Homophobic chant’s impact goes beyond the pitch in the Latino community

The story of how one fan chant has had a cultural ripple effect beyond the world of sports.

A photo of Gael Ortiz holding a soccer ball

When the ball goes out of bounds on the opposition’s goal end during a Mexican national team game, you don’t know what to expect. Will it be a routine clearance from the goalkeeper or a kick paired with a homophobic slur screamed by thousands of fans?

In a recent Gold Cup game played in Houston between Mexico and Canada, the ball again went out of bounds at the end line. When Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau reaches for the ball, the chant begins to build. Fans extend their arms barely above their head and begin to wiggle their fingers as the goalkeeper sets the ball.

As Crepeau sets it and takes a few steps back, you start to hear “eeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhh...” This is the wind up before the chant. The sound buzzes around the stadium like a beehive guarding its queen. As he lunges forward to kick the ball, you hear “PUTO” yelled so loudly that it is heard on the broadcast.

By definition, the word means “male prostitute,” but in Mexican slang, it’s also used as a homophobic slur. For many fans, this chant is used solely as a slang term to interfere with the opposing team’s goalkeeper. For others in the Latino community, the chant and word cut deeper.

The word sparks feelings of hate and rejection. Although the chant might be heard at games, its impact is felt beyond the pitch and highlights some of the complexities and discrimination various members of the LGBTQ and Latino community experience. The idea of not being able to enjoy the game you love without feeling rejected may be difficult for non-members of this community to understand.

“The privilege that we have of not being a member of the LGBTQ community is that we can go to a baseball or hockey game and not care that someone is yelling something at you,” said Wiso Vazquez, the founder of Fut Mex Nation, an online news forum that focuses on Mexican National Team soccer. “This community cannot enjoy who they are without being discriminated against.”

Back in Los Angeles, a handful of LGBTQ soccer clubs are trying to change this culture. Still, the chant and its discriminatory effects continue. The demand for reform needs to be addressed.

The question is — how?

“Elephant in the Room”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Daniel “Flaco” Hernandez went on his usual run at Poinsettia Park before practice. He pulled back his wavy, dark hair and laced up his black, striped Adidas shoes. This was his routine.

Hernandez was raised in a Mexican household by a father who wanted nothing more than a manly, soccer-playing son. His upbringing is not different from many other Latinos, where “machismo” culture is prevalent.

“From growing up, it is toxic masculinity. You have to be a certain way and you can’t fall under a category of something that’s not manly,” Hernandez said. “You can’t stand a certain way. You can’t talk a certain way. I grew up having to deal with this and try to please my dad in doing so.”

Sunlight peeks through the side of a player's face during tryouts held by the West Hollywood Soccer Club at Griffith Park in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 18, 2021.

However, Hernandez did not epitomize his father’s expectations. After moving from San Francisco, he decided to join the West Hollywood Soccer Club, the largest LGBTQ soccer club in Los Angeles. To this day, he has still not discussed his homosexuality with his father.

“As long as you don’t bring up the conversations about the LGBTQ community and culture, he’s okay with it,” Hernandez said. “He puts the topic on the shelf and as long as it’s on there he goes along with his business. He doesn’t want to hear about it because in his eyes he doesn’t accept it.”

History of the Chant

The origins of the homophobic chant have been ongoing for nearly two decades at the local club level in Mexico. However, it did not reach international attention until the 2014 World Cup, when American networks began to highlight the chant on their broadcasts. This Spanish word takes on various meanings but is ultimately used as a slang word to attack homosexuals. The word can range from a “male prostitute” to even just a flat-out “coward.”

Following multiple fines as a result of the homophobic chant leading up to the 2018 World Cup, FIFA implemented a three-strike protocol in 2019. According to FIFA, the rules are as follows: first, stop the match and warn fans; second, suspend the match and move players to the locker room; third, abandon the match altogether.

This new system was a step toward combatting homophobic discrimination — however, the chant persisted. As a result, a few months after the 2021 Olympic qualifiers match, FIFA announced that the Mexican national team would play its two World Cup qualifier matches on Sept. 2 and Oct. 7 in an empty stadium.

The return of fans for the team’s Gold Cup run this year coincided with the return of the chant. The most recent case was during the game against Canada. The chant is not only affecting the players on the field, but also members of the LGBTQ and Latino communities.

Unheard and Invisible

Members showed up one by one to play on the green, artificial grass within the surrounding white walls in Huntington Beach. Wearing his bright yellow cleats with his wife by his side, Gael Ortiz hobbled to the field due to a lower back injury to cheer on his team during its seven-on-seven indoor soccer game.

A photo of Gael Ortiz holding a soccer ball near his home in Long Beach, Calif.

Ortiz was born in Guatemala and raised in Long Beach, Calif. During early childhood, he quickly identified his love for playing soccer and would find various locations to practice his skills. As he grew older, he met his wife Jennifer and they formed a love interest through their shared passions and beliefs. Ultimately, this led to the creation of two different soccer organizations: the Rainbow Soccer Group and Bridges United. These teams serve as a sanctuary for members in search of an accepting community of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

As a child, Ortiz always knew he fell under the LGBTQ umbrella. However, being a member of this community raised in a Latino household created disparity. “What you see, you don’t ask” is the unspoken standard the Ortiz family lived by.

“I feel like when you don’t talk about it, you start to feel numb and invisible,” Ortiz said. “You’re not heard, you’re not seen, which is very hurtful.”

“Men are grown to be the alpha, and anything but that is not being a man. Machismo is very toxic in the community.”

One of his first experiences hearing “PUTO” was when he was in middle school. He remembers sitting in the living room and hearing the slur come out of the TV speakers. No one seemed to care.

One of the things I feel like when you don’t talk about it, you start to feel numb and invisible. You’re not heard, you’re not seen, which is very hurtful.

“I was shocked that this group of people was screaming this and everyone was okay with it,” Ortiz said. “I am watching my family. I’m watching this and I’m wondering if this is offensive, right? … I felt like this was wrong and it didn’t help me feel good about who I was.”

After hearing the chant, Ortiz said he felt unseen, rejected and hurt. The word impacted the way he experienced the sport. Ortiz said the slur continues to provoke fear for his own safety and others in the LGBTQ community during games where the chant occurs.

“If that’s being chanted, I don’t feel safe,” Ortiz said. “That’s somewhere where I would eventually exit the game. There’s no reason to stay.”

Ken Sanchez throws a ball during tryouts held by the West Hollywood Soccer Club.

Visibility Is Critical

Soccer is a way of life for many members of the Mexican community. In fact, a 2018 report conducted by Nielson shows that 73% of Mexico’s urban population is either “interested” or “very interested” in football, compared to 32% of urban U.S. residents.

For Ken Sanchez, a West Hollywood Soccer Club teammate and board member, his love for the game originated later than most. However, this did not make his passion any less prominent. He remembers being 13 years old and watching the 1990 World Cup with his family.

A portrait of Ken Sanchez.

“As I grew older, we tuned into watching, and I became obsessed and fell in love with it,” Sanchez said. “And so from 1990 onwards, I’ve been watching soccer, and it’s gotten more and more of that sort of presence in my life.”

Coming out as a gay man at the age of 19, Sanchez began searching for ways to find a community within his hometown of New York. He joined the New York Ramblers, an LGBTQ soccer club in the area. After moving to Los Angeles, he joined the West Hollywood Soccer Club to form relationships and establish a safe space in a new community.

“It really was one of those places where you came in, and everyone was super nice, welcoming and just created that environment where you felt like you belonged right away,” Sanchez said.

You can find Sanchez at his favorite local gay bar in West Hollywood tuning in to the latest U.S. national team game, another safe space for him and his teammates. However, this space could not protect him from these homophobic chants. While watching a U.S. vs. Mexico game, he heard the fans yell the chant. This is when it hit home for him.

“You know, I hate to say this, but to be honest with you guys, I was embarrassed,” Sanchez said. “I wasn’t offended as a gay person. I was offended as a Latino. How dare you behave this way for the world to see when we have to face the scrutiny we have to face constantly.”

Whether it is imposing the three-strike rule, sanctioning the Mexican team or banning fans from the next two games, action is slowly being taken. In Sanchez’s eyes, progress seems to be occurring, but he believes that people need to hold themselves accountable and have conversations regarding the issue’s root.

“Visibility is critical,” Sanchez said. “It will be the key to continuing to get rid of those sentiments of homophobia and ignorance and the racism that exists.”

Pancho Villa’s Army Speaks Out

The friendly soccer match in Nashville between Mexico and Panama started like any other game. However, a group chose to bring something never seen at a Mexican game before: a Pride flag.

Fans waving red, white and green Mexican flags fill one side of the stadium at a Mexican national team game. These fans are not your typical fans; they are die-hard members of Pancho Villa’s Army. This support group was created in 2003 to unite Mexican team fans, embrace their heritage and pass the tradition down to the next generation.

Pedro Barajas, captain of the Pancho Villa battalion in Reno since 2015, grew up in Mexico and remembered attending games since he was a little kid. During a Mexico vs. U.S. game in Pasadena, he remembers hearing the chant from the flooded fan section. It became a constant occurrence at games he attended.

“It despairs me because we are in the stands supporting the team, singing, and then you hear the chant,” Barajas said.

Members of Pancho Villa's Army wave Pride flags during a friendly between Mexico and Nigeria at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, July 3, 2021.

With the chant evolving into more than just outrageous fan antics, Pancho Villa’s Army felt it was time to take more aggressive action, even if it meant backlash. When Mexico played Nashville during Pride Month, the army members assembled. They waved Mexican flags and Pride flags, rainbows mixing among red, white and green. The founder of PVA, Sergio Tristán, initially tried to bring the Pride flags to games a few years ago but did not receive full support. Now, he has a whole army behind him.

Gabriela Martinez-Stevenson, a member of PVA, grew up in a Mexican household with a family who raised her as a Mexican national team fan from the day she was born. Although she was unaware of the word’s meaning at the time, she admitted to yelling the homophobic chant at various games. Eventually, she realized this was a tradition she no longer wanted to be a part of. She felt that PVA’s role was to take a step in the right direction, and she hoped others will follow.

“This is now part of the culture. This Pride flag is part of our culture just as much as any other flag. I think that encourages those other fans to feel more comfortable than maybe they did beforehand,” Martinez-Stevenson said. “This is why we bring the Pride flag to the Mexican section.”

Wiso Vazquez, the creator of Fut Mex Nation, has been covering the Mexican national team since 2012 and works to bring news to the masses in English. He has followed the Mexican squad since 1986, when he attended his very first World Cup game.

Vazquez feels that Pancho Villa’s Army is one example of an organization taking a critical step toward eliminating discriminatory behavior. In his eyes, this change will not happen overnight. Ultimately, he believes that the upcoming generation will be the one that helps eradicate the usage of the homophobic slur.

“Well, I don’t think we’re going to change this current generation and their thinking, or baby boomers or anybody left. But that generation, and seeing the Pride flags there, I think makes an impact,” Vazquez said. “It’s going to take a while for people. They’re just miles ahead in conversation than we were at that age.”

Members of Pancho Villa's Army wave Pride flags during a friendly between Mexico and Nigeria at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Saturday, July 3, 2021.

The Start of a Progressive Culture

Every Sunday night, one can find Daniel “Flaco” Hernandez practicing his skills and bonding with his WHSC teammates. These are the times he cherishes and yearns for. He is surrounded by people who allow him to embrace his true self, for once in his life.

“As soon as I joined a gay soccer league, that’s where I found myself, and I was more open to what my personality wanted to be,” Hernandez said. “I felt more comfortable playing on a gay team, but against straight teams.”

The 2018 Gay Games was the first time Hernandez felt like he played for something more than just himself. These games occur every four years and attract people from all over the country. Out of 36 teams, WHSC came out on top and brought the gold medal back to L.A.

For WHSC, this was a way to showcase their skills and establish their presence as an LGBTQ community.

“Winning the Gay Games was a huge milestone for us,” Hernandez said. “We were able to prove our worth not just in the gay community, but also in our parents’ eyes, to our friends and the community at large.”

Although there may not be a simple solution to this discriminatory issue, these small steps create lasting impacts. For Daniel “Flaco” Hernandez, that lasting impact was with his dad.

“Every dad wants to see their son play at a national team level, and this was as close as I could get to that,” Hernandez said. “To me, that meant a lot. To show him, look, I am worth as much as all of these other straight men playing club.”