Regardless of where Spanish speakers are located in Latin America, Spain, or the United States, the first thing many of them picture when hearing or reading the word maricón is the image of a homosexual or queer/cuir man with feminine behavior. Besides the term’s antiquity – it goes back at least to the sixteenth century – maricón is probably one of the most insulting words that can be said to call a masculine-presenting person or used to name one in the Spanish language. Like a loaded revolver in the hand (or on the tip of the tongue), maricón is commonly used to emasculate and belittle and bursts into any communicative scenario like very few other words in the language. Also, it is a central term in many Spanish-speaking boys’ learning of the rules of masculinity: Not only are we taught not to be maricones, but also to demean and attack other boys and men by calling them in that way. This semantic baggage causes a tense relationship between cuir boys and men with the word, as maricón is so many times the very first term we hear in our lives to refer to people “like us” and, at the same time, it functions to humiliate and discipline us (see, for instance, Jaime Manrique’s (1999) traumatic childhood memories regarding the word, as he discusses in his book Eminent Maricones: Arenas, Lorca, Puig, and Me). Since self-identification with the word maricón, i.e., declaring “I am maricón,” involves coming to terms with a history of linguistic violence, it is not surprising that many openly homosexual men refuse to use such word to refer to themselves. However, in stark contrast to the violent use of maricón, many cuir men use it in informal and solidarity contexts and – even more interesting to me – both cuir and non-cuir speakers use maricón with no apparent sexual meaning. In this essay, I will offer a brief essay on mariconología (or mariconólogy), that is, a linguistic study of the word maricón (and similar terms) based on some historical notes and some reflections on its multiple uses in Latin America, the United States, and Spain.
Before presenting the history of maricón, it is crucial to keep in mind that written forms always appear later than uttered words. Then, the initial uses of maricón have to go back much earlier than any found textual evidence. The oldest surviving record of maricón appears in the Comedia Seraphina (Torres Naharro, 1517), a Renaissance comedy, where in a passage it is briefly mentioned that any man who does not sleep with women lo tienen por maricón ‘they think he is a maricón’ (line 32) implying that such behavior raises suspicion and is considered undesirable. Also, studying the first Spanish dictionaries can help to discern the various meanings of maricón, since lexicographic publications reflect the dominant ideologies of a given linguistic community in specific moments, including (and overrepresenting) its ruling class’s sex culture and prejudices (Calero Fernández, 1999). The dictionary of Covarrubias (1673 ) was the first academic publication to include a definition for maricón: el hombre afeminado que se inclina hacer cosas de mujer ‘the effeminate man who tends to do women’s things’ (p. 103). In addition to the meaning of effeminate, in the Diccionario de Autoridades (Real Academia Española, 1726-1739), the first dictionary published by the Spanish Royal Academy, maricón is defined as “coward” (1734, vol. 4). It is striking that the three meanings of maricón, i.e., lack of interest in women (which may imply homosexual behavior), female gender expression and cowardice, continue with great force to this day. However, maricón has not been the only word for male homosexuality recorded in the eighteenth century. The Diccionario de Autoridades also includes the terms bujarrón (1726, vol. 1) and puto (1737, vol. 5) (cf. Tortorici (2007), a historical study on the prosecution of putos in early seventeenth century Mexico) – words in very current use today in Cuba and Mexico respectively, both defined as hombre que comete el pecado nefando ‘man who commits the nefarious sin.’ Inscribed in a homophobic Catholic discourse, the word nefando etymologically means “what should never be said or expressed publicly” and the phrase pecado nefando refers to homosexuality whether male or female (1734, vol. 4).
In his famous etymological dictionary, Corominas (1973) postulates that maricón derives from the feminine name María and records other derived words expressing a similar meaning, for example, marica, amaricado and amariconado (p. 382). The semantic motivation of the coinage of maricón (and similar words) stemming from María seems to be patriarchal: Cuir men are seen as having so low social status that they are symbolically closer to women than heterosexual men. It is also quite likely that María is the origin of maricón, since, in other European languages, diminutives of María also have a form identical to that of marica. For example, in Greek, the feminine name Μαρία ‘María’ has its diminutive form Μαρίκα ‘Marika’ which also functions as a proper name for girls and women. Interestingly, the lexicographic birth certificate of maricón is also that of marimacho, which Covarrubias (1673 ) defines as la mujer que tiene desenvolturas de hombre ‘the woman who has manly manners’ (p. 103). It seems that, just as in the case of maricón, the logic of sexual inversion applies to marimacho: the woman who acts like a (heterosexual) man and, therefore, sleeps with other women. I remember that as a child in Peru, the story of María Marimacho was a popular, horror story repeated to teach girls that if they engaged in practices considered masculine, such as playing marbles and spinning tops in the street, and if, even worse, they also disobeyed their parents, they could end up dead. In the same vein as maricón, there is also evidence of the use of marimacho across distant geographies, for example, the figure of the mannish woman epitomized in the word marimacho appears in Mexican post-revolutionary literature (Ruiz-Alfaro, 2013). Likewise, Gloria Anzaldúa’s “La historia de una marimacho” (1993), one of her few short stories written entirely in Spanish, tells the story of a runaway couple of cuir women. In a telling passage, one of the protagonists, who dresses in manly attires, comments with surprise: No sé cómo la gente siempre se daba cuenta que no era hombre ‘I don’t know how people always realized I wasn’t a man’ (67). In addition, the use of the short version of Maria, mari, has given place to other derogatory terms for women (Guerrero Salazar, 2005). Thus, in Spain, it is common to hear the word marisabidilla to refer the woman who presumes to be wise, and mariliendres for the heterosexual woman, usually lonely and ungraceful, who likes to spend her time with cuir men.
Back to the case of maricón, there is the issue of the considerable number of synonyms for the term in addition to transparent lexical variations such as maricueca and maraco. For example, some years ago, in a Peruvian TV show, the host – an openly homosexual man – listed, in less than a minute and a half, 54 words and phrases to refer to cuir men. He included from animal names (e.g., cabra ‘goat’) to euphemisms (e.g., del gremio ‘from the same union’) to scatological metaphors (e.g., mostacero ‘man who likes mustard’) (Herrera, 2017). This lexical profusion can only be compared to the great number of epithets and euphemisms to refer to women as prostitute (Casas Gómez, 1986). In contrast, the words used to refer to the sexuality of heterosexual men are very scarce; in fact, to date I have only been able to find one term to refer to heterosexual people: the Mexican word buga, almost exclusively used by non-heterosexual speakers (Eller, 2013). Unsurprisingly, the pervasiveness of maricón among most Spanish-speaking communities – either located in Latin America or within US territory – competes with other national-specific demeaning terms such as pato ‘duck’ for Puerto Ricans (La Fountain-Stokes, 2007), pájaro ‘bird’ for Cubans (Peña, 2004), and joto for Mexicans and Chicanxs (Ocampo, 2012). In mainstream social settings in the US, where the Spanish language plays a minoritized role, Latinx and non-Latinx individuals may interpret the word maricón quickly as a homophobic slur, equivalent to the English epithet fag(got). When men of Hispanic heritage have employed maricón in public spaces in America such as in professional sports, they have defended their choice blaming their critics of cultural mistranslation. In other words, they argue that, when used in “authentic” contexts, maricón functions as a harmless Spanish expression, which is roughly equivalent to gay, so it was not intended to be an insult (Cashman, 2012). This contentious rationale perilously aligns with discourses widely spread in US society and media that depict Latinxs as belonging to a static, conservative culture. In addition to reinforcing stereotypes, defending the assumed neutrality of maricón also ignores the intersectional experiences of Latinx non-heterosexual, gender-variant people living in the US and, among them, particularly those who use the Spanish language in their daily lives and, therefore, understand first-hand the vitriolic, derisive connotations of the word (Cashman, 2017).
Defying the linguistic violence of maricón, many US-based Latinx artists and activists have reappropriated the term to mobilize a critique to both the homophobia and machismo predominant in Hispanic communities and, at the same time, the insidious racism of mainstream American LGBT rights movement. The work of gay Chicano artists Teddy Sandoval (b. 1949; d. 1995) and Joey Terrill (b. 1955) exemplifies this type of aesthetic, political intervention. During the mid-1970s, Sandoval and Terrill designed provocative T-shirts with the self-descriptors maricón and malflora (lit. ‘bad flower,’ loosely translated as dyke) printed at the front. The maricón T-shirts became instantly popular among Chicanx and Latinx gay men and lesbians in Los Angeles, because they make possible a type of cuir linguistic activism that “perform a Chicano/Latino identity in a predominantly white gay public sphere” (Rodríguez, 2011: 476).
Figure 1 is a reproduction of a photograph taken of Terrill wearing one of these maricón T-shirts. In his insightful article on mariconógraphy, Robb Hernández aptly analyzes the photographs of The Maricón Series in the following terms: “Bearing the marking of maricón on [Terrill’s] body, his self-display is a collision of racialized, gendered, and sexualized signifiers. The image collapses a Chicano masculine virility with a culturally and linguistically specific slur, and the zarape [Mexican folk blanket] itself is offset by its homoerotic possibility” (2014: 139). In political terms, the possibility of mobilizing maricón (and similar words) to arise emotions such as pride and desire (instead of hatred and disgust) can constitute a key survival strategy for minoritized subjects such as cuir people of color, a concept that José Esteban Muñoz (1999) called disidentification. In this sense, maricón and similar words can functions as (dis)identifying categories once cuir speakers reappropriate their social meanings.
Figure 1. Teddy Sandoval and Joey Terrill, portrait from The Maricón Series, Joey Terrill wearing his maricón T-shirt, 1975. Courtesy of Joey Terrill.
At the risk of falling into an etymological fallacy, that is, the danger of believing that the most precise or correct meaning of a word is to be found in its most antiquated uses, I consider that there is a continuity between the medieval and colonial use of maricón and its contemporary use. During all these centuries, any man can be labeled as maricón not only because he behaves femininely, but also because his effeminacy ideologically implies that he has intercourse with other men. Complementarily, non-feminine men who have sex with other men are not insulted as maricones, nor are they labeled in any particular way (or when they are like the sexually active bugarrones mentioned by Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas (2019 ) in his unapologetic autobiography, not in the same proportion as their feminine counterparts). I am aware that someone might argue that this sexual logic combines two distinct phenomena: on the one hand, gender expression – that is, how each person presents themself socially in their speech, body disposition, and dress, among other elements that may indicate his masculinity-femininity – and, on the other hand, sexual orientation – that is, the gender a person feels erotic attraction to and whom they have sex with. However, the understanding that sharply separates the spheres of gender and sexuality is modern and stems from global discourses on sexual diversity that emerged in the global North some decades ago (Valentine, 2003). It is common to hear or read activists saying that gender has no relation to sexual orientation and that, when a man has sex with another man, both parties should be considered and called homosexual or, even better, gay. However, in the dynamics of many sexual subcultures in Latin America, the word maricón is only applicable to one of the parties, the feminine man, who assumes a passive role in the sexual relationship (Almaguer, 1993). It can be said that, in countries like Peru, for example, two sexual logics coexist in tension, a global one condensed in the term gay, and another more local and deep-rooted one where maricón blurs the boundaries of gender and sexuality (Motta, 2001). For this reason, it is not surprising that, in the city of Lima, many trans women – that is, people assigned male at birth, and whose gender identity is female – use the word maricona to refer to each other. Additionally, maricón is a word that bothers those cuir men, activists or not, who want to banish from their lives any association with femininity and transgenderism, as well as the homophobic trauma mentioned lines above.
For a long time now, some activists have sought to redefine maricón and marimacho in order to displace their harming, pejorative sense in favor of their use as identity labels and symbols of pride. A clear example is the linguistic activism of the Bolivian collective Movimiento Maricas Bolivia and their podcast Nación Marica that criticizes the ethnocentric, middle-class bias behind gay identity (Hannover, 2020), and instead employs proudly the sexual lexicon of its community. Each episode of Nación Marica radio program begins by greeting mamitos, marulos and mamacitos (‘cuir men’), as well as lenchas, tortilleras and marimachas (‘lesbians’), and tracas and travas (‘trans women’); all popular epithets in Bolivia (Movimiento Maricas Bolivia, 2020). Do the activists of Movimiento Maricas Bolivia aim to empty these words of all violent meaning in the future, or do they want to redirect that harmful force to cause a commotion and draw attention to their political discourse? I argue that critique and social change can only emerge when we intervene and position words that are still uncomfortable. Otherwise, what would be the point of bringing maricón and similar words to the fore if they do not stir emotions and question normative logics? We do not have to go far to see what happens when a word like maricón is devoid of homophobic content. Currently, in Colombia and Venezuela, marica and marico hardly function as insults; instead, they are used for other purposes: to address someone or seek their attention, to transmit closeness (especially among young people), or to express surprise and anger (Gutiérrez-Rivas, 2016). In fact, when marica is used to attack it is not as a homophobic insult; instead, it functions as an equivalent to desgraciado ‘miserable’ o malnacido ‘bastard.’ Unlike the work of Movimiento Maricas Bolivia, this linguistic shift (if there was one in the first place) in Colombia and Venezuela was not deliberate. Both linguists and speakers in these countries are aware of the homophobic use of marica, but all the other conversational and pragmatic functions of the word mentioned above are recalled before its injurious use. Of course, this does not mean that in Colombia and Venezuela there is less homophobia than in other Latin American countries. If in Venezuela saying “soy marica” does not have the same disruptive force as in Bolivia, it is because marica no longer serves to publicly denounce symbolic violence and not because there is greater tolerance towards cuir men. If marica does not offend in Colombia, loca or some other homophobic epithet or phrase of the dozens that are surely also used there. The work of resignification should not aim at replacing one meaning with another or at abandoning or totally banning a term or a group of terms, but at showing the ideological dynamics of homophobic language and the material effects of this type of discourse. Probably, we maricones still (and indefinitely) need to take political advantage of the discomfort that using these words in the first-person entails, because otherwise would be to grant the monopoly of their use to those speakers who have historically discriminated and made us invisible.
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 In this essay, I will use the term queer to refer broadly to masculine-presenting people whose gender expression and/or sexual behavior is/are non-normative. In this sense, queer could coincide with other identity labels of current use in the Spanish language, such as homosexual, gay, and -as I will discuss here – maricón. Also, given my analysis’s historical and transnational approach, queer is a good candidate to avoid temporal, geographical biases. However, my Spanish-like orthographic choice of writing cuir follows Lewis et al.’s (2017) proposal of highlighting geopolitical dislocation in a keyword commonly associated with Global North, English-speaking academia.
 I want to thank the editors of Latinx Talk for suggesting mariconología/mariconólogy to title this essay. This neologism partially coincides with Hernández’s (2014) coinage of mariconógraphy, a combination of maricón and iconography. However, I want to draw attention to the fact that while mariconógraphy approaches to visual artifacts, mariconología/mariconólogy focuses in words and linguistic material in general.
Note: A previous, shorter version of this was published in Spanish in the Diccionario Latinoamericano de la Lengua Española (http://untref.edu.ar/diccionario/notas-detalles.php?nota=32).
About the Author
Ernesto Cuba is a PhD candidate in Hispanic Linguistics at The Graduate Center (CUNY). He obtained his BA in Linguistics and a diploma in Gender Studies at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. His area of interest is language, gender and sexuality studies. The subject of his doctoral research is the discursive and linguistic practices of Féminas, a transgender activist group based in Lima, Peru. Ernesto has published book chapters, guidelines, and essays on gender and language in Spanish, such as “Lingüística Feminista y Apuesta Glotopolítica” (2018). He is co-founder of Indisciplinadxs, an international community of Feminist Linguistics.