My journey to Spanish Fluency began almost a decade ago, when I first moved abroad to Mexico. Once the initial headache of only hearing Spanish all the damn time wore off and my intellectual grasp on past perfect tense became a natural extension of speaking, I noticed something odd: there was a really strange propensity for nicknaming.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Chile, and consequently upgraded my Spanish level from “Intermediate Struggling” to “Can Mostly Fake Fluency”, that I realized the nicknaming system was far vaster and more intricate than I had previously realized. What I had wrongly assumed to be a cute habit of my host family in Mexico was actually a continental phenomenon that showed no signs of revealing its complex mysteries to outsiders.

It started with a guy named “Pelado”.

That means “Bald”, by the way.

And then there was another Pelado. And then another. And another. In a very short amount of time I knew multiple Pelado’s, with varying degrees of early-onset hair loss. This, as it turns out, is a very common occurrence in Latin America. (The nicknaming, I mean. But also maybe the hair loss.)

In fact, within almost any circle of friends, there is bound to be multiple ‘pelado’s. As well as the following nicknames and their female equivalents:

  • Gordo (fat)
  • Flaco (thin)
  • Negro (black)
  • Chino (Chinese)
Yeah...it's like that sometimes.

Yeah…it’s like that sometimes.

This makes casual conversation very, very difficult to follow. For the non-native Spanish speaker, at least. Even if you can follow a Chilean conversation at 80% (a significant achievement, I assure you!) or can distinguish between Peruvian/Chilean/Argentinian/Colombian accents, don’t be swayed by a false sense of accomplishment, like I was.

At the end of the day, I was still the bewildered gringa trying to piece together why this very average-sized person in front of me received the nickname Gordo. Or why members of Jorge’s family would casually refer to me as ‘Flaca’ (Hey, Skinny!), a term that just did not compute with my North American understanding of body types

The nicknaming conventions presented other problems. Le’ts say Jorge and I are sitting down at dinner, and he begins a random story involving ‘Negro’. How am I supposed to know if Jorge’s talking about his brother El Negro, or his best friend Negro, or the guy we met last week named El Negro, or this guy he works with nicknamed Negro?

I don’t listen at 100% strength ALL the time, so sometimes I miss important details. Like those used to differentiate between Brother Negro, Friend Negro, New Acquaintance Negro, and Coworker Negro.

One of my least favorite things in the Spanish language is the following question:

“Hablaste con Flaco?” (Did you talk to Flaco?)

Because what the hell Flaco are you referring to? In order to discern this, you must begin by taking into account who is asking you the question: is it your roommate, who knows 3 of the 6 Flacos that you know, or a coworker who only knows one of those 6 Flacos? Perhaps it’s your mother-in-law, who has five family members nicknamed Flaco?

WHAT. THE. HELL. GUYS.

I’m convinced there is a fair degree of telepathy that accompanies casual conversation in Latin American countries. Or at last “6 Degrees  of Kevin Bacon” (or, in this case, Flaco).

Other nicknames common in Spanish-speaking Latin America are diminutives of the first name. Some examples are:

  • Roxy (from Roxanna)
  • Lili (from Liliana)
  • Nacho (from Ignacio)
  • Goyo (from Gregorio)

The same way that we shorten Elizabeth to Liz, or Richard to Dick.

Those I can handle a bit better than the vague reference to one of the thousands of flacos, negros, pelados and gordos that constitute our social circle.

Give me a Lili anyday, and I’ll know who you’re talking about. But the second a Flaco or Pelado is mentioned, the vast filing cabinet of my internal database whooshes open in a desperate attempt to locate who this person might be, why they are coming up in conversation, and how they are blood-or-socially linked to our current lives.

The worst part is, I usually have no idea what their real names are beyond the nicknames, either. And that, to me, feels like the worst failure of all. Knowing a person only by their randomly assigned physical attribute, even if it is an approach that is widely and freely practiced throughout every Latin American country I have visited…

How cruel of me!

How basic!

But yet…how terribly convenient.