| Arts & Culture
Language How to Say I Love You in Spanish
You can’t go bigger than “te amo.” No one says “te amo mucho,” because love is already very much.
Last summer, I went camping with a group of friends and the man I was dating to Playa Escondida, a hidden beach along the coast of Fajardo, Puerto Rico. It’s known locally as a gay oasis, a place where queers go to escape and be free from judgmental eyes. We decided it was worth the thirty-minute hike through a labyrinth of mangroves to get there, and we were right: The sand was just as golden as we’d been told, the ocean so clear we could see fish swimming around our ankles. And we had it all to ourselves, which gave it an ancient, uncharted air. We cracked open icy Medallas and spent all day chasing each other in and out of the cool water.
That night, the man I was dating—Pablo—sat with me on a piece of driftwood in front of our bonfire. We held hands as our friends danced around us to Azealia Banks and Thalia, drunk on too much sun and cheap tequila and this rare taste of freedom. At other beaches, our queer group might have gotten some threatening stares. But here, not once did we worry who was watching.
If it had ended there, the trip could have easily been summed up with a few pretty Instagram photos captioned with something sappy like, “Take me back!” But then, around two o’clock in the morning, after we’d all crawled into our shared tent, our bodies huddled tightly together for warmth, Pablo got up and stormed out in a huff.
“Where are you going?” I asked. It was pitch-black outside, the only light coming from a handful of stars in the sky. I was afraid he’d get lost trying to head back to our car.
“Don’t come after me,” Pablo hissed.
I called out to him. “Hold on. Can we talk?”
“No,” he said, his voice trailing farther and farther away. “Stay there!”
I lay on the hard tent floor, wondering what to do, whether this was one of those moments where the other person says to stay but you should really go, if he was leaving me for a few minutes or really leaving, for good.
Pablo and I met volunteering at a free food pantry in Jackson Heights, Queens, early in the pandemic. He’d asked me out on my first day and we’d basically been inseparable ever since. Six months after we started dating, we decided to do something rash. I’d been planning on moving to Puerto Rico to reconnect with my father; Pablo wanted to get away from New York as soon as he was vaccinated. Naively buoyed by how well things were going between us, we packed our bags and moved to San Juan. Eight months into our time together, we still hadn’t upgraded from “dating” to being official boyfriends. And neither of us had said, “I love you.”
In the darkness of the tent, I suspected that was what he was angry about. We’d had a perfect day together in one of the most romantic places on earth. Neither of us had any excuses left. If we still couldn’t say “I love you” to each other here, what were we doing?
Pablo is Mexican. I am half-Nicaraguan, half–Puerto Rican. One of the things that drew me to him when we met is that we both speak Spanish. It’s more than the language alone, but that we have decades of cultural references we share. We watched the same novelas with our abuelitas growing up, had all the words to Bad Bunny’s “Yonaguni” memorized within hours of it coming out. I knew that I wanted him in my life for a long time since our first date at a fancy Italian restaurant in Manhattan, when we both cracked up talking about how much we wished we were eating tacos at our favorite Birria truck in Queens instead.
I didn’t love him yet that night, but I did feel something stir inside me that I wasn’t sure how to express. I wanted to see him again. I wanted to know what he was like in the morning, over coffee, and what temperature he liked his water to be in the shower. I opened my mouth to try to put words to the emotion, but I was afraid that I’d get it wrong and come off desperate. He was the first person I’d been on a date with since the pandemic began; I was horny and unhinged. I closed my mouth and smiled. “La pase bien,” I said when it was time to go. I had a good time.
It was enough to secure a second date.
Over the next few weeks in New York, as our relationship grew more serious, I knew it wouldn’t be long before Pablo and I had a real talk about our feelings. “La pase bien” wouldn’t cut it then. Nervous I’d find myself speechless again and blurt out something foolish about water temperature, I began to think of better ways to tell someone you care about them in Spanish.
You can start small and say “te quiero,” which translates to “I like you.” Though “I like you” doesn’t sound very passionate in English, it is in Spanish, perhaps because quiero can also mean want . I couldn’t have told Pablo “te quiero” that night at the Italian restaurant in Manhattan. Though I did like him and want him, it was too soon to be saying all that, not on a first date over a plate of spaghetti. We weren’t characters in a novela.
I did, however, consider telling him “te quiero” at several points early in our relationship when it would have been more natural—while making terrible rice-and-beans sushi with him at his apartment, the night we took edibles and went to Saks Fifth Avenue to try on fancy gloves—but my anxiety invariably stopped me: I’d never said “te quiero” to a boyfriend before, and Pablo wasn’t even my “boyfriend.” He was finalizing a divorce; until that was resolved, it didn’t seem right. And then there was the question: If he felt that way too, why didn’t he say it either? Though “I like you” doesn’t sound very passionate in English, it is in Spanish, perhaps because
quiero can also mean want.
As the months passed, I became ashamed that we hadn’t crossed this basic relationship threshold. I didn’t understand why what seemed so easy for the rest of the world—telling the person you’re sleeping with how you feel—was so difficult for me.
By the time we moved to Puerto Rico, it was too late. My like had turned into love. Saying “te quiero” would have been a step back. I needed something stronger. At least that’s what I told myself to avoid taking any steps at all.
You can also say “te quiero mucho,” adding “very much” to the end of the phrase. Strangely, the “very much” makes the connotation slightly more platonic. You might say this at the end of a call with your auntie, followed by “Que diosito la cuide y no se olvide de tomar sus pastillas del corazón.” (May God take care of you and don’t forget to take your heart pills.) If “te quiero” would have been a step back, after eight months together, telling Pablo “te quiero mucho” would’ve been a step into the friend zone. That wouldn’t have worked either.
No, what I needed to say at Playa Escondida was, “Te amo.” I love you.
You can’t go bigger than “te amo.” No one says “te amo mucho,” because love is already very much. “Te amo” was, I realized as I lay in the tent, the only thing I could say to bring him back.
There wasn’t one specific moment when I knew I loved Pablo. If our relationship were a movie, though, I would pretend it happened one night in winter while we were in line for tacos in Queens. We were giddy, freezing, our bodies pressed together for heat as snow fell around us. I would say, in voice-over, I knew I loved him right then, because it was the first time I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
I can’t remember how long it took me to leave the tent. I do know that I didn’t sleep, and that when I stepped outside, the sky was pinkish-gray. Far out into the ocean, a rim of light was breaking through. I found Pablo sitting on the sand staring at the water. He hadn’t slept either.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said back.
I sat next to him. Maybe it was because we were both too exhausted to keep our guards up, or because it seemed inevitable that we were breaking up and so we had nothing left to lose, but we ended up telling each other the truth. He said he was hurt that I hadn’t followed him, that the reason he stormed out was because, back in the tent, with all of us crammed together, he’d sensed I might be into one of our friends and that triggered old feelings of abandonment. I reassured Pablo that I wasn’t interested in anyone but him, but I admitted that I was frustrated. Though his suspicions were incorrect and I didn’t want to leave him for our friend, I pointed out that it felt like he wanted to claim me without actually claiming me.
“Which is so annoying,” I said. “Because I want you to claim me. We live together. It’s been eight months. This would be so much easier if I didn’t have love for you . . .” I told him, careful to say the last part in English and put the have in there, a way for me to test the waters. If he didn’t say it back, I could delude myself into believing the message got lost in translation.
Pablo saw right through my avoidance. “You ‘have’ love for me?” he asked.
I cringed, hearing my words parroted back. “Have love” sounded like a version of “te quiero mucho.” Platonic.
“Fine.” I crossed my arms. Finally, I said it: “Ya. Te amo!”
I turned my face away so he wouldn’t see my eyes watering.
“Baby.” He turned my face back toward him. “Y yo te amo a ti.”
The sun was rising. A tear crawled down my cheek. It was all a little too corny. “Shut up,” I said, blushing.
“No.” He pushed me into the sand and kissed my forehead. “Te amo.” He kissed my nose. “Te amo.” My lips. “Te amo.” Hovering over me, he asked, “¿Estás feliz?”
“I’m happy,” I said. “Are you?”
“Yes,” he said. “¿Y ahora?”
I didn’t know what to do next. I’d never made it this far. So I said, smiling, “Te amo más.”
He laughed. “It’s not a competition.”
“Yeah, whatever, okay, you’re right,” I said, though every now and then it feels like it is—perhaps not between us, but us against the world. “Te amo.” He kissed my nose. “Te amo.” My lips. “Te amo.”
All those times our hands accidentally brushed against each other’s in public and we quickly shoved them into our pockets before anyone noticed, every hug goodbye instead of a kiss. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of moments when we didn’t care what anyone thought or the possibility of danger, but what sticks most are the train rides when I caught myself resting my head against Pablo’s shoulder and quickly pulled away. Pretended we were just friends.
Until we went to Playa Escondida. Which is to say, until we went to a place where we didn’t have to pretend anymore. Which is to say, until we drove hours from home and hiked thirty minutes through a mangrove forest to a secluded beach where it’s no big deal to be gay. And it was worth it, because it was where I first told Pablo “te amo,” the hardest thing for me to say.
That morning, as we watched the sunrise, I rested my head against his shoulder without checking who was around, savoring our corny novela moment. The truth is, I didn’t care that it was corny. I suppose I’d convinced myself that corny was bad, because I associated corny with romance, and romance with danger. But not here. Here, it was just good.
Over the next few months, I practiced replicating the boldness I felt at Playa Escondida in public. “Te amo,” I told Pablo at the grocery store, at restaurants, walking down the street. They were words I never said to partners, partly because of the risk, partly because I’d gotten so used to playing it safe that it had never occurred to me what I was missing. Each time I told him “te amo,” I hoped it would feel less dangerous, but I would be lying if I said that my fear has completely gone away.
There are days when I can confidently declare “te amo” and I’m too swept up in our love to be hurt by strangers side-eyeing us. Other times, a familiar terror stops me and I wonder if it would be smarter to whisper “te amo” in Pablo’s ear, keep it a secret. Whenever I feel ashamed about this, it makes it a little easier to remember that I wasn’t the first queer Puerto Rican to go to Playa Escondida, that it’s not, in fact “ancient, uncharted” territory. I think about all the queer people who’ve needed to get to a safe space to be themselves, and that thought makes me feel like I’m not lost or alone.
I imagine they would tell me it’s okay, whatever I choose to do.
I imagine they’d say: We don’t judge. We’re just happy you found your way.