Are you the Mono?

It has always struck me how polite the average Colombian is and the extent to which they will be almost over slavishly obsequious in their servile flattery. Enter a shop, a hotel foyer or a restaurant that is staffed by Colombians and you are likely to be greeted with one of the following statements.

a la orden – at your service

su merced – your mercy

que le provoca – what takes your fancy?

And in a hotel where you are staying:

como amanecio – How did you sleep?

These phrases are inherited from antiquated almost colonial-era Spanish and of course those of you who read my blog, you’ll understand that this is a theme to which I return frequently, that of the class system here in Colombia.

At first, perhaps upon visiting Colombia you may feel comforted by this flow of exalted politesse and indeed Bogota, the country’s capital is often touted by residents themselves as being the “Athens of South America” for the prevalence of a well-educated citizenry. In fact a taxi driver once proudly told me this fact on the run in from the airport, not before he refused to take me all the way to my destination and round up the meter fare.

Sexy Bogota, are Colombians always polite?

But now, after six years here in Colombia living in the country full-time I am growing wary of the almost excessive cordial politesse from those who could be referred to as laboring in the “serving class”. I use this term in the most open and least offensive manner. But, for me this language now comes across as someone who is used to being treated as an inferior or involved in menial tasks.

And so, imagine my wonder and surprise yesterday when I received a telephone call from my bank here in Mompos regarding a bill that I had sent them for the cost of various bank employees in my hotel last month.

“Can I speak to the administrator or manager or someone?”

“You are speaking to Richard the owner, how can I help you?”

“You are the mono?”

I was left almost speechless. Here was a cashier in the bank with which I hold an account asking me directly over the telephone if I was in fact the “white man”. While the English translation for mono is monkey, here in Colombia, Caucasians are referred to as monos.

There is no need to be servile over the phone, merely respectful. And the bank was doing their job in calling me since there was an issue with the bill (part of me believes that they do not want to pay, but this is beside the point of this blog), I feel thoroughly offended that I can be recognized and referred to in this way.

Maybe it’s just the attitude here on the Colombian Caribbean coast? I don’t know. I can imagine Lloyds Bank calling me in London and referring to me by my surname. That the bank here in Mompos, called to inform me of a problem with my bill, my name being firmly visible and readable in the text, and then to be addressed in slang, was perhaps just something that tilted the scale from extreme submissiveness as inherited from the Spanish and reinforcing the feudal nature of life in Mompos, to downright poor manners.

I remain shocked. Am I wrong or just overreacting?

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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9 Responses to Are you the Mono?

  1. Richard says:

    This is far different from being referred to as the "gringo". I feel that "mono" is far more derogatory than "gringo" which is a kind of catch all here in Colombia.

    • markus says:

      I hate being referred to as gringo or mono and get both all the time here in Medellin. just got back from the market where maybe a dozen vendors tried to get me to buy something by calling me mono. I just walked away from every one of them until I found someone who didn't address me in that way.

  2. Meemee says:

    A bit late but whatever.

    I’m colombian, mono here is not a derogatory term. Mono is used for both caucasian people and blonde people. Is just a way to describe the way someone looks easily. It doesn’t mean you look like a monkey but in the contrary that you are pale-skinned and/or got light hair.

  3. Carolina says:

    I agree with Meemee, it's just a tad impolite but at least for us, for colombian people it's an inoffesive expression.

  4. Guillermo says:

    I’m colombian and I agree with Meemee and Carolina

    I found quite shocking that after living over 6 years in Colombia and who the hell knows how long in Mompox you haven’t realize that “costeños” are the most “frescos” in the whole country… You have to be kidding when you compare how banks in London (a city with over 4 million inhabitants) addressed to a customer and the way a bank in a town where I bet everyone knows everyone does it… Specially the english guy who owns a hotel…

    Besides “mono” is not a racist or derogative term… Simply a way to refer a pale skin person. You are totally overreacting.


    El mono

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

    • Richard says:

      Si los colombianos toman todo en serio, y tienen tanto protocolo, por que estan ofendidos a eso? Es curioso. Los costenos estan frescos, los bancos ineptos, pero cuando quieren cobrar, pedir documentos hacer problemas son los mas eficieintes del mundo. No tengo el derecho de exigir el mismo respeto?

  5. aalvarez says:

    Ok, this is an old post but just for the record. Mono would be the equivalent to "mate", as if someone said "i'm sorry but i can't see any payments there, mate" or "love", as if an old lady on the Barclays hotline said, "you've got no funds, love".
    If anything, monification, is a lower class – upper class attempt at endearment, as blonde hair has traditionally been associated with the wealthier classes. It has traditionally been used by street corner shop salespeople. "Mona, no se va a llevar las frunas?"

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