Dear Mediaite: Asking the Latino in Your Office About “Putos” Doesn’t Make You a Cultural Expert

Before diving into what the hell was Mediate's Jon Bershad was thinking, we want to say the following: when we first shared Bershad's Mediaite post about  how the conservative GOProud was demanding an apology from comedian George López for having called Mitt Romney a "puto," because the word "puto" is "apparently an anti-gay slur," we posted that the word "puto" had several meanings in Spanish, and that we suggested that Bershad maybe should have done a little more actual reporting instead of just interviewing his Latino colleague about what the word meant (more on that below).

Anyway, the Facebook post led to a very lively and open discussion about the use of the word and all its several meanings. We got a slew of responses and they were all pretty unfiltered and honest, because that is how we roll in our Facebook community. This by far was our favorite from Danny Olvera, Editor-in-Chief of XQSí Magazine, an LGBTQ Latin@ publication based in Los Angeles:

As a gay Latino (who has been called that term all my life), I think George Lopez needs to STOP throwing it around so casually. It's a hurtful word. I love George's standup and always try to make it to his shows, but the moment that word is thrown, I shut down. I can no longer enjoy the show, and all because he thinks a slur is funny. That said, GOProud needs to let queer Latin@s handle this. They should be going after GOP candidates who are offensive. Trust me, "we got this."

In addition, Olvera's @KarariKue Twitter profile slammed the Rebels account with a barrage of tweets because we were suggesting that we didn't think the word "puto" was a slur against gays, which was not the case. It is always hard to explain oneself in 140 characters with a series of tweets, so we promised that we would try expand our thoughts here. We are every aware of how the word is used in some Spanish-speaking countries and groups (some of us have been called that name, too), and yes, the word stings if used in a way to disparage and belittle gay people. It definitely upset our Twitter follower that we posted what we posted, and for that, we are sorry. Yet, besides the fact that López crossed the line with some, we also think that this story and how parts of the English-language media covered it still needs to be discussed and dissected.


Before we share more thoughts about the Mediaite piece, here is the clip of what López said on Saturday during his HBO special. In this segment, López is blasting Romney and Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio, telling Romney that he is a "fucking Latino" (technically correct since his dad was born in Mexico," saying that "puto" should "come out of the closet" and calling Arpaio "puto" several times.

You can imagine why today people are talking about what López said. And yes, López said things that were not right.

Nonetheless, our point from our original Facebook post wasn't just about the use of a slur, it was about how Bershad quickly concluded that the word could only mean that an "anti-gay slur" because (wait for it), he asked his colleague Alex Alvarez, and how Bershad just went ahead and kept going to prove his point in a witty way: I have no idea what this Spanish word means? Hell, let me ask the Latino guy! And let me have the Latino guy use the slur and the provide the English equivalent of that slur. I look like a genius, I get to make my point, sound clever, get a bit more diverse in my columns, and we all go viral!  Here is what Bershad wrote when he spoke to Alvarez:

ME: Hey, Alex. What does “puto” mean?

ALEX: Male whore.

JON: So, it’s offensive to…?

ALEX: Men?

JON: But more specifically.

ALEX: Gay men.

JON: Is there an English word that corresponds to it?

ALEX: I guess “fag,” kind of.

And there is the problem. Or rather the problems. Bershad fall into the trap that is fast become the bane of digital columnists and journalists: in the quest to be THE FIRST with the MOST HITS, things get a bit sloppy. So, Bershad's first mistake was assuming that Alvarez knew exactly what the word meant. Alvarez was partially right, since besides the fact that "puto" can be an anti-gay slur, it can also mean, a very active and horny heterosexual many, a jerk, an butthole, a traitor, an ass, an ignoramus, etc. etc. It all depends where you come from and what it means to you. Hell, in the Philippines, "puto" is a steamed white cake.

So what was López thinking when he called Romney a "puto?" Who knows. Because that is the problem with Spanish and the problem when people who don't know Spanish (Bershad) try to become cultural experts. In the quest to express outrage, you might want to check your sources a bit more. before publishing something. Case in point: Red Alert Politics, who also covered the story, went back and edited its López piece to say the following:  

López also called the former Massachusetts governor a “puto,” a Spanish curse word that translates literally as “male prostitute” but is commonly used in a derogatory manner to call someone an idiot, coward, traitor or worse.

Red Alert ALMOST got the revision right, but at least they did not limit the word to just being an anti-gay slur. As for GOProud, even though Mediaite reported that the group was indeed demanding an apology from López, there is no proof on the GOProud site that such an action was happening and the quotes that Mediaite was referring to here (which according to them, came from the Red Alert Politics López story), were no longer being included in the revised Red Alert story:

“Jimmy LaSalvia, co-founder and executive of GOProud, said the left has a double standard when it comes to using homophobic slurs.

‘This is just the latest in a long line of liberals who get a free pass for using gay slurs,’ LaSalvia said. ‘If a conservative had said that about a liberal politician, the gay left would be chaining themselves to a nearby fence!

‘He should apologize, but like other liberals who say such stuff like that he won’t be under any pressure to.’”

However, there is a report of LaSalvia saying the following to Laughspin today:

Jimmy LaSalvia, the co-founder and executive of a conservative LGBT group called GOProud (who endorses Romney), spoke out against Lopez and his use of the word “puto,” which literally means “male prostitute” but also carries homophobic connotations.

GOProud's stance is that homophobia is often overlooked when it comes from the left. LaSalvia and the GOProud group is calling for a public apology from Lopez. LaSalvia tells Laughspin,

“It’s just another in a long line of examples of when liberals can use homophobic slurs and not face any consequences.” LaSalvia alluded to the recent controversy surrounding sex columnist Dan Savage, who called the group “House faggots” after they announced their endorsement of Romney.

LaSalvia has a valid point and he is right: homophobia runs rampant in every facet of our society, but is López's rant here the right one to target? Some would say yes. But unlike many slurs in English that really don't have several meanings, Spanish can be so complex and what might be offensive to one person will have no connection to another person. That is why the English mainstream media really does not understand the complexities of what it is to be Latino in the United States in 2012. Like Olvera told our community, "Trust me, 'we got this.'"