Question of the week: On labels (no, not that kind)

If he looks weird, it's 'cause he had just pooped I felt annoyed when she said it.

Boston — a young white woman I had just met — tried to tell me how I was related to my relatives.

“No,” she said. “She’s not your niece. She’s your second cousin.”

Boston was talking about Desiree.

Desiree is my cousin Patty’s daughter.

So here’s the connection:

Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni have 8 kids. The first is my Madrina Chilo. The sixth is my mom, Luz.

Eventually, Madrina Chilo and my mom got married and began their own families. Madrina Chilo has four children, Bibi, Patty, Tony and Gonzalo. About 10 years later, my mom and dad started their own family. They copied my Madrina Chilo and Padrino José and have two boys and two girls. I’m one of those kids.

So, that makes me first cousins with Bibi, Patty, Tony and Gonzalo, right? Simple enough.

Now, when my Madrina Chilo’s kids started getting married and having families of their own, I was told by my aunts and Mamá Toni (grandmother) that Patty and Gonzalo’s kids were my nieces and nephews.

Okay. I believed them. I had no reason to doubt them. I was only 6 years old or so when Gonzalo’s first daughter was born. Since then, many other cousins have started families. Their kids have never called me tía Cindy even if they’re informed that I’m their aunt and not their cousin.

Now, back to Boston.

Back when I tried to explain the connection between Desiree and I, Boston insisted that Desiree and I were second cousins. Huh?

My second cousins were the children of my mom and dad’s first cousins. Sure, Boston had annoyed me, but I just brushed it off until I recounted the exchange with X. He had a similar experience.

Las Preguntas: The whole thing got me wondering if Mexicans (or raza in general) see family relationships and labels differently than white people. Who is a second cousin? Who can be called a niece or a nephew?

Photo: Anthony’s (cousin Tony’s son) first birthday party, April 2005.


27 thoughts on “Question of the week: On labels (no, not that kind)

  1. chidolitis says:

    All I know is that my parents aunts are my tio/as, my parents cousins are my tios/as, my parents cousins kids are my cousins and so on. Its cooler that way! More direct connection. I feel it gives you more incentive to stay involved in the family, because it gives the illusion that everyone is closer and in turn it does create a clear sense of unity.

    I hope that sorta makes sense.

  2. Anne says:

    the girl was right. however, I have met a lot of people who get confused with the correct labels – no matter were they come from. I think it’s because we generally like to think of an older family member as aunt or uncle if they are not one’s parents or grandparents. who cares?

  3. I don’t know how much race plays a role, but here is how it goes for me… in my family, my first cousin’s kids are 6 and 3, and although technically they’re not my nephews I play an uncle role. But they don’t call me Uncle Joel… actually nobody uses the titles ‘Aunt’ or ‘Uncle’ for anybody in the family so basically, my family is useless for these purposes.

    My wife’s family is a mess because mi suegra had 13 kids and then ended up raising 5 or 6 various sobrinos or nietos. so there are kids that aren’t her’s but call here ‘madre’ and my wife ‘hermana’ and then there are some that don’t. my wife has a sobrina that is the same age as her and they were raised together sharing everything like sisters but they don’t call each other ‘hermana’… like I said, the whole thing is a mess and I don’t even try to pretend to know everyone’s role… basically every young kid in the family calls me ‘Tio Joel’, which is fine for me, it makes it easier.

  4. I get lost in that whole cousin and once, twice removed business and so on. On my dad’s side I have tia’s and tio’s and then cousins, however far removed they are. It is easier that way and just doesn’t seem so important to label. Two of my cousins I call Tio even though they are really my dad’s cousins. They were here in the U.S. for a fair bit of time when I was growing up and so I had a different relationship with them than the rest of my cousins in Panama so I call them Tio. It works for me!

  5. Dude, I totally think you’re on to something. I have pondered this myself when I have tried to describe my family relations to white people. I definitely think its a Mexican or Latino thing.

    Mostly everyone in my family is either a tio/tia, primo/prima, or sobrino/sobrina. We keep it simple, keep the ties direct.

    My cousins’ kids are my nieces and nephews. My logic, I think, is that it is a generational thing: anyone one generation down is a niece or nephew. Anyone on my generation (kids of my parents siblings/cousins) is a cousin. Anyone a generation up is a tia/tio (my parent’s siblings/cousins).

  6. Gustavo Arellano says:

    Aren’t your cousins’ children called cousins-once-removed by gabachos? In my family, my cousins tell their children I’m their cousin. And someone explain this: what exactly is a primo hermano? Second cousin?

  7. More food for thought: While Mexicans, I think, keep family ties simpler/more direct than white folk and their whole twice removed/second cousins bit, my (black) south african flatmate told me that they don’t have the word “cousin”. everyone is just “brother” or “sister”.

  8. HBC says:

    Technically, Boston is wrong. In her world, as your First cousin’s child, Desiree would be your First Cousin Once Removed.

  9. my cousin’s children are, to me, my niece and nephews, and i considered them as such before i had any experience with the spanish (de hecho i thought i was making up prima-hermana, haha!)- this has a lot to do with my relationship with my cousin. i don’t think i would call all of my cousins’ kids that, because we were never close. probably not even the future children of my older brother, who i don’t talk to. my personal experiences have had a lot to do with making me look at familiy ties in a much different light. actual connections have come to mean a lot more than pedigree/birth order.

    anyway, their grandmother/my aunt refers to me as their aunt. their mother/my cousin refers to me as their cousin. which i could be offended by, but i just chalk it up to that being the kind of explanation those kids require- my nephew’s freakishly smart brain requires things to be logical and structured.

    (but basically, yeah, cosign terri.)

  10. In my family, Desiree would be a cousin. We were always clear on who’s a cousin. What wasn’t so clear was who was a tio/tia. Naturally my parents’ brothers and sisters but then there were also my mother’s best friends from her childhood whom we were told were tias. So when I was little that’s what I would call them. Now that I’m grown up and have lived away from El Salvador for so long, it gets awkward. The tias have family members who have no idea who I am and why I use that label and there’s so much explaining to do.

  11. Anyone older than me who are not my grandparents or parents are tíos/tías. Anyone of my generation is mi prima/primo and anyone of the generations below me are sobrinas/os. My family doesn’t go beyond explaining primo hermano and primo segundo. Who cares? We’re all family, anyway.

  12. My cousins kids call me tio and my kids are their cousins. It has always been that way. I call my jefe’s cousins tios/tias and their kids are my primo/as. I’ve never understood that primo hermano shit…it’s to confusing! My primas daughter calls me “Papi” porque she’s the same age as my youngest and she hears her calling me papi.

  13. however you label your folks, those labels are true to you. in my familia, and in other Latin@ familias i know, calling older relatives (or even older family friends) tía or tío is more about respecting elders than the specific blood lineage. and calling someone “prima/o” is about familial loyalties and a recognition of a shared history. that’s why my primos joke that the viejitos only need to have a short conversation upon meeting someone to determine that they’re a primo. anyway, a lot of us don’t define “family” the same way that the white mainstream does. it sucks that she said that to you. sometimes white people just need to learn to recognize that their way isn’t always the ONLY way or even the RIGHT way. that’s just condescending. and what’s with the blood/sex/knowledge obsession anyway? geez.

  14. Vero says:

    Answer: Yes. Primo hermano has a much closer ring to it than first cousin. And if the kid’s mother is your prima hermana, wouldn’t you be her tia by virtue of the hermana status?

    Our real family is not always the one we’re born into anyway, so Boston should chill. I have a sister and several tias and tios with no blood relation (that we know of).

  15. Gabbo says:

    I hope you get some answers, b/c we’ve just started dealing with this issue in my family. Since we didn’t have a large extended family growing up, and now that my sisters and cousins are having kids, we’re not sure what to call these kids…

  16. l says:

    why do people care so much? I’m closer with my “third cousin” than any of my first cousins on either side of the family but I don’t feel the need to express any details besides cousin. My first cousins’ children are, for the most part, my nieces and nephews.

  17. Santiago says:

    The wife and I argue about this all the time. She is mexican. I think your their aunt. She would not think so. I used to think that was a white thing too. I guess not. Quien sabe?

  18. Cuauhtli says:

    Interesting topic. I have never given much thought to it. I was taught if you were older than me you were a tio or tia, out of respect. Same age–cousin. Younger–niece, nephew. So, I agree with Diego. Anyways, it’s not something you try to figure out–it is what it is (if you’re Chicano anyways!). The only time it’s a problem is when you’re planning a wedding or anniversary party–BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO INVITE EVERYONE! And that’s a lot of BUD LIGHT!!

  19. AJ says:

    I think it’s a cultural thing. Typical US family structure doesn’t seem to be very keen on embracing a large extended family. My dad’s family is like that. Only his siblings are aunt/uncle, I’m an only child so I don’t call anyone niece/nephew…anyone else is a cousin and after 4th they’re a little iffy about claiming you at all. My mom’s side of the family is an entirely different story. Vietnamese people are big on the extended family (hell, according to legend we’re all related…to a frickin’ dragon and a mountain nymph!). Aunt and uncle are used for older generations whether they’re blood related or not; sister and brother can be used for people of the same age group or in their teens or twenties. Ok, I think I have sufficiently confused myself.

  20. Vato Loco says:

    Just want to say that your blog is muy muy kewl.
    Love what you post and what your doing with ur life.

    Hope you inspire all peoples with the work you are doing.

    from an old East Los Chicano

    Chicano Power!!
    Viva la Raza!!

  21. if they are siblings or cousins of my parents they are tios/tias despite of how distant. even my grandparents siblings were tios/tias although i think i’ve heard the term tia-abuela/o…or am i imaging it? and my cousins, sean primos-hermanos or second cousins, they are all cousins. although, i tend to be closer to my second cousins lately… interesting post.

    its hard when you’re told how you ‘should’ do something, especially if it boils down to a cultural nuance. i hated when teachers in elementary school–this was before cultural sensitivity emerged–told us how we should do something, like celebrate xmas or attempted to adjust names.

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