Friday, December 08, 2006


Thanks to gastan, I learned a new word just the other day. When he asked me what the title of a Snoop Dogg (feat. B-Real and Pharrell) song "Vato" meant, I had to (yet again) admit my ignorance and put my Google skillz to use. And lo, behold, check this out yo!

vato = Mexican Spanish. 1. man; 2. dude; 3. homeboy

According to the wikipedia article,

the word originated in Pachuco slang of the 1940s, and is derived from "the once-common friendly insult chivato, or goat. It had a slightly unacceptable air to it, which the Locos and Weesas of the Chuco world enjoyed. They were able to take the sting out of racism by calling themselves a bunch of names assimilated 'good Mexicans' didn't like."

It would appear that this is one of those situations where a minority community took a word commonly used to insult them and accepted it as a symbol of their distinctiveness, thus changing its meaning and even turning it to a symbol of defiance. Other examples may include the N-word or even the words cigán/cikán/cigány, normally a pejorative name, yet one used with pride by the Roma of Eastern Europe (before the post-1989 Roma revival) to emphasize and embrace their status as a minority and their distinctive culture.

The urbandictionary entry seems to agree on the original social context of the term, as it lists vato as a part of the gangsta slang and the equivalent of American English homeboy, which is also a word with strong gangsta culture connotation. On the other hand, there are more than a few examples which show the word in non-gangsta environment. One of them is item no. 4 in the above mentioned urbandictionary entry. Also, George Lopez uses the word vato in a plain, non-gangsta sense in one of his routines where he discusses the inability of Chicano men to express their emotions:

Vatos never wanna tell 'em ... that we love 'em.

("Team Leader", Track 13 - 'Love You-Sober')

Interestingly enough, Snoop Dogg's "Vato" may complete the circle: his popularity and his association with the gangsta culture could very well help supress the neutral meaning vato has acquired and reestablish it as a firm part of the cholo culture. Watch this space for further developments.


Anonymous said...

Chivato may be the source, but there is also a Mexican word 'guate' which means something like running buddy or sidekick, supposedly derived from a Nahautl word 'guatl', supposedly like two snakes slidding along together. 'Guatl' looks a lot like 'coatl', simply snake. It's a pretty macho image; no kind of big semantic stretch.

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