Reflections on Last Saturday’s California Clásico

It was a humdinger of a game. But that’s not why it’ll be remembered.

Wondo-less, with a scotch-tape back line, the Quakes managed a strong 1-1 draw on the back of yet more Goonie-time heroics from emergent super-subs Shea Salinas and Chad Barrett. The game even managed to draw over a million viewers on Univisión, a number that MLS would ordinarily be proud to get for its Final, let alone a midseason game.

But while such a large audience for a strong performance would ordinarily be a source of pride, instead I repeatedly cringed, ashamed, throughout the game, as my hometown team, the one whose games I’ve been attending since the 90s, had Puto! shouted so loud on every single away goal kick that it simply couldn’t be ignored.

Now the first thing I think every article should do when discussing this word, particularly articles written in English, is explain a bit about its context and meaning. English speakers tend to make incendiary assumptions about how “bad” the word is, while quite a few Spanish speakers I’ve discussed the issue with tend to downplay its derogatory nature. I’m not a native Spanish speaker, nor of Latino origin, so instead of taking my word for it, I’d like to refer you to some Latino/a writers who do a better job explaining than I would: Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo (Slate), Elliott Turner (Fusion), or this article from OutSports (the leading LGBT sports site) based on comments from Andres Aradillas-Lopez that provides a bunch of links to Spanish-language explanations of its anti-gay meaning.

To make a long story short, however, the literal meaning of puto is “male prostitute.” It’s an impolite word and has homophobic connotations, but one that is used fairly casually and not always intended specifically as a slur, much like the English word “bitch.” I obviously oppose the word’s use, but I do think it’s helpful for understanding why such large groups of people shout it to know that puto is not as directly and painfully derogatory as the English word “faggot,” which has a separate analog in the Spanish language. As such, I believe people who say they do not intend any homophobic offense when they say it, but it’s not for them to decide what LGBT people feel when they hear it shouted.

While some try to defend the use as “tradition,” its history only dates back to 2004. While others try to defend it as something English-speakers just don’t culturally understand, not only do each of the above Latino/a writers oppose it, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) itself opposes its use and launched an (ineffective) campaign against it. I’ve heard some argue that the sense in which they’re using the word is to mean “coward,” without seeming to realize how problematic it is that they’re using a male prostitute (who, for all practical purposes, refers to a gay man) as a prop for cowardice.

Simply put, there’s no good excuse for it. If there ever a time not to do it, it would probably be now: on pride weekend in SF, just a few weeks removed from a hate crime against the community, and against the only team in pro sports that employs an openly gay male athlete. Even without the anti-gay connotations, it’s just as unsavory as the “You suck, asshole!” chants that used to ring out in MLS stadiums during the mid-aughts, which thankfully have been stamped out. The San Jose Earthquakes do appear to have come down (at least in word) on the right side of the puto issue, via this statement.

When I first heard it ring out in the early minutes of the Clásico, I immediately messaged several reporters who were covering the game from the press box and friends sitting in nearby sections to clarify if I had actually heard it correctly on TV and ask where it was coming from. They all said they too had heard puto, coming from directly behind the away goal, roughly where Imperio Sísmico (the Latino Quakes-supporters group) was sitting. I tweeted out that it started with Imperio Sísmico, and by omission, effectively blamed them alone for the chant despite it eventually ringing out through the entire stadium throughout the game.

That was the wrong thing to do, and I apologize to both Imperio Sísmico and my readers for that mistake. In fact, their leadership should be given credit for taking actions against its use, not just during this particular match, but in each and every match at Avaya.

I got a chance to speak with Henry Espinoza, one of the group’s leaders, as well as other people in the vicinity. Based on those conversations, I believe Espinoza’s assertion that he and other supporter’s groups leaders actively discouraged their members from its use and attempted to counter-chant. He (and others) noted the huge influx of fans to the game who never usually attend games at Avaya that were completely outside of the control of the three major supporters’ groups. Even if some members of his group did participate, it would be completely misleading for me to suggest they were the problem, when thousands of people, eventually covering all areas in the stadium, participated in it.

What I really should have focused on, therefore, was not where the chant started but rather the abject failure of the Earthquakes staff to discourage its use during the course of the game. No PA announcement whatsoever was made to discourage the crowd from using the chant. No statements came out during the game from the team’s official media channels, the team Twitter account, or team President Dave Kaval’s Twitter account, despite hordes of online pleas (like this one) to do so. I asked the club if a single person had been ejected from the stadium for the use of the word puto, given the thousands who participated in it, and they have yet to respond. I’d be shocked if they come back with any answer other than “no,” but I’ll tweet out any answer I receive.

It’s really, really easy to say the “right” thing about a particular issue. It is harder to take the enforcement steps necessary to actually stop it. But it is possible, as shown by the fact that the “you suck, asshole!” chant is in MLS’s rearview mirror, and that the Quakes front office has done an admirable job keeping puto out of Avaya Stadium. For my part, I want to see the following three things:

  1. An apology from the club for inaction during the course of the game
  2. Some clear consequences outlined for the chant’s use and/or other methods for dealing with the problem
  3. Over the coming months, and in future big-venue events at Stanford, Levi’s, and the like, actually see these consequences or methods applied

Espinoza, for his part, has a further suggestion: he wants the ability to use trumpets, like Houston Dynamo supporters do, to provide in-game atmosphere and specifically to drown out any other goal-kick chants. His group will inevitably draw more scrutiny on this issue than others since it self-identifies as Latino/Spanish speaking, but Espinoza sees that identity as a privilege: “[Having a support group for] Latinos, that’s not something every club has. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to express your passion in your own language, in your own way.” I hope that my aforementioned tweet didn’t take away from that privilege.

I think the club and its fans are better than this, and I harbor a suspicion that it’s not the regular fanbase that was to blame for this. While the chant is gaining currency in world football, I have every reason to believe that next Cali Clásico, we’ll only be discussing what took place on the field. Let’s make sure that happens.

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