clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Meaning of ‘Puto’

The time has come to talk about a contentious word, and in the frankest of terms.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at D.C. United Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Note: this is part two of a three-part series on the controversy around ‘puto’.

For part one, by Matt Perry, ‘Take no chances with the chants you chant’, click here.

For part three, ‘Puto: What comes next?’, click here.

Amongst the most painful, most divisive, most difficult issues in North American soccer is the use by fans of the four-letter word ‘puto’. For some, it’s a harmless word that they’ve been shouting at opposing goalkeepers for decades. For others, it’s a salty, inappropriate swear word you’ll hear at some soccer games. And for many others it’s a homophobic slur that denigrates LGBT individuals and makes attending a soccer game feel like an unsafe space.

The entire conversation was an academic one for me until recently. I had heard ‘puto’ yelled on TV when the Mexican National team played, or in Liga MX, or at LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and FC Dallas matches. The rare times it was yelled at DSGP, it was only a few dozen people in scattered spots. But in the final few games of the 2016 season, and especially in our playoff matches against the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders, ‘puto’ was yelled, loud and clear, from section 117, the section for Rapids official supporters group Centennial 38, at the opposing goalkeepers.

Fellow Burgundy Wave writer Matt Perry wrote a great article on the topic a few weeks ago, and I encourage you to read it. But I myself have never given the word a thorough examination.

So it comes time to contend with this word, puto, and what it means that some fans of the Colorado Rapids shout it.

Puto: Translation for Gringos

There is a lot to unpack in the phrase ‘the meaning of puto’. First, there’s the literal translation and meaning. Soccer writer Elliot Turner, in a piece for Fusion, did an excellent job of dissecting the etymology of the word, and I encourage you to read it. In short, the word in Spanish most simply translates as ‘male prostitute’. It can also be used as an emphatic adjective, like how Americans will append the f-word to the start of something for dramatic effect: ‘this f***ing jar just won’t open’ / ‘this puto assignment my boss gave me is really dumb’. But it also means ‘faggot’, a clearly hateful slur for homosexuals. And it also means ‘coward’, a word that, while not as incendiary as ‘faggot’, certainly doesn’t paint homosexuals in a positive light when the two terms are closely associated with one another.

Those are all definitions I’ve gathered from writers and commenters that are native Spanish speakers; I speak the language, but not well enough to differentiate the different possible meanings I’ve mentioned.

It is possible the word is merely a vulgarity. In that case, it compares pretty closely with the infamous ‘YSA’ chant that was common in MLS a decade ago. Teams made an effort to stamp it out, since it hampers a family-friendly sporting environment in addition to just being plain dumb.

Who dictates meaning: the offender or the offended?

Taken to a level deeper, there is the extremely important question of who holds the right to dictate the meaning of the word.* If many people have used ‘puto’ over the years to be a homophobic slur towards men, implying that gay men are cowardly and not a group of people you would want to emulate, then the question of whether it is inappropriate lies with those in the gay community. By that I mean: the person that says ‘I am offended’ generally has the right to ask the person using the offensive speech to stop.

I’ll use a personal example. Once, a person I was acquainted with in college was describing how they were negotiating about the price of a purse that had a scuff mark on it; asking the clerk to sell it to her for a discount. The person then said ‘So I really Jewed her down, and I got 20% off. Isn’t that great?’ I had to carefully explain that the term ‘Jew them down’ is a derogatory term for Jews; since we as a people have acquired the stereotype of being cheap and thrifty, people came to use my entire 5,000 year old religion and tradition as merely shorthand for being an aggressive negotiator. This expression has generally gone out of usage in America, because most people have been made aware that it is offensive.

The gay community is pretty well galvanized to the fact that ‘puto’ is not just a swear word; it is an offensive and derogatory word for gays. As journalist Pepe Flores wrote:

Those who argue that the cry of puto in a stadium is not an act of discrimination per se -- since it doesn't directly curtail anyone's rights -- are correct. But it's no innocent utterance either: puto is, at its core, a pejorative description of homosexuality as undesirable, as a threat (inexplicably) to heterosexuality, as the antithesis of masculinity.

Another soccer writer who has consistently and clearly stated that puto is offensive is Chris Billig, who’s twitter handle is, unambiguously, @gay4soccer. Chris was on Howler Magazine’s ‘Dummy’ podcast last year to discuss the topic. When I reached out to Chris recently for his thoughts on ‘puto’, he said this:

There are plenty of voices out there saying the chant 'puto' is offensive and homophobic, including scholars both in the US and Mexico and Mexico's own anti-discrimination agency. But beyond the question of linguistics is a question of common courtesy. Whatever the word might mean to you, it's a word that has caused hurt and offense to many, and the proper thing to do would be to stop when asked.

In addition, GLAAD, a leading organization working against intolerance towards LGBT has said that puto is clearly hurtful and offensive to gays. In an open letter to former FIFA president Sepp Blatter during the 2014 World Cup, GLAAD wrote:

Dear President Blatter,

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and its allies were extremely disappointed and surprised by FIFA's recent decision to affirm use of the anti-gay slur 'puto.' Conapred, Mexico's anti-discrimination agency, has come out strongly stating that the word is offensive and hurtful, so it is perplexing that FIFA has determined otherwise. Sadly, the negative effect of your decision quickly manifested. During the 23 June telecast of the World Cup, fans of team Mexico chanted 'puto' more times than ever, along with other anti-gay slurs like 'culero.' FIFA seems only to have popularized words that, in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world, mean "faggot." In countries where it is not specifically an anti-gay epithet, it is a very offensive pejorative, which expresses misogynistic attitudes.

The question of whether the LGBT community is offended by the word ‘puto’ is largely, then, settled. It either means ‘faggot’, and is hurtful, or it is a swear word with strongly gendered overtones that reinforces a bad message. And most footballing organizations believe it should stop.

FIFA, seemingly, agrees. After remaining largely silent for years over ‘puto’, FIFA has recently begun to fine the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) for the behavior of their fans in yelling ‘puto’ during Mexican National Team matches.

What does MLS say? Unclear

Major League Soccer, however, does not have an official statement or policy regarding the ‘puto’ chant. The league’s ‘Don’t Cross the Line’ campaign takes a strong position against offensive speech, but stops short of identifying or clarifying what may qualify. It reads:

Major League Soccer is committed to supporting the communities where we live and play our games, and to providing an environment in which our staff, clubs, players, partners and supporters are treated with dignity and respect. We will not tolerate discrimination, bias, prejudice or harassment of any kind. Don't Cross the Line promotes unity, respect, fair play, equality and inclusion throughout the soccer community.

Whether ‘puto’ qualifies as ‘prejudice’ is left unsaid. Moreover, in researching this story, I could find no specific instance in which MLS Commissioner Don Garber specifically discussed the issue around the ‘puto’ chant, or declared it to be inappropriate.

The Mexican soccer federation are recently on record as saying the ‘puto’ chant is not discriminatory. Recently, the FMF appealed the fines levied upon them by FIFA by claiming the chant is not discriminatory.

Local Rapids fans contend: it isn’t meant to offend

I reached out to local Rapids fans that are bilingual or native-Spanish speakers. They were divided as to whether the word should be perceived as a slur, or whether it is intended as harmless banter meant to unnerve the opposing goalkeeper. Abraham Sanchez has been a Rapids fan and member of a supporters group since 2009. He contends that the word isn’t derogatory. He told me:

The meaning of the word "puto" translates to sodomite and/or a male prostitute, it also is used to define a ladies man. When is used at the goalkeeper, it's used to distract the keeper, to mentally unstable him to make a bad goal kick, so the opposite team or the team we're cheering on in this case the Rapids can take advantage of it. NO (it) is not a homophobic shout.

But for Abraham, there is also a sense of yelling ‘puto’ as something of a tradition, linking him to soccer fans in Mexico.

It's something that has always been in Mexico's soccer culture for decades and its frustrating that now they want to change something that's impregnated in Mexican culture. As far as I know Liga MX it's not doing anything to change the Puto chant, simply because is part of the game.

Jose Bueno, a long-time Rapids fan, supporters-group member, and podcaster with the ‘Flakoglost’ football pod of America, largely concurs.

If you were to ask Spanish speaking folks what the word puto means, you would get a lot of different replies, but I believe in its literal sense, it means Male Prostitute. Now, what does it mean when it gets yelled at a goalkeeper? Well, that’s where the problem lies. Many will say it’s a homophobic slur. Some will say it means coward and the list goes on and on. Puto is similar to the word “Fucking” in America or “Bloody”; in the UK it has a lot of different meanings.

Other Spanish-speaking MLS fans find no offense in it, but see it clearly as a thing associated with Mexican fans, and therefore they are not-at-all interested in taking part. Rapids fan Jose Lopez gave me his perspective:

I'm not Mexican; I'm from Northern New Mexico. (There) the term puto is used as a derogatory slight for males but where I'm from it doesn't have the homosexual connotation that it appears to have in Mexico. So you would call someone puto if they whored around with women or if they whored around with different political circles jumping sides at their whim to serve their own needs. When I hear it in DSGP as a chant it doesn't really affect me one way or the other because they aren't using a term that I grew up understanding as derogatory to LGBT community.

For Lopez, he doesn’t take part in yelling ‘puto’, but not out of some moral objection, but instead because it’s just not a thing he sees as particularly authentic to MLS. It’s a Mexican thing. But he also doesn’t interpret the word as derogatory. Lopez also added a really interested coda towards the end of our conversation:

I support the LBGT community and the rights they are (or should be) guaranteed. However, it has implications from a larger cultural perspective that are not easy to delineate.

Another Rapids fan I spoke with, Juan Fernandez, was pretty succinct and direct.

The puto chant is unoriginal , unintelligent, and uncreative. I could care less whether people use it or not; the word has lost its meaning to me.

The question of whether it is offensive is immaterial; ‘puto’ to him is what ‘YSA’ is for me: an dumb thing that makes no sense to yell in public at a soccer game.

Jose Bueno feels the same way regarding it being unoriginal; but went further in saying that, when he understood it to be offensive to many people, he stopped.

In my own opinion, the chant is old and we have to move on. I myself have yelled it out in the past without the intention of hurting anyone, but with time I have realized that it can offend certain folks and I don’t want to do that, so I stay away from it now. I don’t believe it will ever be a serious problem in MLS, the SG’s are pretty organized they will have their meetings, they will get creative and nip it in the bud before it gets out of hand..

The movement to ban ‘Puto’ and its racial overtones

Other Latinos , like Orange County Weekly journalist Gustavo Arellano and Mexican journalist León Krause, are much more straightforward that the word needs to be banned and policed until it disappears from soccer. For Krause, the harmless intent of the word is not sufficient reason to continue using it, since the perceived meaning is still hurtful. During the 2014 World Cup, Krause wrote:

As a lifelong Mexican soccer fan who has heard and spewed his share of insults, I am not sure whether the crowd’s behavior is truly driven by a desire to dispute the opposing goalkeeper’s sexual orientation. Still, the hypothetically harmless nature of the mob’s motives is not enough to defend the chant. What matters is not the chant’s cause but its pernicious and painful effect. It has no place in soccer, and FIFA should do all it can to force Mexican fans to stop their annoying routine, including imposing the empty venue penalty or even more severe sanctions, such as banning Mexico from future international competitions.

There is an additional, complicated layer to the meaning and usage or banning of ‘puto’, which applies particularly in MLS, and of course by nature, locally in Commerce City. The discussion around ‘puto’ inherently splits right through racial fault lines between latinos and non-latinos.

The majority of people who are strongly opposed to ‘puto’ are white. Many Latinos, however, don’t find the word offensive. And some, for understandable reasons, are sharply opposed to any discussion of banning the term. Abraham Sanchez:

From the perspective of Rapids Latinos supporters, there's no talk at all about this subject, because it's simply not an issue for something that has always been common to us. The only talk we've had has been because the non-Latino counterpart its trying to ban something that's normal for us, and we're totally against the ban.

It seems clear that Abraham takes some umbrage to the notion of other Rapids fans telling Latinos in Centennial 38 what to chant or not chant.

Here, we get into issues around power, and entitlement, and privilege, and racism. And rightfully so.

Latino and non-latino MLS fans have an odd and mostly unspoken tension with each other within each stadium. While Latino and non-latino fans in MLS come together around their local team and generally coexist in their love of their team on terms that transcend race, class, and language, the paths that each group took to the sport are different. The soccer cultures of latinos and non-latinos are also quite different.

Many non-latino soccer fans are rooting for their domestic team because it’s the team they grew up with, while many Latino fans are rooting locally for the team, while still following the team of their childhood or their parents team from the Old Country, in Mexico, or Colombia, or El Salvador. That means that, while non-latino fans may be engaged in actively creating a new soccer culture in America, Latino fans may feel nostalgic for the fútbol culture of their upbringing, and are trying to recreate that culture once again with their local MLS team. Yelling ‘puto’ manifests as one very small example of that culture.

Historic racism towards Latinos doesn’t help the conversation, either. The white-majority culture in this country has defined the norms of America, and has subsequently expected others to conform to those norms, for hundreds of years. As a second-generation American myself, I know the stories of my grandmother being told to ‘speak English!’, or of my wife being teased as a child because her mother’s accent was so thick. The overtones of having one group of soccer fans, who are overwhelmingly from privilege, telling another, less-advantaged group of soccer fans what they should and should not do is impossible to ignore in this situation.

...

In saying all this, what I mean is: ‘puto’ does not mean one thing to all people. The meaning of ‘puto’ is not simply restricted to its literal translation into English. It has significance and meaning and debate and overtones and subtext that could probably fill a PhD thesis. There is no consensus on the meaning or the appropriateness of ‘puto’ when yelled at an opposing goaltender. And trying to come to some clear consensus isn’t simple either.

The relative stakeholders in the battle over ‘puto’; MLS, the Colorado Rapids, the local supporters groups, and the broader interests of all Rapids fans; are really going to need to determine the course of this question in the near future.

Coming later next week, Burgundy Wave will ask the question of whether some action should be taken address the question of ‘puto’ at DSGP, and who, if anyone, should take it.

— — — — — — — —

* I am tempted here to go on a long philosophical rant about the very meaning and symbolism of words themselves. Jacques Derrida was a phenomenolist and the father of Deconstruction, which teaches that words can have the meaning we assign them, or not. Language and its development are arbitrary and often debated. In this context, ‘puto’, then can mean ‘Hey goalkeeper, you suck!’ to Abraham, and mean ‘You are gay, and being gay is inherently bad’ to Chris. Both those meanings can be simultaneously be true. The challenge regarding this word, then, involves having Chris and Abraham begin to understand each other’s understanding of the word, and potentially change the use of it as a result.