The Christmas season in Costa Rica is an embarrassment of riches. Where I come from, Christmas is a bright and festive light in the middle of the cold and dark – and that has its own, unparalleled beauty. Here, however, it’s everything good all at once: The rainy season is over and summer is here, with its sunny days and cool Christmas winds! School’s out! The aguinaldo has arrived! Tax season is ending, time off is approaching, the streets and shops are full of lights, there are tamales and rompope and Tapitas Navideñas everywhere! Quick, get me some more exclamation points! It’s overwhelming, in the best possible way, like a fantasy. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for kids. I wonder if there’s a spike in hyperventilation rates at the Children’s Hospital.
By the way, if you’re reading this in a place that involves scraping ice off your windshield, I know you just said, “You can take your ‘embarrassment of riches’ and stick it in a place where the sun don’t shine. As in, the place where I live.” I can hear you from here. But while I know from long experience that the rainy season doesn’t compare to a long, hard winter, it really is a whole lotta water, and the start of the dry season carries some of the same feeling of those precious first days of spring up north. Walking around without an umbrella on early December afternoons gives you that same sensation of being sprung from a cage, of being out after curfew. You want to run and dance or sing, and do everything outside, and sit out on patios with your hot coffee or row of cold beers.
The other day, as a neon sunset took charge of the sky over our neighborhood, I remembered spending an afternoon just as gorgeous on a front porch in another part of San José with my husband and his mother several years ago. It was one of the best afternoons I’ve spent in Costa Rica. All we did was drink our coffee, watch the world go by, enjoy the sun, and chat. And by “chat,” I mean that they told me all about how Costa Rican family nicknames work.
One of them was telling a story and referred to “las panaderas” (“the bakers,” female). I was confused, and they explained that since the mother is a baker, the whole family – mother and daughters – is known by that name. I asked, “Are there any other nicknames in the neighborhood?” And for the next hour or so, they came up with about 40 different names as I took copious notes. It turned out that every single home in the neighborhood had a special nickname floating above its roof, visible only to insiders. No wonder I had never understood directions around here. “You can’t miss it! Just go down by the Crazies’ house, turn left and keep going until you hit the Sausages.”
The whole business of nicknames in Costa Rica could (and may well) take up several columns, but the family nicknames have a special place in my heart. In the United States, at least in the places I have lived, we had a certain neighborhood shorthand, but nothing like this. I won’t list the names I wrote down that day because I want to make sure my husband’s family doesn’t have to move, but some of the ones I’ve heard and read over the subsequent years included:
- Nicknames based on physical characteristics (“Los cepillo” is a family whose dad has sticky-up hair like a brush, or “Los pandulce” could be so named because the matriarch wears her hair pulled back into the shape of a sweet roll. These two cases, as it has been explained to me, mix plural and singular – “los” and “cepillo” –because while they describe a group, only one member of the family has the characteristic. See below).
- Nicknames generalized to the whole family because of the nickname of one member, usually the dad (A man called “Pollo” is of course the father of the family known as “The Chickens”).
- Nicknames based on professions (“The Bakers” falls into this category, or “The Carriage-Drivers,” which must either refer to taxi drivers or go way back).
- Nicknames based on personality or old neighborhood lore (“The Crazies” is such an example).
- Or, always my favorites, tons and tons of nicknames no one can seem to explain. Why “The Jars?” No idea. Did it have something to do with a story with the brother way back? No, we can’t remember. “The Sausages?” No idea.
A conversation about these things is better than poring over a photo album. You hear the stories, the rumors, the unanswered questions. Uncle so-and-so or cousin tal fulano is called in to clarify just why that one guy whose actual name no one can remember earned the nickname of “The Bedcovers” for his entire family.
Of course, nicknames must be used with care. They can create a sense of jovial familiarity, but they can also be problematic. I can honestly say that I have never heard a racist neighborhood nickname being used (or at least, one I recognized as such), but they must exist. A person who is alcoholic or addicted to drugs can earn a corresponding nickname for his or her entire family, thus codifying the already difficult legacy that the children have to bear. And while it’s one thing to make fun of a family’s unruly hair, there are nicknames that turn much more unfortunate physical characteristics into the butt of jokes.
I love living in a neighborhood of Parrots and Tarzans rather than Joneses and Smiths, but it’s certainly incumbent on all of us – as neighbors, and especially as parents – to sort through these issues with sensitivity, seeking that sweet spot before humor becomes cruelty. Is this a nickname I would say to their faces? Or, more importantly, in front of the children? This is a judgment call every culture, maybe even every neighborhood, must make for itself, because standards are different in different places. Costa Rica is, without any doubt, much more open about all kinds of physical characteristics than we were in my own upbringing. If you’re fat, people will call you fat; it’s not a big secret or taboo. If you’re skinny as a rail, people will call you a flat board or say that you’re doing a handstand (that is, your legs are so skinny they look like arms). As a person who has always struggled with weight, I personally found this refreshing or even liberating, but mine is only one experience. This is a complex topic, especially when it comes to race or ethnicity, for example.
Which is why I’d like to turn this one over to you. As the sun set on that early December day, at the end of the recounting of neighborhood stories and jokes, I asked my husband and his mother, “And what is your family called?”
There was a thoughtful, surprised silence. It was obvious that this question had never before been posed.
“Are you serious? A list the length of my arm, and you don’t know what everyone calls YOU?”
They really didn’t. I found this both fascinating and mysterious (and I eventually got to the bottom of it. They are “The Sweet Rolls” mentioned above). So I ask you: Who are the families in your neighborhood? What are the nicknames you love – and the ones that should be removed from the lexicon? And what is YOUR family called? Do you know? Tell me true.
Enjoy the Christmas breezes.
Read previous Maeology columns here.
Katherine Stanley Obando is The Tico Times’ arts and entertainment editor. She also is a freelance writer, translator, former teacher and academic director of JumpStart Costa Rica. She lives in San José. You can read more by Katherine at “The Dictionary of You,”where she writes about Costa Rican language and culture, and raising a child abroad. “Maeology” is published every other Monday.