Customs

Why is “Saludos” so Difficult to Say in English? (Part 1 of 3)

Saying Hi in Cuzco (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

If you spend time in Andean cities, such as Cuzco or La Paz, and get to know people from the area, you will hear something that does not work well in English and yet has great importance in the lives of people in those places. At the same time, it opens a big window into their culture and the ways it works with their society and life.

When ever you take leave from them, they will send saludos to your family and friends, one by one, with names, if they know you somewhat. When you see them, they will bring you saludos from their family and friends, again often by name and one by one.

That word, saludos, and the ideas it encompasses are difficult to make work in the English I speak and use. When my friends in the Andes who speak English look for a word in English to express what they mean, they will generally say “regards”.

To my ear, this sounds strange. Either it seems like a very formal nineteenth century English or it just doesn’t say anything that fits in my world. It is as if English were not a good vessel for carrying what is important to my friends.

To make some sense of this, let us look at the word “regard”. This words was often found at the end of letters where people might have also said “sincerely” or some such. It seems more an artifact of written speech, a quaint kind in this day of emails, text messages, and tweets. Anyone who tried to say “regards” at leave taking would be someone trying to sound old guard and particularly retro, in a century-and-a-half ago kind of way.

Making a Saludo during a Feast (PHoto: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Making a Saludo during a Feast (PHoto: Walter Coraza Morveli)

The word itself comes from French. Today it means to view or to look at. The Online Etymology Dictionary people give the word a meaning of “esteem” and “affection”. They also state that the French means “a look, appearance; respect, esteem, favor, kindly feeling which springs from a consideration of estimable qualities”.

The word seems to express, as a result, a look at someone with a gaze that includes affect and value. It makes people important to one.

I suspect that this joining of feeling and valuing is something that my friends see in the word regard and which makes it valuable to them, since by the act of sending saludos they are sending esteem and a view of another. The esteem and gaze may be of you but through you it extends to your loved ones. They are saying they are important to them because you are important to them.

When I translate saludos into English, I focus on a different aspect of it, the simple saying of hello. Much like I would say in may English, “say hello to so and so for me”. I simply say “they send their greetings”.

Unfortunately, I am also aware that makes only partial sense. I can see that in the faces of my friends and family in the US who always seem a bit confused when ever I pass on saludos in this way. I suspect they would be even more confused if I gave them regards, though it may be that the exotic sounding aspect of that word would cover the failure of communication.

While I suspect the Andean usage of saludos differs from that in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world, it is still useful to look at the word itself.

Saludo as a noun carries that sense of greeting, though it is more than a mere hello. In part this may be because of the emphasis given to greeting and leave taking in Andean society. These are much more elaborate than they are in other parts of the Latin world and far more so than in my Anglo world.

Cheers, Salud: A Kind of Saludo (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Cheers, Salud: A Kind of Saludo (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

They involve speech, gestures, gifts, and often food and drink. To get at that, however, perhaps we can find more meaning in the Spanish.

The word saludo is almost the same as another noun salud, health. Indeed they come from the same root. The verb saludar, that we can gloss as to greet could potentially mean to make healthy as well. Though this latter meaning is carried by the verb sanar today, saludar comes very close to it. The two words are intertwined in their meanings.

In a sense, your being part of a network of kin and friends, especially good relationships, is important for your being a healthy person and a moral person in the Andes. Sanar brings those two meanings tightly together.

By sending saludos to your friends and family people are recognizing your network as important to you and your well being.

To show the importance of the opposite, since contemporary bio-medicine–the field that more than any other claims health as its bailiwick, Medical anthropologist Kaja Finkler in her study of morbidity among Mexican women had to coin a phrase to speak of the absence of good relationships, or better said the harm to ones health of bad
relationships. The phrase is “life’s lesions” which is the organic impact of poor relationships and struggles on a person’s well-being.

Conversing in the Street (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)
Conversing in the Street (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

I find it engaging that the idea of saludos, at least in how it practiced in Andean Spanish, seems built on a notion of relationships as key to understanding a person and as key to their health. When someone sends saludos, as a result, they are not only seeing you as located within a sphere of relationships, they are extending their regard, their affect and esteem to them as a subset of their positive feelings for you.

This is also a recognition of the person, you or me, as being part of a set of relationships that can be considered as ayni, another difficult word. Usually translated as reciprocity, this argument emphasizes that ayni is not only a give and take between two people but is between them in the context of these other relationships which figure. People carry contexts and their selves reach out to their other relationships, their friends and family.

To saludar is a key part of being Andean. The people of Cuzco, La Paz and similar cities move along with their important relationships in engagement with you. And, they expect people from elsewhere, even us Anglo, to bring our relationships with us when we engage them

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