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How do you Say Tomato in Spanish: Tomate or Jitomate?

Por Eleazar Lara-Pantin, MD, MSc.* -

One of the most valuable treasures Hispanics have inherited from their mother country is without a doubt the language. Spanish is not only rich in terms of its vocabulary and the flexibility afforded by its complex grammar, but also because of its capacity to enrich itself as Spanish-speaking communities move around the world and integrate with other cultures while still retaining their language as a fundamental bond of union.

I have spent various decades learning and sharing experiences with people from nearly all the countries of Latin America. Over the past three years in this global village that the world has become, I have had the good fortune to witness that, beyond any diversity in lexicon or syntax from one country to the next, there is a community with a priceless cultural heritage now established. It is established in a vast territory, which spoke a different language for centuries and whose evolution has paved the way for the birth of a broader version of the original Spanish language. I'm referring to that of the Hispanics in the United States.

The impressive growth of minority populations in the United States has resulted in the Hispanic community becoming the largest minority group in the country. It now accounts for over 37 million people according to the latest census and official statistics. This means that Mexico is probably the only Spanish-speaking country in the world with more Spanish-speaking inhabitants than the United States.

But this is not just a matter of facts and figures. Such a large number of people represents a huge responsibility for those who have to make decisions and promote and implement programs and services for a population who needs to be informed and educated in a different language than the one used by the majority. In a country in which being Hispanic is a notable factor for increasing the chances of suffering from certain illnesses, several tens of millions of people that speak another language represent a reality that can not be overlooked.

Fortunately, legislation is being implemented, meaning that the issue is beginning to get the attention it warrants, but the task ahead is not an easy one. It is not enough to just translate everything from English into Spanish, which, though expensive, is not difficult. The problem is that the Spanish spoken by the Hispanics of the United States is a different version of the language countries received from the motherland five centuries ago, and is also a modified version of the one spoken in each country of origin.

Two fields in which these differences are most apparent are health and food. Due to space constraints, I'll only mention a few examples in the area of food, like the tomato issue raised in the title of this article. In a community in which over 60% of Hispanics are of Mexican origin, we cannot ignore the fact that for them "jitomate" would be the correct translation. The translation of cake is not torta because torta in Mexico is used to refer to a kind of sandwich. For some Hispanics, the correct translation of avocado is aguacate, while for others it is palta, cura or cupandra. For some, corn on the cob would be translated as elote, but for others it would be mazorca, choclo or jojoto. Then there is the case of popcorn which would translated as palomitas de maíz by some, but as cotufas, crispetas or poporopos by others. Let's not even beginning to discuss the different meanings of the word churrasco according to where you come from.

In addition to the many different names sometimes given to the same food item, there is also a huge variety in the ways food items are used to prepare dishes. One example of this is avocados, which in some countries are seen as a fruit and served with sugar, and in other countries as a salad ingredient to which you add salt to bring out their special flavor.


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