What you need to know about the ‘Puto’ chant (spoiler: don’t use it)

Major League Soccer is weirdly determined to erase the pervasive chant of “You Suck, Asshole” out of its stadiums. But fans have started yelling something else during goal kicks which is probably worse.

In Issue Ten of The Blizzard, Nicolas Poppe analyzed the unusual trend: the growing use of the “Puto” chant. A staple in Mexico, the chant has just started gaining traction in the United States. According to Poppe, it was both offensive and heterosexist.

He was right, but the problem has only gotten worse. Months later, Outsports criticized TV networks for airing Mexican fans chanting “Puto” during the World Cup. FIFA investigated and found no wrongdoing, but, sigh, does that really count for much? Vice featured a somewhat brief soundbites debate about the term, and Slate fatalistically said bans on chants seldom work.

Amid all this confusion, allow me, your new favorite chicano LGBT ally, to linguistically, culturally, and practically dissect this debate.

First, a note on language. In Spanish, the term puta means prostitute, and Spanish, like other romance languages, has gendered nouns (a noun is either male or female). Thus, the term puto is the masculine form, meaning a male prostitute. (The feminine form is puta.)

In a literal sense, the term is not exclusive to male prostitutes who seek or accept male clients. But here’s the sticky, cultural part: How many female Johns are there really? Based on crime statistics globally, we can safely say: not many. Thus, a puto is de facto a male who has relationships with males for money.

Yet what’s interesting linguistically about the term puto is how it’s become embedded in the daily walks of life in Spanish-speaking societies. I grew up speaking macho Spanish in the U.S., but I’ve lived and worked in Spain, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. The word is everywhere. Did you just get a big tax bill from Uncle Sam? You’re likely to say putos impuestos! Did your boss just give you a shitty assignment? You may mutter under your breath puto trabajo.

Puto is thus used similarly to “bloody” in the United Kingdom and “fucking” in the United States. It’s pervasive. The chant only reflects the ugly linguistic reality of Latin America and Spain. Everything that provokes rage is a puto.

And here’s the odd part: As concerned activists, what do you do with a heterosexist term so embedded in society that its meaning has arguably changed? In the Vice story and my discussions with Leonard Waldman, a Mexican student in the D.F. who runs the excellent site Futbol de Cafe, it became clear that the typical El Tri fan means “coward”, not “fag” or “queer.” And contextually, that has some support. Fans only use the term when the opposing goalkeeper punts the ball up the field. Contrary to Vice‘s strained sports-as-sex reading, nobody shouts puto after a goal is scored (aka, an “act of sporting penetration”).

So do words have different meanings to different people and in different settings? Ask a linguist and they’ll say yes. But for me, conflating puto with “coward” as even more problematic. They are not synonyms, nor should they be.

It reminds me of my youth, when the term “gay” was sometimes used in place of “stupid.” Tolerance.org has excellent materials on hidden homophobia and how to address it. The puto chant is a form of prejudice and homophobia, but the speakers need to be educated, not necessarily chided.

Back in the day, when somebody would say, “That’s gay,” I’d stare at them and say, “That’s stupid.” And a funny thing happened: I stopped hearing that expression around me.

In terms of the word puto, if you do speak Spanish, try using the word pinche in its place whenever possible. Instead of shouting puto when a goalie kicks a hopeless long ball forward, couldn’t we just share a tasty Michelada and shout pendejo instead?

And if you hear somebody next to you shout puto at a game, a stare and substitute word should suffice. Until you educate somebody who is subtly heterosexist about why they’re being offensive, you have little hope of changing behaviors or attitudes.

Don’t turn a possible ally into an enemy. And, of course, don’t hold your breath waiting for FIFA.