When Latinos Need to Translate Their Own Language

A friendly recipe exchange brings to light a long-held secret among Latinos. When it comes to food, the same language can have different meanings.

Puerto Rican rice and beansMy mom was excited. Her first Latina friend in the states was coming over to have coffee and chat. Netty and Mami had lots in common: four kids, a love for cooking and the same language-or so they thought. When my Boricua mom and her new Colombian friend sat to sip café con leche and exchange recipes, they quickly realized that even though they were both native Spanish speakers, the other lady might as well be speaking Chinese when it came to talking about food! It got even funnier when they started using a dictionary to bridge the gap between their own, unique versions of Spanish.

The fact is that even though Español is the mother language of all Latin Americans (with the exception of Brazil), the words used for some of the most common items- especially food-can change drastically from one country to another, leaving many Latinos shaking their heads in confusion or even laughing out loud.

A fan of "papaya"
The diversity of culinary terms can even be cause for embarrassment to non-Spanish speakers. Remember Mitt Romney's linguistic faux pas telling a Miami crowd that he was a big fan of "papaya". Little did he know that's the Cuban slang for "vagina"! What no one told the red-faced candidate was that even other Latinos (including me!) have unknowingly expressed their love for papaya to eye-rolling cubanos, who call this distinct fruit "fruta bomba". Just to show that ignorance is not always bliss.

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Pastel or bizcocho?Pastel or bizcocho?Don't get me started with "pastel"
Take the word "pastel", for example. This is the word for "cake" in Mexico, while the rest of Latin America uses "torta", which in turn means "sandwich" in Mexico. That is, of course, except in Puerto Rico, where the word for cake is "bizcocho" because "pastel" refers to their traditional Christmas tamale. But don't dare say "bizcocho" in front of a pretty mexicana. If she's alone, she may smile at you, but if her muscled boyfriend is present, you may end up with a black eye.

So let's just clarify-for Latinos and non-Latinos alike-the interesting translations for a few commonly used (or mis-used!) Spanish words:

Beans
habichuelas: Used in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean (except for Cuba); green beans in Latin America
frijoles: Mexico, Cuba and Central America
porotos: Argentina and Chile
alubias: Spain
judías: green beans in Spain

Banana
guineo: Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic
cambur: Venezuela
plátano: Used in Latin America, except for PR and DR

Corn - maíz is the standard word, but here are some important variations:
choclo: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay
elote: Mexico and Central America
jojoto: Venezuela
chilote: Costa Rica

And like my abuela used to say, ¡Eso es así!

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