What Does ‘Vato’ Really Mean: Mexican Slang Uncensored!

In short – according to the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE) a ‘bato‘ is a ‘foolish’ or ‘worthless’ man, BUT (and it’s a big but!) ‘vato’ (or ‘bato’) is also Mexican slang for ‘guy’ or ‘dude’.

Wanna know how Mexicans use ‘vato’ in everyday spoken Spanish?

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty!

Bato’ or ‘vato’, which is correct?

Don’t be surprised if you find this word written with a ‘b’ AND a ‘v’!

But which is the correct spelling?

A young man with "vato" in one hand and "bato" in the other

Well, even though you’ll find it spelled with a ‘b’ in most Spanish dictionaries, the Mexican Academy of Language recognizes BOTH forms as valid. So, if you see it written with a ‘v’, rest assured that it’s not misspelled!

Uses / Meanings of ‘vato

 ‘Vato’ can be used in the following ways –

  • When referring to an unknown man (Mexico)

  • As a synonym of ‘bro’ (Mexico)

  • To describe a young man or teenager (Northwest Mexico)

Oh, and before we get started, here’s a lil’ infographic we rustled up showing where it’s predominantly used –

Infographic showing which countries "vato" is used in

When referring to an unknown man (Mexico)

‘Vato’ can be used in the same sense as ‘dude’ or ‘guy’ when describing an unknown man in casual conversation.

Una llamada telefónica dentro del aeropuerto

Andrés – ¿Ya llegaste? ¿Dónde estás? No te veo.

Pedro – Estoy junto a un vato de chamarra amarilla, no hay pierde.

A phone call inside the airport

Andrés – Have you arrived yet? Where are you? I can’t see you.

Pedro – I’m next to a guy in a yellow jacket, you can’t miss him.

Two men talking on the phone in an airport

As a synonym of ‘bro’ (Mexico)

But ‘vato’ isn’t only used to describe strangers … a ‘vato’ can also be your pal, your best friend, or your ‘bro’.

Dos amigos se encuentran después de un largo tiempo

Manu – ¡Ese vato! ¡Qué alegría verte!

Iván – ¡WEY, a mí también me da gusto verte! ¿Cómo has estado?

Two friends meet after a long time

Manu – Bro! It’s so nice to see you!

Ivan – Dude, it’s nice to see you too! How have you been?

Yep, as you can see from the infographic, there are A LOT of different ways to say ‘bro‘, ‘dude‘ or ‘guy‘ in Mexican Spanish –

Infographic showing the different words for "dude" or "bro" in Mexican Spanish

To describe a young man or teenager (Northwest Mexico)

Particularly in the northern states of Mexico, you’ll hear people refer to younger men as ‘vatos’, kinda similar to the way ‘lad’ is used in English.

Abuelo – A VER, vato, pásame la caja de herramientas.

Nieto – Sí, ¿dónde está?

Grandpa – Hey, lad, pass me the toolbox.

Grandson – Sure, where is it?

By the way, if you wanna top up on your Mexican slang, you NEED to check out our “Master Guide” … it’s everything you need to know all in one place 👇🌵🇲🇽

Erika pointing to the word "Mexican Slang Master Guide"

Is ‘vato’ a bad word?

‘Vato’ definitely ISN’T a cuss word … but it IS colloquial and is therefore best suited to casual conversation, especially amongst friends.

Now, there’s another nuance to this word that you’re unlikely to find in a Spanish dictionary: ‘vato’ usually refers to young men (remember it’s similar to ‘bro’ or ‘lad’ in English), so you shouldn’t really use it to address someone older than you.

Rupert’s pro tip – I’d actually feel pretty embarrassed calling an elderly person or any authority figure a ‘vato’! It would make me look either disrespectful or just a bit clueless … so there’s a useful tip for ya!

Vato’ pronunciation

To pronounce ‘vato‘ correctly, just divide it into two syllables:

/ bah-toh /

Useful “chunks” with ‘vato

Vato loco

Vato loco‘ literally means ‘crazy dude’ and it’s the perfect way to describe that wild friend who parties like a madman, or that unique guy who always comes up with the wackiest ideas!

A "vato loco" with tattoos and a nose ring

Oh, and just in case you need to refer to more than one crazy dude, the plural of ‘vato‘ is ‘vatos‘ (so you’d say ‘vatos locos‘!).

Wey, hay un vato LOCO gritando en la calle; yo creo que está pedísimo.

Dude, there’s a crazy guy screaming in the street; I think he’s really drunk.

Ese vato

This one translates to ‘that dude’ or ‘that guy’.

¡Ese vato me debe una lana desde hace años!

That dude has owed me money for years!

Mi vato

In Mexico, if you say ‘mi vato’ (literally ‘my guy’) then you’re referring to your boyfriend.

An equivalent for ‘my girlfriend’ would be ‘mi morra’ (in case you were wondering!).

¡A mi vato le encanta esa música!

My boyfriend loves that music!

Before you go …

As I’ve already mentioned, there are LOADS of different ways to say ‘bro‘ or ‘dude‘ in Mexican slang.

The most popular by a country mile is ‘WEY’ (or güey), so I strongly recommend that you check out how to use that next … you’re in for a veritable linguistic treat!

¡Hasta pronto!

Rupert's lived in Mexico for nearly a decade and has been working as a Spanish teacher for even longer (over 10 years now, wow!). He specializes in simple (yet effective) explanations and is a veritable grammar-whizz.

And some cheeky vids ...

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