I WASN’T IN the Astros’ dugout when a camera caught Yuli Gurriel making what has been described as a racially insensitive gesture, so I don’t know what he was saying or what was going through his mind when he did that, or when he uttered the word chinito. But his explanation that he was joking with his teammates that Dodgers Pitcher Yu Darvish went easy on him because Darvish thought he too was Asian is plausible to me.
If you look at Gurriel’s face you can tell that he, like many Latinos, have hints of Asian features on them. It is possible that, after having played baseball several years in Japan, Gurriel thought of himself as having Asian looks. As to the word chinito, I categorically reject the charge that it translates into “little Chinese boy,” as The Washington Post reports.
Yes, if you’re talking about a Chinese boy, you most certainly use the word chinito. But for many Latinos – including me and my family and most of the people I grew up in South Texas – there is nothing racist or demeaning about using chinitos when referring Asians.
I grew up never knowing how to say “Asian” in Spanish. Like Gurriel, and like most of the people I grew up with, I would say chinito if I was referring to anyone of Asian descent. If I were to ask any of my relatives how to say it in Spanish, they would either shrug their shoulders or say chinito. If you were to ask the same question of an upper- or middle-class educated Mexican or Cuban, you’re likely to get the correct word, Asiático. I doubt Gurriel grew up among people who used such words.
And, to be quite honest, if I were to be talking to family members today about an Asian person whose nationality was unknown to me, I would probably still use the word chinito or chinita. Why? Because I wouldn’t be sure I’d be understood if I said Asiático or Asiática. And because I’d be afraid I’d be thought of as putting on airs by using such fancy language.
Maybe Gurriel does know the word asiático, and maybe he would use that word in a more formal atmosphere. At a news conference, for instance. But in a dugout, in the excitement over just having hit a homerun, talking to his fellow Latino teammates, I can see how he would use the word chinito instead of asiático.
As to the “ito” part of the word chinito: there is nothing demeaning about it. Absolutely nothing. Spanish speakers use the diminutive suffixes “ito” and “ita” at the end of nouns and adjectives to denote small size or youth or affection. Yes, when I say chinito, I could be talking about a Chinese boy or a small Chinese man, but I could also be talking affectionately or respectfully about any Chinese male, regardless of age or size.
When we say simply un chino or una china, we are taking away a bit of that respect. Chino and china are cold, disrespectful words. Adding the suffixes “ito” and “ita” adds warmth and respect.
It’s the same when we’re talking about people of African descent. We almost always say negritos or negritas. The only time we use negro or negra is when we intend to convey a lack of respect. Two doors from where my sister lives in Crystal City is Mount Olive Church, the town’s only black church (where one of my nephews and his wife were married). We refer to it as la iglesia de los negritos. Never, la iglesia de los negros.
And when we say that, we’re not saying the church of the little black boys, just as when we say mamacita and papacito, we don’t mean little girl mother or little boy father, and just as when we say Diosito we don’t mean little boy god.
Likewise, when Gurriel said chinito, it is very, very unlikely he was saying “little Chinese boy.” In fact, I would argue that the fact that Gurriel said chinito and not chino is proof that he in no way was showing disrespect for the LA pitcher.
The use of the diminutive suffix when talking about other minority races does not indicate hatred or disrespect. It indicates the complete opposite. It shows there is a sense of connection, of shared experiences. (That may be why you almost never hear us say gringuito, unless we are indeed referring to a little white boy.)
SO I WOULD argue that the penalty assessed on Gurriel by the baseball commissioner is excessive. However, I don’t believe there was anyway the commissioner could adequately explain all the intricacies of the Spanish language to an American audience, so he had no choice. He did the right thing, though, by delaying the punishment until next season.