Stepping into my queerness was partly encouraged by my older sibling, who came out first to my family when they were 19. They left our home when my parents expressed mixed feelings around their first lesbian relationship. They has been fiercely open about their identity since then. Their courage—but mostly their humour—has always served as a guiding force as I assume my own queer identity. I recall one New Year’s Eve party at my conservative uncle’s home when a guest pointed out that one of my cousin’s fireworks didn’t ignite. “It didn’t work, it came out pato!”
Pato, pata or pate is a common word used to name gay people in Puerto Rico—as a pejorative by homophobic people and as a term of endearment within the LGBTQ community. Currently, La Real Academia Española’s website describes pato as “effeminate man” (and therefore, weak) or “person without humour.” My sibling, who was standing right next to the guest, responded quickly, “Well ma’am, I was born pata and here I stand in full capacity.” With a blank stare, the woman picked up her champagne and walked away. I remember that incident to this day because it was one of the first moments in my young adult life that I could see how homophobia and sexism are normalized through language. It also encouraged me to embody that combination of boldness and banter to defend my own authentic expression of self.
Throughout my research on the use of the word pata/pato in Puerto Rico for this series, I came across an article written by Boricua writer and scholar Larry LaFountain called Queer Ducks, Puerto Rican Patos, and Jewish-American Feygelekh: Birds and the Cultural Representation of Homosexuality (2007). Larry is an author, performer, and educator who currently teaches Latino and American studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, including courses on Caribbean queer culture. In his fascinating and thoroughly researched article published in Hunter College’s Centro Journal, LaFountain admits that there is no definitive origin of pato that’s been collectively agreed on, but offers various explanations for its use. He makes a point of defining his research strategy: not one that is necessarily based on linguistics, but rather on a “queer look” that considers points of contact between words and ideas that are “next to each other in arbitrary categories (the alphabet, the animal kingdom, the dictionary).” LaFountain’s journey through dictionaries, short stories, and even TV series offers readers an unprecedented understanding of pato’s evolution.
LaFountain begins by explaining how the correlation between birds and queerness is also a common trope among British and U.S. slang language. He explains that “duckie” is a common British expression used to describe gay men. In the U.S., “queer duck” is often used to describe those who, according to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, are “eccentric and unconventional.” The same dictionary offers some interesting entries under “duck”: “a person with peculiar mental or physical characteristics”; and “rascal”. There’s also the Yiddish expression of feygelekh that is a diminutive of foygl (bird) and also used to describe gay men.“ These translinguistic and transcultural coincidences suggest a fundamental connection between animals and the idea of queerness,” confirms LaFountain in his article. Homosexual behaviour between birds is also not uncommon and could feed into this correlation.
One of the theories that stood out to me is the research led by Puerto Rico-based, Spanish-born linguists Rosario Núñez de Ortega and Isabel Delgado de Laborde in their book, Los que dicen ¡ay bendito! Dichos, modismos y expresiones del habla coloquial puertorriqueña (1999). They echo the work of Venezuelan philologist Ángel Rosenblat’s analysis of pato’s origin in La pícara Justina by Francisco López de Úbeda (1605), a picaresque Spanish novel that collects the various adventures of a delinquent and free woman, Justina. Justina expresses discomfort with the “inconsistency” of ducks because they move between land, air, and water. This aspect of their behaviour represents a similar in-betweenness familiar to us Boricuas, who can relate to this liminal state through our colonial condition. We are neither State nor Republic, moving between the archipelago and diasporic communities in the continental U.S. Wondering if our political ambiguity might be the reason that pato is more common in Puerto Rico is far-fetched, but I like entertaining the thought.
I had a Zoom meeting with Larry to talk about how his views on the article have changed 15 years after its publication. On the subject of La pícara Justina reference, he said, “Correlating strangeness with pato because ducks live between air, earth and water… That doesn’t make much sense. But that’s what people say to justify the definition of pato as odd. They believe it and they repeat it. That concept of folkloric etymologies is useful because it proposes that when people don’t understand the root of a certain custom, they make up stories. It’s easier than admitting you don’t know.” So, this particular insight by Ángel Rosenblat was just an echo of what people would say on the street, and not necessarily based on past written records. “Take the word puto, for example, to name effeminate men,” explained LaFountain. “That’s been around for five centuries and you can find it in 16th century Spanish dictionaries.” He even speculates in his article that pato might be an evolution of puto, with just a simple “vowel slippage.”
Another reference that resonated with me was the author’s mention of Spanish librarian and lexicologist María Moliner’s Diccionario del uso del español (1992) and his definition of patojo. Pata can refer to a female gay person in Puerto Rico, but is also slang for “leg” (or rather that of a non-human animal), and patojo is someone who has difficulty walking due to a deformity or illness in the legs, and thus waddles from side to side like a duck. In our conversation, LaFountain pointed out the “homophonic contiguity” between pato and the Greek “pathos”, which means “illness.”
“It’s interesting to look at the linguistic loans from other cultures. The word ‘homosexual,’ for example, was a Germanic sexology word that was used among scientists and was more linked to pathology. At some point it became more of a neutral and objective term. Many people feel it is less offensive than maricon (gay man) or sodomite. But given this association with pathology and science, many people in the U.S. don’t want to use the word ‘homosexual’ anymore, they’d rather use ‘gay’ because it’s associated with community organizing during the 1940s and 1950s. The word ‘gay’ started to spread on a national and global scale, and began to substitute more local terms,” he explained.
“The word ‘gay’ symbolizes a kind of modernity associated with the advancement of human rights, but it overshadows local terms.” LaFountain closed his eyes in search of a particular reference, scanning his mind’s extensive library, as he often did during our conversation. “Take for example the work of Argentinean writer Horacio Federico Sívori, Locas, chongos y gays (2005). He explained that in Argentina you’re a loca (crazy), but with the popularization of the Anglo-American term, people began using ‘gay’ because ‘gay’ means that you want to get married, you want to have a partner and buy an apartment, you want to tell your mom that you’re gay!” We crack up laughing. “Remember that they (Argentineans) might also consider it as anti-femme, because during the 1950s, American men saw that the best way to assimilate was to suppress effeminate gender expressions in order for their rights to be recognized. So the effeminate man, la loca, becomes the problem.”
I finally understood that the harm created by words such as pato in the mouths of homophobic conservatives lies in the violence targeted at femme gender expression and the larger problem of gender violence. I conducted a very informal poll on Instagram where I asked whether people use pata or pato among queer friends. With a total of 32 votes, 17 (53%) voted no, and 15 voted yes (47%). Taking a closer look at the voters, I’d say that those who said yes are queer and those who said no are more on the straight or even bisexual side. All in all, I believe that it’s a term with a violent past but now subject to resemantization among the local queer community. My friend Dama from the town of Patillas—who, in my opinion, is at the forefront of reinventing local slang—often uses the word paterías to describe any home or wardrobe reinvention and gesture at making her domestic life more beautiful. Even as I try to pinpoint how exactly she uses it, I struggle to find the words that really grasp its meaning. In my own process of embracing femininity and queerness, it feels right to use it.
I’m excited for the new words Boricua queer youth have in store for us in the future. As LaFountain said at the end of our conversation: “Each subculture creates their own way of talking. Language is in constant transformation and in contact with other languages. That’s why purism in language is absurd and ridiculous. Words associated with gender and sexuality form part of that linguistic soup. Language is alive.”