"He's calling me a nickname!" says Victor, his arm fully extended as he points at Joel his classmate. He's looking at me with an intensely hurt expression that's a warning I understand well: "I'm telling the teacher now, but in about a second I'm gonna hit him." I'm glad Victor, a short 12-year-old built of pure muscle, has chosen this more diplomatic option for now, but I know it's basically inevitable that Joel will get hit, go on using nicknames, and go on being called them by Victor (who's just as guilty truth be told).
The word here for nickname is apodo. It's a useful term; kids use it to talk about the nicknames they have here at the hogar or the ones they use for other people. It's also a negative thing, as it was for Victor that day (every day to be honest). "He's calling me a nickname" in this sense of the word really would translate to English as "He's calling me names." But there's a sense of ownership in it, too; he's not just calling me names, he's calling me my name, the one assigned to me, the one that hurts because it's just mine, and it's kind of true.
Nicknames are an incredibly common part of life for the kids here, and for anyone who comes to live here. Everyone, no exceptions, has a nickname, or seven. It's one of the first of the many idiosyncrasies of the kids' lives here an outsider notices. In some cases a nickname has morphed into the person's everyday name. In others, the apodo is a hated kind of insult, but sticks just the same.
Apodos are, very often, hilarious because they are so accurate. I am always impressed when a new nickname emerges (I've been here to see a few) by the kids' perceptiveness, eye for detail, and crushing accuracy. For example there's a 9-year-old here, a short little ball of a boy. He can be sweet, but he's mostly infamous for picking on the other kids and causing trouble. His nickname is Shrek, the character from the Dream Works movie. I would never have had the ingenuity to invent the name, but with his perpetually shaved head and especially the ears that stick out from its sides, there is something unmistakably Shrek-like about him that's hard to forget once you've heard the name and that draws an immediate laugh of recognition. He hates his nickname. The other pequeños, our younger boys, love to get a rise out of him by calling him his apodo. It always works.
As much as the kids might hate them, I can't help but feel like there's also something to them that means belonging. Being given a nickname means you've been taken in as part of the family. One of the first things that happens to a new kid who arrives is the bestowal of a nickname. Give it a few weeks and the boys will find some oddity of appearance or personality and assign it the perfect name. One of the boys I teach arrived to the hogar in December. He was here for less than a month when the kids found it: zombie. Once again, I never would have found such a fitting word for that whatever-it-is about him. But zombie sort of nails it. He loathes the name. "Don't put apodos" is a constant in my school day.