coronavirus, social distancing, greeting, Latinos, besos y abrazos Coronavirus is significantly changing the way Latinos greet.
Graphic via Desireé Tapias for The Americano

“For most people out there, new coronavirus protocols mean going from shaking hands to not shaking hands. For us, it’s going from tight hugs and sloppy kisses to… what? Telepathy?

Anyone who knows me knows how I sign my emails: “¡Besos!” and “Muchos besos.” “Abrazos” and sometimes “Un abrazo enorme.” Yep. Hugs and kisses. It’s kind of my thing and I don’t do it in a vapid or thoughtless way. I mean it as a promise of warmth, of welcome. It is my way of extending a hand in friendship.

But my written besos and abrazos are (were) a symbol for the real thing you get from me in person: a kiss on the cheek, a hug, and a “Neeeene, tanto tiempo,” even if it really hasn’t been long at all.

Not that every one approves. I have, of course, friends and colleagues in every culture and they’ve been known to raise an eyebrow or make a joke about the way me and my Latinx friends greet people regardless of setting.

But hey, I haven’t always approved of their cold, ultra-corporate ways either. More than a few times, I’ve caught myself thinking, “Maaaan, she don’t know. We are Latinos! We greet each other with a kiss. We hug, we playfully slap a good friend’s nalgas to say hello.”

Because that’s how we do, and if you’re from Spain, you insist on kissing twice, sometimes three times, even after twenty years living in this country.

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More importantly, this affectionate greeting issue is not just about friendships and the culture of warmth and welcome that is a part of every Latino’s heritage. This is also about business relationships and how the current virus-sensitive climate will affect them. Many a Latino executive has closed a deal because the decision-maker liked him or her more than the other guy. Hell, I’ve closed a few deals myself, and, that special something that pulled them in? It is warmth and passion, both of which begin with strong handshakes and big smiles before a delicate but heartfelt hug of welcome.

You don’t have to believe me. Believe the Harvard Business Review: It is a business fact that openness, implied acceptance and enthusiasm for people help bridge business distances across markets, countries, and companies. Or you can think of it as one of Latino culture’s best assets.

Sure, other cultures also hug and kiss to some degree. But for most people out there, new Coronavirus protocols mean going from shaking hands to not shaking hands. For us, it’s going from tight hugs and sloppy kisses to… what? Telepathy?

It begins in childhood. Your abuela says, “Dale un besito a María, anda,” and if you don’t, grandma will be maaaad. “Why you so rude to María?”

As an adult, not being enthusiastic with your besos and abrazos when greeting will get you a reputation as a chica plástica. I mean, what are you? An hipócrita? One of those “ladies who lunch” and air kiss. No sir, my amigas and I squish breasts when we hug, like real amigas: “What, did you and I sleep together? Come here give me a kiss.”

But. Coronavirus. And, not just because there’s already talk about second waves and the end of life as we know it, I’ve begun to practice alternatives to our “bésame mucho.”

I can bow like the Japanese.

I can wave like a nerd at someone who is three feet away and going nowhere.

I made a sign to carry with me that reads: “If I could kiss you, I would.”

I can do put my hands together as if in prayer, my version of “I respect the divinity in both us even though we are truly screwed right now, but still, namaste to you!”

I could bring flowers to throw at people with my free latex-gloved hand.

Will it work? I don’t know yet, but I suspect it won’t because just this morning I ran into a good friend in the food pickup area of La Carreta and we both stopped as if struck, looked at the space between us and at each other’s masked face, helpless.

Before I knew it, my hand came up and opened, palm facing her as if I were about to recite the pledge of allegiance. Through my N95, I said “Me muero por darte un abrazo, pero te quiero demasiado,” and she said, “¡Y yo!” and we smiled and talked longer than if we could’ve just given each other a quick hug before hurrying off to pick up this or drop off that.

It was sad. But it was also love, and isn’t that what greeting with besos and abrazos is about in the end?

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Of course, it won’t always feel like love, as when my daughter, my husband and I celebrated her 30th birthday with an ice cream cake and a Happy Birthday song that included her abuela from Puerto Rico via Facetime.

I greeted the birthday girl hello with my mask on and apologized for not kissing her, but she cocked her head, confused, then said, “What? No! Unh-unh, mami,” and almost toppled me, from hugging me so tight.

Maybe I should have pushed her away. I thought of it. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.