"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.
Apodos are a strange and fascinating aspect of the kids' lives and the life of Amigos de Jesús. They make you laugh, and in doing so they bring people together, even if it's at the expense of the one on the receiving end of the name. But that person too, even if the name hurts, is pulled into the life of the home that way, joining the ranks of all the others with their lists of nicknames. Most of the nicknames have stories, stories that make up a childhood lived at this place. They're the stuff of a real home, a real family. There's one kid called "puppet" in Spanish for the odd way he has of flailing his limbs when he moves. Another is called papaya because it's the only food he would eat when he arrived. Toolio is the nickname of one man who grew up and now works here when, way back in the family history, a little one could only pronounce his name with a lisp.
But they have that dark underside. Recently I was having a conversation about this with one of our older university boys. He was rattling off apodos and we were cracking up together about them. He got to one teenager who's nickname is machete. It's because his mother used to beat him with one. He has the scars still, all over his head. He mentioned it with a list of others, most of them silly, others with funny backstories. He was laughing as he told me about it. I got caught mid-laugh by the horror. But the kids have to laugh. You have to make jokes or it's just too horrible. And laughter diffuses; apodos mean belonging.
I don't have too many of my own proper apodos. One cute one is with one of our teenagers whose last name is flores, flowers in English. One of his common apodos is the word "flowers." I call him flowers, and he calls me Ms. Garden. A few other volunteers have them. Laura is called the "Lorax" by the same teenager, a nod to the Dr. Seuss story. She gets "loca" a lot as well, "crazy."
But one of the teenagers' favorite ways to use apodos with us volunteers right now is to mix our names up. One teenager has been calling me by another volunteer's name for months (I call him another kids' name). It started because he really couldn't get my name straight at first; then it became our joke. But recently it's become quite a game with a couple of the others. There are three of them in particular who call out a different volunteer's name at me across the field whenever they see me or get up close to me shouting the name. It's their way of teasing. But it's annoying. After a while I told them so. Why didn't I like being called other volunteers' names, they wanted to know, oh so innocently. Because, I told them, it's not my real name! Plus we're different people. And it's just annoying.
Number one rule of apodos: as soon as it becomes annoying, that's when it sticks. Of course the game only became more amusing once I let on I was annoyed. I don't think I'll ever hear those three call me Joanna again.
So there's the rub of apodos. On the one hand, they're a sign of acceptance, at least at the surface. There's nothing for building a relationship like having a joke. Here, hanging out with a bunch of kids all the time, those kinds of silly, drawn-way-too-far-out jokes are sometimes the only thing holding a relationship together. You run out of things to talk about; you need to have a joke, something to laugh about together. And when one emerges from the kids' end it gives me as a volunteer something I search for desperately and constantly: a sense of belonging with and among the kids.
On the other hand, there's the uncanny perceptiveness of nicknames, the way they seek out a weakness and latch on. This name-mixing apodo game is no different. Somehow, probably unconsciously, the kids' found a place that stung. For me it's the reality of the fact that all us gringa volunteers that come down here for a year are probably very much the same. We have more or less the same impact, probably more or less the same personalities. To the kids, we even look more or less the same. We all come, we all go after this brief year, we all say I love you and don't come back. Those are things I've heard from the kids and am struggling with right now. Something about the name switching apodo hits that nerve and stings. That's what makes it a good apodo. In some way it has to be true. An apodo is born in the moment of recognition by the namer, and the named's own self-recognition.
I was recently part of a conversation typical only in how prominently apodos played into it. One of the teenagers was relentlessly calling me by my volunteer-double name and we were joking about it, while I was getting annoyed. One of the smaller boys, noticing what was happening, came up and called the teenager "duck-lip." Sure enough as soon as he said it I noticed, for the first time, the slight protrusion of the teenager's upper lip. His face immediately fell and he muttered something at the little boy who was intensely pleased with himself, jumping around ready to dart out of the way if the teenager got too mad.