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Local schools and the etymology of “mamí”

(adapted from a letter I sent to my former roomie today)

I went to a meeting of local parents about the school system today. It
was, of course, infuriating. I found out that the school next door to where
I’ve been working ranks 656th out of 677 schools in the whole city. And it
just opened last year!!! Someone alleged that a high-level administrator, in
addition to screaming at kids and degrading teachers and parents, punished
some kids by denying them lunch. That’s *illegal*. It’s child abuse. Over
and over these parents were saying that the schools lacked certified
teachers… I just wanted to scream out, Wait, I can teach! Hell, I’ll
take the principal’s job, and I swear to you I’ll do it better than he

I feel like moving out of my super-low-rent apartment in this lovely part of Queens and finding a place up here in the Bronx and really digging in to the community, just teaching my heart out. It drives me mad
to hear these things are going on and not be able to do anything about it.

* * * * *

I meant to post something about the interesting conversation our office ended up having yesterday on the meaning of the word “mamí.” I forget how it came up, but somehow we started discussing it when my boss came down to speak with a co-worker yesterday. We were trying to explain to her the meaning of the word, which presents a challenge.

“Mamí” wasn’t a word I’d heard before coming to the Bronx, save in the corner of my hearing as I passed mumbling old men in Queens. “…mira mamí…” “…sexy mamí…” “…eh mamí que paso?…” If not for this charged context one might mistake the word for its American homonym, “mommy.”

Away from the hot breath of lascivious old New York men the word takes on a different meaning. I grew aware of this as my co-worker, a demure mother of five in her thirties, started to call me “mamí” as an alternate for her usual affectionate “baby.” I have since heard people of all ages call women mamí, with diverse implications. It seems to have spread beyond the Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican and Dominican community to neighbors. The phrase is at its most mind-bending found out of Hispanic context: every once in a while, I hear African-American or Jamaican mothers address their tiny daughters as “mommy.”

My boss came at this with her feminist goggles on. “How fascinating… are they grooming these little girls for motherhood when they say this?” she asked, her curiosity running a little exploratory expedition for Queen Outrage. None of us thought so. As far as I can see, the flexibility of the word has almost divorced it from any implications of age or motherhood status. A few women in the office told stories about a family member or two who had become indignant and reminded strangers addressing them as “mamí” that she was not their mother. But generally, “mamí” seems to simply be a somewhat intimate form of address for a female person, as “papí” is for a male. Things I might not have learned if I’d never left Pasadena.

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