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What I Wonder When I Wander: Just when did we become Señoras (and should we even care?)

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We just arrived back in South America today after six months to continue our travels here through northern Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. This post felt fitting to publish now, since I was called ‘Señora’ at least five times today alone…

You don’t usually notice when something stops. Like the other night in New York when all of a sudden I got the hiccups and had them for over an hour – it wasn’t until halfway through my Thai food later that I noticed they were magically gone. Sure, there are things like blaring sirens or acute blinding pains whose end bring immediate relief, but for the most part, things have a tendency to slip away quietly without you ever really noticing the exact moment at all.

The disappearance of one simple, little, tiny syllable in my life happened much the same way. ‘Rita’ became simply. ‘Ra’. As in – we have gone from Señoritas to  Señoras and I just wasn’t expecting that quite yet. At every bus station ticket counter and newspaper kiosk, paying the bill at a restaurant or checking in to any hotel I now hear ‘gracias señora’ or ‘have a good day señora’.

dani and jess atacama desert
Just two señoras sitting in the middle of the road in the Atacama desert, Chile

I couldn’t tell you the first time someone referred to me as Señora, just like people don’t remember that first ever gray hair or that first wrinkle. I probably laughed it off. But soon, it snowballs and before you know it, you have a  full head of gray hair. In exactly this way, we are both now undeniably Señoras.

The first time I can remember it really hitting home was when an acquaintance was talking to a mutual friend and actually referred to me ‘the señora who travels the world full time.’ Ouch… She wasn’t just a stranger. She knew me and therefore actually thought of me as a señora.

You might wonder why this little linguistic shift matters to me, since I am not even natively from a Spanish speaking country. I have been either living in or traveling to Latin America for over half my life, in every phase of it except for early childhood. I have done little bits of high school and longer parts of college here, I got my first ‘real’ job here and we have spent nearly two years traveling here as GlobetrotterGirls, too.

indian girls kovalam
Would these beautiful Indian ladies be Señoras or Señoritas?

I just wonder what changed so obviously that there are no longer even a few ‘señorita’ mentions left? And that this is clear across every Latin American country we travel through. Has youth been so obviously zapped out of us?

laos grandma1
This sweet grandmother in Laos – she would be considered a Señora.

In the English speaking world, the line is clear: you are a Ms. until you get married and then you are a Mrs. No such line exists in Spanish. You are a Señorita until you aren’t. Ring or no ring, every woman becomes a Señora while the men in both cultures cruise blissfully along as Mister and Señor from the time their voices drop. For men, there is no culturally constructed border between phases of their lives.

Todos Santos Maya ladies
This mother would logically be called Señora.

It’s not like I didn’t know this was coming. As women, we know society has a drawn a line in the sand and that some day strangers will begin referring to us as ma’am or señora. I just always pictured this to be during the same phase when people stand up and give me their seat on the bus. I would be a beautiful señora with long, silver hair spilling down onto a loose sweater and flowing linen pants. I would be wearing lots of turquoise and silver jewelry inspired by my California-based great aunt who has sold Native American jewelry as long as I have been alive. That is the ‘señora’ version of myself I had always pictured – and still do. And I am nowhere near that lovely lady just yet.

Here I am, Señora Jessica, not even mid-way through my 30s and in better shape than the entire decade before. I’ve never felt more alive, or had more energy. Is warping into this brave new Señora world not the death sentence I had imagined it to be in my 20s?

I didn't feel like a señora on our New Mexico Road Trip this year...
I didn’t feel like a señora on our New Mexico Road Trip this year…

Although it came earlier than I expected, becoming a señora is nothing more than an indication of maturity and to be honest, I am relieved and proud that Dani and I are both so satisfied with life during this phase.

Much more important than realizing the last hiccup has come and gone, I only wish I would have been more aware of those ‘señorita’ moments as they were slowly, and permanently, disappearing.

Just two señoras at Highline Park, Manhattan in August 2013

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Tags : What I Wonder When I Wander

24 Comments

  1. I have had this problem in the Nepali culture (within which I spend a lot of time). Almost all Nepali women are married by their mid-twenties, which makes a difference when you are addressing fellow women (Bauju for another married, or equal age, woman… bahini for an unmarried/younger woman). As I never got married, I stayed “bahini” long past the usual age. But now that I have a baby (and am still unmarried) everyone seems confused. I’m not really a Bauju (the name implies that you are the wife of a brother) and yet “bahini” should not have a baby, as all women with babies are married/the cultural norm! Leave it to an American to confuse the hell out of everyone 🙂
    acrosstheneverysky recently posted..The Sights of Hollwood

    1. Very interesting and even more confusing! The only way I think we’ll top this is if we have kids and the kids call us both mom while we travel 🙂

  2. Embrace the change – it’s a sign of respect! I, for one, would love to be called Senora instead of Senorita here in Central America; Ms. instead of Miss (which is what I’m always called in English-speaking countries despite the wedding ring and reality that I’m in my mid-thirties). I say don’t pine for those ‘senorita’ moments, revel in your role as women to be looked up to!
    Marbree recently posted..Worlds Apart

    1. True, Marbree. I don’t think either of us are pining to be called Señoritas at all, just that we didn’t notice those times slipping away. We are both happier than ever, so being Señora isn’t so bad after all!

  3. This feels like one of those native-speaker things that you can never really get, no matter how well you can speak Spanish. If you ask a Spanish speaker to explain how they decide to call you señorita or señora, I bet they couldn’t: they just know! It’s funny, here in South America, Zab and I have been referred to ‘chicos’ more often than I expected (I think mostly because in Spain, that word is reserved more for young children), and sometimes I really thought people were messing with me. Apparently not.
    Sam recently posted..Is Barranco Lima’s Trendiest Neighbourhood?

    1. I guess so, Sam. The more I think about it, it’s similar to being called ma’am in English. At first it’s just when someone is being polite, like at a bank or official office, and then everyone is calling you ma’am- well, not you, since you’re a boy, but me and Dani and other women. Ma’am you forgot your purse, ma’am you’re standing on my foot, ma’am Starbucks is now closed, so you need to leave…:)

    2. Hola Sam! As a native Spanish Speaker, I provided my comments on how is decided to be either “Señora” or “Señorita”. As for “Chico”, in South America has become a synonym of “guy”, but you are right to say that in Spain and Mexico that would be mostly reserved to young children. So they are not messing with you, but mostly trying to be friendly :).

  4. Very good read and I hear you about the sudden loss of youth. There are pro’s and con’s to getting older and I just turned 35 and am about the same age as you both. Please just don’t change the website’s name from Globetrotter Girls to Globetrotter Women. 🙂

    1. GlobetrotterGirls forever Brian! We’re still out there walking miles and miles a day and as adventurous as ever! 🙂 We didn’t start this site until we were 30 and 31, so if we were going to be ‘women’ we’d have done that from the start anyway 🙂

  5. My friend and I have been calling each other “Senyo” (short for “señorita‎”) for over a decade and were just recently lamenting the fact that in our mid-thirties our shorthand now seems more appropriate to abbreviate “señora”. That’s our own self-imposed transition, though. What I really fear is when the word “vieja” will seem most appropriate…
    Cassie recently posted..Day of the Dead in Ecuador

  6. That’s funny – I’ve recently turned from being called ‘sister’ to being called ‘auntie’ here in India… I take it as a sign of respect – as long as the person saying it is significantly younger than me!

    1. Oh that’s interesting! We just haven’t spent enough time in India to really pick up on those things. So we’ll just go in expecting ‘auntie’ then.

  7. Hola Chicas! As a native Spanish speaker, I felt like giving my own 2 cents. Strictly speaking, just like the English-speaking world, you are only Señora once you get married, but colloquially (as pointed out by your post) it will depend how young you are perceived to be. There was even a famous soup opera in the 90’s making jokes over this with one of their characters: a principal in her 40’s correcting everyone else to be called “Señorita”. Just like that principal, if you point it out, people should automatically reverse to call you “Señorita”.

    I guess that it has to be with the traditional view that you must likely be married by the time you are in your thirties. And also, when you are addressing adults, “Señora” is more a sign of respect. The former is more likely to happen in formal situations (so mostly interacting with any vendor).

    Lastly, even if you are in your early-twenties, if they see you with children, people will automatically call you “Señora”, assuming that you are married.

    As pointed by others, just chill out and enjoy your newly respect status provided by your big experience on the road :).

    PS: The Indian girls in the picture would be definitely “Señoritas” :).

    1. Gracias Augustin! I appreciate that it is a sign of respect now, definitely and also you’re right though, of course vendors would call us that – and we deal a lot with vendors, hotel staff, tour providers, etc, since we are sometimes traveling more quickly through places. If we settle for a month or so, and get to know more people, I s’pose that would change a bit. Bit either way, it’s good to know that even mid-20s chicas can be señoras if they are around kids!

  8. Hola lovely Senoras! I know exactly how you feel but being about a decade older I first experienced this back home in Canada when seemingly overnight I went form Miss to Maam. I seriously wanted to slap the first person that called me Maam! I thought I had adjusted to it but then I started traveling through Mexico and I went through the trauma all over again when I was called Senora. Age is such a strange thing as I, like you, feel more alive, healthy and vibrant than I did in my 20’s and yet somehow we still become Senoras. Oh well, it is just a word after all and the reality is that now in my 40’s I am living my dream of a travel life and I’m doing it with a wonderful partner…who btw is in his 30’s! So call me Senora or Maam or Madame…I wouldn’t change a thing about who and where I am right now.
    sarah recently posted..Starting Out

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