Why do Mexicans have such ridiculous nicknames?

Week of February 1, 2007

Jan 31, 2007 at 4:00 am
Dear Mexican: How do Mexicans get such ridiculous nicknames from seemingly normal names? For instance, José becomes Chepe, Eduardo is Lalo, Gabriel becomes Gabi, and Guillermo devolves into Memo.

It's Marcela, Not Chela

Dear Mexican: I want to know why Mexicans have such incongruous nicknames. In English, people have nicknames that have some relation to their given names — for example, Kenny is the nickname for Kenneth, or Jenny for Jennifer. Granted, there are some nicknames that seem like a stretch of logic, like Jack for John and Peg for Margaret, but there are none so incompatible as Pepe for José, Pancho for Francisco, or Chucho (or Chuy) for Jesus. I have asked many Mexicans about this, and they all tell me, "Porque así es," so I finally decided to ask THE Mexican.

La China Curiosa Who's Really Korean

Dear Wabette and Chinita: The definitive study on this quirk remains Viola Waterhouse's "Mexican Spanish Nicknames," included in the 1981 anthology Linguistics across Continents: Studies in Honor of Richard S. Pittman. Unfortunately, the ethnolinguist devotes most of her article to including as many seemingly wacky Mexican apodos as possible (some of the better ones mentioned are Goyo for Gregorio, Licha for Alicia, Nacho for Ignacio and Cuco for Refugio) instead of theorizing why Mexican Spanish is prone to such a mangled morphology. Waterhouse does identify one phenomenon that factors into many of these name changes: palatalization, when speakers pronounce non-palatal consonants as palatals — for example, the transformation of s into a ch sound when Salvador becomes Chava. Other phonetical laws not mentioned by Waterhouse that influence Mexican Spanish nicknames include apocopation (the dropping of a word's last letters or syllables — Caro for Carolina), apheresis (when a word loses syllables or letters at its beginning — Mando for Armando) and syncopation, when a word contracts by shedding sounds — that's how Roberto becomes Beto.

But the question remains: Why the dropping of sounds and letters in Mexican Spanish nicknames? This Mexican's take: Most nicknames derived from proper nombres are shortened versions of the original. Mexicans advance this process by employing the above-mentioned tricks. Such trends occur in languages that are evolving into newer, bolder tongues. So enjoy your pussy Billys from William and Cathys from Catherine, gabachos: Mexicans will take the linguistic wonder that is creating Lencho from Lorenzo any day.

Dear Mexican: Do Mexicans see us Filipinos as chinos or as hybrid Latinos? After all, we have Spanish surnames, we're brown and Catholic, we have quinceañeras (just several years after your chicas), and we started that grape strike Mexicans get credit for.

Fabulous Little Island Person

Dear FLIP: Gracias for allowing the Mexican to set the historical record straight. American history classes teach kiddies that César Chávez and his United Farm Workers brought justice to farm workers through boycotts and strikes in California's Central Valley during the 1960s. What the history books rarely mention is that Chávez and his Mexican followers first earned national prominence by joining an already existing grape huelga started by Filipino laborers. And what the history books never mention is that many of those pioneer Filipinos joined the UFW but eventually left owing to perceived discrimination at the hands of the union's Mexican-majority leadership and members. One of those Filipinos, former UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz, described in his 1992 memoir how the union became "very ethnocentric. When [UFW Mexican members] called out 'Viva la Raza' or 'Viva César Chávez,' they didn't realize that all these 'Vivas' did not include the Filipinos. As a matter of fact, they didn't include anyone but themselves.... Terms like that, you see, are not inclusive but divisive." On that note, FLIP: Yep, Filipinos are nothing more to Mexicans than chinos with tans.

Got a spicy question about Mexicans? Ask the Mexican at [email protected]. Those of you who do submit questions: They will be edited for clarity, cabrones. And include a hilarious pseudonym, por favor, or we'll make one up for you!