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At its core, 'puto' is homophobic

A Mexican journalist says the chant, heard at the World Cup, is not innocent and reflects a "deeply rooted homophobia" in Mexico.

Laurence Griffiths

Mexico's World Cup team had an amazing run in Brazil, coming achingly close to a spot in the quarterfinals before losing to the Netherlands. But for gay people, the memory that will remain was hearing the crowd repeatedly and lustily chant "¡Puto!" as a term of derision against the opponent.

While the term is clearly meant to denigrate and was even called a gay slur by Mexico's anti-discrimination agency, it had many defenders in Mexico, who appeared to use the chant as a rallying cry against the outside world. I spent the past 10 days in email and online discussions with fans who defended its use.

It's with this in mind that I am reprinting this excellent column about the word by Mexican journalist Pepe Flores. I am greatly indebted to Paul Coltrin for his beautiful translation. "Puto" has started to be heard at Major League Soccer games, so don't think this issue has gone away.

Homophobia, the crowd salutes you II*

By Pepe Flores
Translated for Outsports by Paul Coltrin


A magazine wrote me asking for my opinion on the chant of "Puto!" Although I shared my opinion back in 2011 when I was writing for Vivir México, I liked what I sent back in response. I'm posting it here, at this point just to save it from oblivion.

The stadium is a cathartic venue. It's a place where people vent their frustrations and passions, where they show their visceral side. Soccer is a stage of symbolic war between teams, colors and convictions -- especially at the World Cup, where nationalist sentiment is exacerbated. Soccer, it could be said, is inherently marked by otherness; the idea is not just to root for one's own team, but to intimidate and humiliate the opponent.

If the word puto is used, it's only out of entrenched habit. That's the crux of it. It's a term that has been naturalized into our language and is used as an insult even against inanimate objects and intangible things, as Mauricio Cabrera points out in this column, where he puts forward an apology for the term. I, however, agree much more with the position of Genaro Lozano and other analysts: the fact that it's commonly used does not make it innocent. It's a word that, as predominantly used, carries a specific connotation, one designed to insult and discriminate.

In the conceptual landscape of soccer, virility is a coveted core value. Coaches tell you to go after the ball "like a man," not to kick "like a girl." Of course: "Don't be a puto and play." This is the defense argument of those who deem the term harmless: that it means cowardice. But they fail to see the backdrop: that being a puto is equated to a lack of courage, a social construct defined by values associated with masculinity. This is reflected in expressions ranging from te faltan huevos [you're missing a pair] to aguántate como los machos [bear it like a man]. As though a woman (who is also "missing a pair") or a gay man (effeminate, by the most archaic stereotype -- again, note the dichotomy) were lacking the virtue of courage.

In this sense, it is a deeply rooted homophobia, culturally speaking. This is the most dangerous kind, because it has become invisible. Like any other word, of course, it is subject to changes in meaning, and its interpretation varies with the context in which it's used. But, as Daniel Moreno points out, to justify its use in a stadium on the basis of tradition is to refuse to see the beam in one's own eye. This should open up a necessary discussion, not toward the banning of the word -- which would be the wrong approach, as noted by Antonio Martínez -- but toward an understanding that perpetuating this expression has consequences in the near term (in this case, the fine that FIFA is likely to assess the Mexican Soccer Federation**) and beyond.

I'm afraid that Mexicans will react by confronting, rather than reflecting; that the cry will resound even more loudly against Croatia*** under the excuse that FIFA lacks the legitimacy to handle the complaint (since it has awarded the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, countries with high levels of homophobia). Mexico is trying to hide from itself: it has adopted a cry that uses the most offensive thing it can find -- the lack of masculinity -- in order to insult.

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. I don't deny that it has taken on other meanings, and that it can even be used as a term of endearment (as Cabrera says, as a synonym of güey, for example) - but here we're talking about its use in a specific context, as a specific act. All else is sidestepping.

Even though the word puto has taken on other meanings, the one being defended here (a lack of courage) is intrinsically linked to a male-chauvinist perspective, one that finds the perfect breeding ground in soccer. If you don't think so, just ask Ricardo Peláez, director of Mexico's national soccer teams, who said that Mexico's players could have sex during the World Cup "as long as it's not with each other."

From joke to joke -- and from chant to chant -- the mirror of our society is unveiled.

*Translator: In Mexico the phrase la porra te saluda ("the crowd salutes you") refers allusively to a well-known vulgar insult naming the target's mother. At soccer matches it is often directed at the referee.

**Translator: The author wrote this soon after the announcement that FIFA was looking into the matter, but before the announcement that FIFA would to take no further action.

***Author: Indeed, the chant of puto was used not only on goal kicks by the Croatian goalie, but also on Croatian free kicks and corner kicks.

Pepe Flores is a Mexican journalist and university instructor. You can read the original article in Spanish. Flores can be followed on Twitter.

Paul Coltrin is a professional English-Spanish translator, certified by the American Translators Association. He can be reached at paulcoltrin@gmail.com.