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Is "Chinito" Lost In Translation?

Yuli Gurriel’s Gesture and the Word Chinito

Yuli Gurriel’s pulling at the corner of his eyes in the dugout was a racist gesture. I'll repeat: the gesture was racist and he will face the music by getting a suspension.

For the record, I don’t follow sports, and my knee-jerk view was that he should have been suspended immediately, but I do understand why his suspension was deferred.

So let me repeat myself, Gurriel’s gesture was racist, and that his gesture was accompanied by his calling out chinito, leads me to think hard about this word -- one that I myself use in a scene in my one-woman show. I describe leaving my segregated (Anglo-Mexican American) South Texas hometown of 18,000 for the big city -- San Antonio. For me this was as exciting as moving to New York.

Here's the line:

“It was in San Antonio that I first had Chinese food, prepared and served by real chinitos.”

My wish is to express the awe and wonder of meeting people I'd not encountered before.

But as we know, words, even in one's native language can be subject to various interpretations. When we translate from another language, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding.

Sonia Sotomayor and La Raza

When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to United States Supreme Court much was made of the fact she had served on the Board of the National Council of La Raza, a well-respected advocacy organization (recently renamed LatinosUS) that seeks to improve opportunities for the Hispanic/Latino community in this country in all spheres -- education, health, employment, civic engagement.

Conservative media and many a politician accused her of playing “race politics” and being a racist for having served on the board of a group with the word Raza in its name. Pundits and politicians translated this word as race. One news account said that a Republican leader equated her nomination to proposing that the head of the KuKluxKlan be allowed to sit on the court. (Disclaimer: I have not tracked down the original source of this statement.)

I grew up hearing the words nuestra Raza, and it did not connote a notion that we were a separate race; it was used to reference our community. I always thought of nuestra raza as all those people that come in every hue and shade who share some degree or another of a common ancestral language (Spanish) and various Hispano/Indigenous cultures of the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America.

Yes, a google search will tell you that the word raza has multiple meanings, and one of them is race, but I believe that the majority of folks in the United States of Mexican-American ancestry use the word interchangeably with nuestra gente, our people.

Words Most Definitely Matter and Meaning Sometimes Lost In Translation

The Gurriel incident has me taking a long hard look at the word chinito.

Let me explain that I have never associated the words chino or chinito (since Spanish is a gendered language we also use the words china and chinita) as racial slurs. In my world it is the equivalent of using the word Asian, as I do in the following sentence (imagine me saying it completely in Spanish). “I hike every Sunday morning with a group of good friends, several of them are chinitas.”

In Spanish chino applies broadly to all Asian folks although the word also means Chinese. Note that here in the US we use Asian to refer to people with origins in China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, and India (S.Asian) to name a few countries.

I suppose it's like using Xerox to refer to all duplicate copies, when in fact some are Canon, Hewlett Packard or another type. Although we know the difference it is generic for any duplicate copy as the use of chino is generic for persons of Asian ancestry.

The former President of Peru, Aruberuto (Alberto) Fujimori, was referred to as El Chino throughout Latin America, even as folks knew he was of Japanese ancestry.

Came across a tweet yesterday by some white guy saying Latinos are so stupid that we don’t even know the difference between Chinese and Japanese, but I digress.

When Should a Word Be Retired?

If members of the Asian community in the United States find our use of the Spanish word chino offensive, even if we don’t intend it to be, it’s important to engage in dialogue and to consider other terms in its stead. Oriental was once a commonly used English word referring to folks with ancestral roots in the Far East and eventually was retired as we became aware that it was viewed as offensive by Asians.

Attached is an article by LA Sports Writer Dylan Hernandez offering his personal perspective on the Yuli Gurriel racist gesture incident and use of the word chino. It’s of interest that Hernandez’ mother was born in Japan and his father in El Salvador.

I encourage you to read Hernandez' column, and I’d like to highlight this passage:

“I’m not naïve to think there isn’t racism in Latin America, particularly toward indigenous people. But it would be misguided to view anything race-related from another culture through a American perspective. This country’s history of race relations is particularly ugly.

If you direct a racial slur or make a racist gesture toward an Asian American person, the words carry the weight of the past, everything from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Those of us who are ethnic minoriites are often sensitive to racially insensitive language because history tells us they are sometimes precursors to legislation intended to disenfranchise people who look like us. “

Talking about race and racism is complicated in any sphere, and it’s important that communities of color not shy away from these hard conversations with each other. We cannot afford to be tone deaf to our groups' experiences of prejudice and racism.

What are your views about the use of these terms?

First and foremost we need to hear from Asian friends and allies about your experiences and feelings when you hear Latinos using the words chino and chinito.

Eager to hear from Latinos/Hispanos/Raza about your views of these terms tambien.

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