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Imagine a national campaign in your country that uses a homophobic epithet to drive its point home. Chile’s SERNAM (Servicio Nacional de la Mujer), an agency whose goals include protecting women in the country, last year launched an anti-domestic violence campaign which centers on the use of a homophobic slur. Since last year, it has proclaimed boldly on television and billboards, “A maricón is he who mistreats a woman.”

And while calling people who mistreat women ugly names is somewhat understandable, I just can’t get past the word “maricón.”

Maricón, you see, is a hateful word against gay men. Bluntly put, it’s “fag” in Spanish. Here in Chile we don’t even call ladybugs by the name I learned in high school (mariquita), because it sounds like maricón. Just the other day I saw someone pick up a rounded musical instrument on a stick in an import store. “Jajaja,” she said, laughing “es una maraca” (it’s a maraca). Another word that people laugh when they say it because it’s an insult to gay men. And now this.

The second version of the campaign (nicknamed “maricón, 2.0“) uses the word again, this time encouraging people to denounce violence against women. It too features Jordi Castell, a minor star in the Chilean social pages, who is gay. And while SERNAM says their campaign has been effective, with higher reporting of what is called here “violencia intrafamiliar,” the use of a word I associate with homophobic violence against gay men does not in my mind equal lessened instances of violence in general (or within families). I just don’t understand how any campaign against domestic violence can use hateful words.

So what of this poster? I have been assured by many straight Chileans that calling someone a maricón is not actually saying they’re gay. It’s saying they’re an asshole, despicable, a liar.

Somehow this fails to allay my discomfort. Why should the association of a word used to refer to gay men with hateful, horrible, behavior make me feel any better about the use of the word? This is not a linguistic problem. I have lived here for seven years, and know my way around chilensis, as we call the Spanish spoken here.

So is it a cultural roadblock? Gay friends here agree that the campaign is hateful, and look across the Andes to Argentina, where same-sex marriage is legal, and where I took the feature photo of a wall in culturally conservative Mendoza that proclaims “Queer Power.”

Human Rights


About The Author

Eileen Smith

Eileen Smith is the editor of Matador Abroad. She's an ex-Brooklynite who's made a life in Santiago, Chile. She's a fluent Spanish speaker who can be found biking, hiking, writing, photographing and/or seeking good coffee and nibbles at most hours of the day. She blogs here.

  • Feribarra2090

    maraca = prostitute …
    Creo que el enfoque de esta campaña no ha sido captado del modo adecuado. Si bien “maricon” es una palabra despectiva, muchas veces no es usada bajo esos terminos… esto se debe a la pobreza de vocabulario que tenemos los chilenos, y lo mal acostumbrados que estamos a ocupar palabras sin tomar el peso de ellas en cuanto al significado de estas.
    Quizas no creas que es un malentendido linguistico, pero el que conozcas el “chilensis” lo suficiente no te hace “sentirlo” y darle un sentido como los nativos…

    • eileen

      La mejor manera de combatir esa pobreza linguistica a la cual te refieres es usar otras palabras. Propongo inútil, cobarde, traídor, malcriado, el mismo weón, entre otras. Sé bien que no soy hablante nativa ni de castellano ni de chilensis, pero como le diría a un hijo mio gay (si tuviera), que el hombre no puede pegarle a la mujer, pero el gobierno puede usar palabras feas contra su orientación sexual, y eso para prevenir la violencia? Simplemente no me cabe en la cabeza.

  • Coleen Monroe

    I saw this several months ago in the teachers’ lounge of the school in which I was teaching. I was shocked! It is completely offensive, yet when I brought it up with Chileans they said that I just didn’t understand the connotation of the term. 

    It made it very difficult to teach the kids that they were not allowed to use that word (or any other slur) in my classroom, because they knew that the government was using it. 

  • Victoria Tomb

    I do not think this campaign is offensive in any ways, you just need to understand the true “chilenismo” behind the word maricon.  I think it makes sense, and personally I like it. However, I understand why people who are not native chileans could be offended by it.

    • eileen

      I think your comment exemplifies perfectly what I’m trying to say. Chileans see nothing wrong with it (straight Chileans, mainstream Chileans) and I can’t get my head around using a violent word to prevent violence. Seven years of living in Chile is not enough to make me change my mind, and I don’t think any amount of time ever would. When I lived in Ecuador, they referred to the cloth dummy they burned to usher in the new year as “el maricón”. When I pointed out that some people might be offended by the use of the word for something to be sacrificed, I was told I was being too sensitive.

      I can believe the campaign was not meant to be offensive. That does not mean it is not offensive (to me and many others, but not to everyone)

  • Mcurtis

    Please don’t think I’m being petty. I love your site – just wanted to bring a little typo to your attention…”The second version of the campain (nicknamed “maricón, 2.0“) uses the word again, this time encouraging people to denounce violence against wormen.” 

  • Chowitzer

    Are you being a bit sensitive? If senor Castelll, who is both un chileno natural and a gay man (of which you are neither) is not offended and even is willing to lend his handsome face to these probably beneficial ads, then you should not be offended so easily either.

    • eileen

      He’s not the only face of gay Chile (though admittedly I’m not the face of gay Chile at all). Gay groups spoke out in opposition to the campaign. And I’m still calling it linguistic violence. Sensitive? Probably, and I take that as a compliment.  Oversensitive? I don’t think so.

  • Bebe

    As a speaker of Spanish, you know that not all words are used in the same fashion throughout the Spanish-speaking countries.  And languages do change.  In the States many persons have been exercised over usage of “gay” among teenagers to mean lame, weak, dorky, et al.  And there isn’t anyone in the States who does not recognize how “gay” is used in common parlance to mean a person of homosexual orientation.  Sometimes it’s the right word in the right place, sometimes the wrong word, and sometimes just plain funny.

    I really enjoy the articles on Matador.  Still, if I wish to be sensitive, why wasn’t this article written by a gay man who speaks Spanish?

    • eileen

      Bebe, imagine a campaign in an English-speaking counry that said,  “don’t do such and such, that’s just gay.” or better yet “don’t be a fag.! That’s the level that I’m talking about. Nt what teens say, but what the government says. As for why I didn’t ask a Spanish-speaking gay man to write the story in English, interesting point. But I dont think you have to be a gay man to be offended by the campaign, do you?

  • Gustavo

    Why do I get the feeling the five avatar-less comments before this one were left by the same person?Hm. Anywho, Bebe makes a good point, although it is the opposite of what was intended. Homophobia is so ingrained into our society that suggesting someone is gay is considered an insult.

  • Korufenix

    I’m a gay man from the united states (with all of the cultural tendencies to be very politically correct and sensitive to racial and homophobic slurs) who has been living in mexico for the past five years and I can tell you that the nuances of this campaign are a little difficult to comprehend from an american standpoint, but strangely enough, the word actually works, and without being offensive to gays. Let me try to explain.

    Maricon in spanish is a word that refers someone who is weak, effeminate, without a backbone, etc and has traditionally been used to refer to people who the speaker identifies as “girly”. It would be somewhat like we use the word girly-man, which we can use to refer to both someone who happens to be homosexual as well as for someone who is not, its not exactly a commentary on sexual preference.

     My boss, who is a spanish speaking latin american man who has absolutely no prejudice against gays (as he has shown many times to me and my partner) uses the word “puto” (literally, a male prostitute, which has been used widely as a gay slur) to get across the same meaning as this campaign uses the word “maricon” i.e. someone who lacks dignity, self-respect, backbone, etc. He made it very clear to me one day that there is a big difference in his mind between a “puto” and a gay person. He pointed out that someone who sleeps exclusively with women can most certainly be a “puto” as can a gay person with no self-esteem, moral fortitude, etc.

    From our overly-sensitized american perspective, this anti-violence campaign seems like a derogatory slam against homosexuals, but I can assure you it’s not done in that spirit. In this culture, they also lovingly call their sisters, lovers, and children “fatso” or “fatty” as a term of endearment. It took me a long time to realize that this is not wrong or demeaning, its just different. If Maricon is reducing the instances of physical violence among straights or gays, I think that its more than acceptable in this context and I for one, do not take it at all personally.

    • Bebe

      Thanks kindly, Korufenix, for adding another perspective on usage.  As I live in Southern California, I often hear Mexican friends straight and gay use this word with each other.  It has the sense of “oh, you bitch” if I were to render it in American English.  It use is especially amusing among straight guys who will respond with the expected joking slur about the speaker’s masculinity (and not always with reference to sexual preferences).  “Maricon” I rarely hear much; when I’ve asked about the word, many younger Mexican Spanish speakers tend to say it sounds old-fashioned to them, and something their parents might use…rather as “groovy” sounds to our ears today.

  • Cherie

    my classmate’s step-mother makes $75 an hour on the laptop. She has been laid off for 6 months but last month her income was $8148 just working on the laptop for a few hours. Here’s the site NuttyRichdotcom

  • Orevalc

    Lol, you just don’t get it. Maricon it’s a word that originally was used to refer to homosexuals, but now days it’s used in the sense of jerk or dickhead, someone (man, woman, or homosexual) who takes unfair advantage of other people . The words that most chileans (or at least younger people) use as fag or gay are now Fleto (male) and lela (lesbian).

    The campaign it’s trying to say that homosexual men aren’t the faggots. Those men who are abusive towards women are the real faggots.

  • Victor Pinto

    This is stupid… probably you are not Chilean, because you don’t understand Chilean culture. This wasn’t an homophobic campaign; it was a brilliant campaign against the violence against women. The term “maricón” has different means in Chile, one of these is “gay”, but the complete campaign also included a soccer referee and a “bad guy” from a T.V, serie, all of them called “maricones” for different reasons

  • Victor Pinto

    This is stupid… probably you are not Chilean, because you don’t understand Chilean culture. This wasn’t an homophobic campaign; it was a brilliant campaign against the violence against women. The term “maricón” has different means in Chile, one of these is “gay”, but the complete campaign also included a soccer referee and a “bad guy” from a T.V, serie, all of them called “maricones” for different reasons

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