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Caló: Eh, vato

Today’s word is vato. This ubiquitous and metaphysical Caló word comes from the Spanish word chivato, billy goat. The premier definition of vato, even today, is the iconic image of Juarez movie actor, German “Tin Tan” Valdez in a zoot suit slinking through a narrow alley, cool, fierce and ready for action.

By Oscar "El Marfa" Rodriguez

The Southside had changed a lot. When Boy was a child, dining and going out was a matter of wedding parties and backyard cookouts. Tortillas weren’t found in stores. And Caló was cool. Now Mexican restaurants and bars were ubiquitous. Every store in town sold tortillas—wheat and corn. And urban Mexican Spanish was the predominant language.

As he drove along the old vuelta, the cruising route of his school days, he recalled the many adventures he had all along the way.

There was the Frost Top Drive-in, now El Guadalajara, where he used to hang out, not a single low-rider in sight. Boy thought he’d drive in and hear what was going on these days.

A red-headed young man walked out of the kitchen and asked, “you wanna see a menu?”

“Sirol, ese,” said Boy.

The attendant hesitated then repeated his question in Spanish, “quieres ver un menu?”

Boy extended his hand and accepted one.

“Orale, ese,” he said as the young man walked away.

Boy noted the fare was entirely central Mexican, no hamburgers like the old days.

When the attendant returned to take his order, Boy spoke to him in Caló.

The young man didn’t understand anything but noted the item Boy pointed to.

“OK. Esta bien. I’ll get you that. Te pido eso,” he said in both English and Spanish.

“Who owns this place now?” Boy asked.

“I don’t know the owner’s name, just that he’s from Guadalajara,” the young man said.

“You from here?” he asked.

“Simón. Grew up here. Haven’t been back in a long time, wachas,” said Boy.

“Oh, so you’re a vato?” the young man asked.

The way he put it sounded odd to Boy. 

“Simón, I’m a vato. Not you?” said Boy.

“No. My dad is. He talks like you,” the young man responded.

“Wacha, a vato is simply a cool dude from the barrio,” said Boy.

“Well, nowadays we say, dog,” said the young man.

“Not even cat, huh?” said Boy.

“Huh?” said the young man.

“Well, among my friends, a vato is like my old man, kakis, pointed shoes, and long keychains.”

“Really? Just your dad’s generation?” asked Boy.

“Yeah. Not even my grandfather. Just my dad. He’ the only vato in the family. I think he was in a gang called the Vatos,” said the young man, now visibly anxious to step away.

“They weren’t a gang, just vatos, but I guess they went away and left me and your dad behind,” said Boy.

The young man walked back into the kitchen without reacting.

“He doesn’t look like it, but he’s a vato,” Boy heard the young man say to somebody inside.