Academic journal article The Journal of Latino - Latin American Studies

Mexican Mano and Vato: Romani and Caló Origins

Academic journal article The Journal of Latino - Latin American Studies

Mexican Mano and Vato: Romani and Caló Origins

Article excerpt

In the history of European lexicography, there is a strong tradition of pre- and pro-scription, more evident when a nationally sanctioned body such as the Real Academia Española, L'Académie Française, or the Accademia della Crusca establishes normative standards for written language use and the representation of registers and inclusion of individual words in multivolume dictionaries published under its aegis, more covert in lexicographical projects such as Oxford English Dictionary, which, under its first editors, sought comprehensiveness but also exercised a rigorous gatekeeper function with regard to neologisms, the new vocabularies of commerce and the sciences, and the popular register: vogue words, slang, vulgarities, underclass cant, criminal argot, or whichever judgmental descriptor was applied to the word excluded or just minimally recognized.

Tracing the history of this last stratum of a national vocabulary is complicated by the relatively late inclusion of popular speech in lexicographical works, entailing that standard orthographies were seldom established, meaning was often not closely defined, and origins were anyone's best guess. At the same time, while such registers were excluded from national dictionaries, they were often the subject of enthusiastic compilation by folklorists and amateurs of language without formal philological training. Dictionaries of slang continue to illustrate this enthusiasm and the appeal of vocabulary that is often both an insider language and the language of the socially excluded. Such a characterization should not be taken as disparagement of the efforts of early collectors. This said it is perhaps in the area of etymological speculation that this enthusiasm, without historical perspective or awareness of some of the greater laws of language development, has been most evident. Thus, we have a kind of anecdotal etymologizing at work, clever solutions to word problems that lack firm anchors to historical or present-day reality, as when gringo is traced to US soldiers singing "Green grow the rashes," during the Mexican-American war or their antagonists shouting "Green coats go home!"

This brief article considers the history of two terms from this same linguistic community along the variously permeable US-Mexican border, mano and vato, and, to illustrate the above observation about popular lexicography begins by excerpting a current entry from Wikipedia for the second of these.

Vato (pronounced Bato) is a Mexican slang equivalent to "man", "dude," pal, or brother. According to the Chicano poet Luis Alberto Urrea, the word originated in Pachuco [El Paso] 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."

The vato loco ("crazy dude"; "cool guy") is someone who is "fully immersed in la vida loca" (the crazy life). According to Rafaela Castro, "He may be a gang member, a drug user, or just an entertaining street person." Some scholars have characterized the vato loco as an archetype in Chicano culture.1

Just as mano is popularly seen as the abbreviation of hermano "brother", Urrea's derivation of vato "dude" from chivato "goat" has a superficial attractiveness, rhetorically bolstered by his bit of popular psychology. But the true situation may be rather more complicated, with multiple strands in a hybrid origin. Exploring the history of mano and mana will provide useful insights for subsequently exploring the history of vato.

Let us take as contemporary points of reference [Bernard H.] Hamel's Bilingual Dictionary of Mexican Spanish and Diccionario del español usual en México as compiled by El Colegio de México, an individual lexicographer's and a collective approach, respectively. The former identifies mano as an abbreviation of hermano with the meanings "amigo, compañero, hermano; buddy, chum, pal," as well as providing examples of more specialized use (251). …

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