The culture in words



Upon seeing the boy entering her office, the doctor smiled at his mother and said, “How adorable!” The mother didn’t know how to respond; the young, blonde American doctor’s Spanish, while friendly, sounded unnatural and took her by surprise. The word “adorable” seemed strange when directed toward her son. She smiled shyly in response to the compliment while the child clung to her legs.

For many Latinos, the verb “adore” is associated with religion. One adores the Saints, the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ; in English it might be translated as “worship.” The doctor later told me that she had only wanted to tell the woman that her son was cute, and she asked how one says “cute” in Spanish. In reality, there is no exact translation for cute. Every Latino country uses different words in similar situations with children, animals, toys or even adults, but none really means cute.

In their home environment, few immigrants use a word like cute to describe a child. Their verbal communication tends to be different—simple and at times sparse—except among those in the middle and upper classes who want to resemble the American middle class: they might say something like cute. In Mexico that might be “¡ay, qué lindo!” (“How pretty!”) or “¡qué chistoso está!” (“How funny he looks!”). A Mexican doctor would have known how to phrase such a comment according to the situation and the socioeconomic level and ethnicity of the mother and child.  

Communication barriers exist between Americans and Latino immigrants because of cultural differences, especially if those immigrants are coming from poverty and neglect. Language is the most obvious barrier, as it is nourished and expressed according to the habits and lifestyle of social groups. The more impoverished and abandoned the person, and the more limited their education and opportunities to advance economically and socially, the less verbally expressive he or she will be. Additionally, the cultural divide between rich and poor creates attitudes of domination and submission; these result in different uses of language when speaking inside or outside one’s group. Because it is impossible for someone outside the culture to decipher these differences, the barriers to understanding endure. So a working knowledge of Spanish or the use of a translator is not always enough when trying to communicate with an immigrant.

When a poor immigrant, accustomed to being seen and treated as inferior in his country by those who try to look and act like Americans, receives expressions of apparent respect and equality in this country, he or she can feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and confused by the friendly but unexpected and suspicious treatment. Surprised and unsure how to respond to such imposed equality, the immigrant will usually smile and say very little. Although with time, some immigrants learn the differences between their wealthy and powerful countrymen and Americans in the United States, most continue to feel different and distant because they are in a foreign territory controlled by another group. Most Americans don’t understand the reaction and its source.

Although they may have good, well-paid jobs, many immigrants feel that they suffer discrimination, maltreatment and injustice because they don’t understand a foreign system that requires punctuality, attendance, performance and letting their employer know when they are sick.  This same system also asks that they pay for telephone and electric service on time. In their home countries all these things are treated informally and inconsistently. Furthermore, they don’t understand the labor system and American socioeconomic rules, and they have different perceptions of justice and equality.

In addition to all these cultural differences, which are so difficult for the average American to comprehend, there are many words that are the same in Spanish and English according to the dictionary but have very different meanings in actual usage. For example, here a “principal” works in an “office,” but in Latin America, the “director” works in a “dirección”( a word that also means “address”). And “principal” in Spanish is only used as an adjective, whereas “direction” in English refers to something else entirely. The “library” is the “biblioteca,” not the “librería”—that’s the bookstore. The list of such differences is goes on and on.

In our highly developed social and economic system, with activities concerning labor, commerce, education, law, medicine, bureaucracy, recreation, etc., we often use words similar to words in Spanish, but in different ways. This is because the infinite and complicated diversification of those activities and their formality differ enormously from those in underdeveloped Latin American countries. The gigantic gap between the two cultural systems prevents immediate and accurate translations, even when Latinos have received higher education and speak English. This is true not only for specific words, but for much of what one culture expresses, with or without words, that doesn’t necessarily have a translation or understandable explanation in the other.


Victor Reyes is a translator, teacher and writer, and a native of Puebla, Mexico. The original Spanish version of this column is available at