog here ) explaining the use of the word ‘negrito’ in some Latin American countries where it is commonly used to mean something like ‘buddy’ – and this can of course, be used in a positive or a negative way on the pitch. But I think it unlikely it was a racist slur because I would consider the mouth from which it emanates as the deciding factor, not the environment in which it is said.

Suarez’s case made me think of another example of Latin American-British misapprehension. While in Bolivia I got a real bee in my bonnet about the use of the word campesino, and I think there are some parallels. Campesino’s literal translation in the dictionary is ‘peasant’ and you hear it used by inhabitants of the county, its continent and people all over the world to describe the bowler-hatted, countryside-dwelling folk they’ve seen on the odd BBC documentary. No one bats an eyelid and no one thinks about the word’s meaning or gravitas. At that time I was working among other British people – school leavers or young university types who were on their gap year doing some volunteering – and campesino was a well used word among those guys when talking about the iconic indigenous people of the country. I was pretty much alone in being driven to distraction by it.

In my mind, campesino doesn’t mean peasant; well, it does, in the dictionary, but let’s say that in the case of the group I’m referring to, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the meaning of that word got lost in translation when coming from the mouths of my compatriates, to the extent that it became erroneous and slightly offensive. It struck no one as weird that an 18-year old white middle class medical student from the Cotswolds was referring to those living in their host country as peasants. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of those two worlds that made the use of the word stick in my mind. I thought we (the foreign visitors) didn’t have the right to bandy that word about so freely as if we had some ownership of it.

The wonderful thing about the English language is how is it constantly gestating, mutating and evolving in meaning as the world around us changes. This means that we can’t afford to be black and white about the meanings of words as that isn’t how the world works. So though the Oxford English Dictionary explains the word peasant to mean ‘A person who lives in the country and works on the land, esp. as a smallholder or a labourer; a member of an agricultural class dependent on subsistence’, it goes on to say: ‘Now used esp. with reference to foreign countries (or to Britain and Ireland in earlier times), and often to denote members of the lowest and poorest rank of society’ – which is more useful. To me, someone like myself referring to anyone as a peasant is the same as calling someone a chav; it’s derogatory and subjugatory. The word itself hasn’t the power; it is the wielder and the direction of travel the word takes. In the same way that you hear black rappers calling each other ‘niggaz’, the word carries different meanings used by different people. But the difference is that the rappers are transforming a word invented to subjugate them into a word that, used between them with shared understanding of a shared culture, finds its original poisonous meaning defused and re-purposed for a use designated and controlled by its rightful owners. They can choose to use the word or not, and perhaps take power back by electing to use it. (I used to hate being referred to as a geek in my youth, as it was a weapon against me from other kids who I felt really trampled by: in my adult life I’m very proud of being a geek and am happy to have anyone refer to me as such). I can see no justifiable reason why I, for example, would want to utter the  N-word in any incantation. It would immediately be transformed back to its original meaning coming from me, and could never be defused.

If we were to string together the word campesino with its siblings in other parts of the world, we would get a better sense of its weight and how the user is the person with the power to use and abuse it. As a word denoting someone we think is a lower rank or social class than ourselves, we could start in the UK with good old chav, or pikey; in the States we could refer to hillbilly or yokel. But in either place, how would you feel if someone called you a peasant? It might depend on who was saying it and in what context, but it’s not usually a compliment. For Suarez, though, negrito is stand-uppable as a non-racist comment. It might well have been meant to cause offence, but probably not racial offence.

I think with football clubs hiring so many star players from far-flung locales the odd brush with cultural confusion is likely, and I wonder if the clubs do anything to prepare their imported employees to be aware of sensitivities such as the one Suarez allegedly inflamed. Zero tolerance with racism is absolutely right in all cases, but how can this be proven to be an insult, or one based on Evra’s colour, as the FA ruled, especially if the club cannot demonstrate that it has taken all possible steps to prepare Suarez to know that any riff on the word ‘black’ when not meant with racist intent is likely to still be taken that way by the authorities? How can we judge this as if the comment came from the mouth of a person born and raised in the UK with a lifetime knowledge of our particular issues and boundaries?

In terms offence caused, far as I can see, the deepest wound in the Suarez debacle is the ridiculous over-reaction of the FA. I’d go so far as to call them ‘ los tontotes’ – big stupids (and if that Spanish is messed up, well, sue me).


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