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The Classist History Behind Bad Bunny's 'Bichiyal'

Bad Bunny performs onstage during Calibash 2018 in Los Angeles, California.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
Bad Bunny performs onstage during Calibash 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

When Bad Bunny released his sophomore album YHLQMDLG (an acronym for Yo Hago Lo Que Me Da La Gana,or I Do Whatever I Want) on February 29, he also introduced a new word into the world: bichiyal. It's the title of one of the album's songs—a nostalgic love letter to the old school perreo of the '90s and early 2000s—featuring the veteran reggaetonero Yaviah.

"What does 'bichiyal' mean?" a Colombian co-worker asked a few days after the album dropped. As a Puerto Rican, I hadn't thought twice about the newly minted term, because it's a mashup of two popular slang words in Puerto Rico: "bicha" and "yal."

In the context of the song, a "bichiyal" is a woman who exists between two worlds: the privileged life of Puerto Rico's upper-middle class and the violent, vulnerable experience of the island's poorest neighborhoods. It's unclear to which class she belongs—or to which she wants to belong—but the mere introduction of the term opened the floodgates for a debate about class, womanhood, and Puerto Rico's long history of reggaeton production.

"Reggaeton is this open book that gives the best reading of contemporary Puerto Rican society," said Bryan Negrón, the writer behind the "And 'bichiyal' really is something new."

Let's start with the term "bicha," an anglicism of the word "b*tch." It's often used to describe a snobby woman, or one from an upper-class background. But men also use it to describe women when they stray from gender roles—like " esa tipa es una bicha," (that girl is a bicha), if a woman talks back to a man.

While it's most often used as an insult, women in Puerto Rico also use the word to refer to each other as a term of endearment—or even empowerment. "In my teenage years, my friends and I used this word all the time and we didn't limit it to the female sex," writes Rima Brusi, author of Entre la Bicha y la Pared .

Then, there's the term "yal," which derives from the Jamaican patois word "gyal," or girl. Puerto Ricans got an introduction to the word in the 1990s, when dancehall music and other Caribbean genres made their way onto the island. By the mid-'90s, rappers began using the term widely to refer to women—notably, in the songs "Todas Las Yales" by Daddy Yankee and "Yal"by Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam.

By the early 2000s, "yal" was embedded in reggaeton's vernacular, as evidenced in songs like "Gata Salvaje" by Hector y Tito. But it made its mainstream debut with the 2004 album Motivando a la yal by Zion y Lennox. This album was one of the first releases that marked the reggaeton's induction into the mainstream worldwide. It peaked in 2005 with the worldwide hit of Daddy Yankee's Barrio Fino, which became the first reggaeton album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Latin charts,and its hit single "Gasolina."

Puerto Rico remained the main producer of reggaeton for years, even as the genre endured two waves of criminalization and persecution in the late 90s and early 2000s, according to Verónica Dávila, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. The first came under the administration of Governor Pedro Rosselló in 1993 and continued in the early 2000s with Senator Velda González. Both waves waged war on Puerto Rico's poorest communities, as writer Marisol Lebrón described in the Boston Review, and pushed the narrative that reggaeton was intrinsically linked to criminal activity in housing projects and low-income communities. Reggaetoneros fought back through their lyrics, with songs such as Ivy Queen's "Somos Raperos Pero No Delincuentes" (or "We Are Rappers Not Felons") and Eddie Dee's "Censurarme" (or "Censor Me").

As a result, reggaeton's lyrics became cleaner, romantic and pop-influenced. Eventually, "yal" fell out of vogue as slang in local artists' lyrics as they distanced from the genre's roots. "Bicha," on the other hand, flourished as a colloquial term in the island's youth scene, eventually becoming a widely known slang word.

By the early 2010s, though, Puerto Rico came face-to-face with an economic crisis that eventually led to a Congress-imposed fiscal oversight board in 2016. And along with the financial slump came the return of the "yal." But this time, the term jumped out of reggaeton lyrics and into the colloquial vernacular of Puerto Ricans, who used it to describe a trite stereotype of the island's poorest women. A 2014 video by comedian Alex Díaz mocks a yal as a woman who's "always wearing a dubi" and "15-inch hoop earrings," and who carries the latest iPhone model, despite "living off government aid." Comedian Natalia Lugo also became highly popular for her caricaturesque portrayal of a yal named Francheska, who complained that WIC benefits were not enough to sustain her seven children and spent her days watching telenovelas instead of looking for a job.

The term became a way to judge women and the way they managed their finances, Dávila said. "This stereotype helps a very classist country blame someone else for its problems," she explained. "It's not on us, and certainly not on the United States – it's on them, the yales."

Around the same time as the economic crisis, reggaeton exploded globally again. Artists also started to turn on the "yal." There are songs like Farruko and De la Ghetto's "No Es Una Gial," which describes a woman who dresses fashionably and likes expensive things, unlike women from the barrio. "Reggaetoneros have moved away from wanting the woman from el barrio, which we associate with the yal," Dávila said. "Now, they want the university girl, the white girl, the overprotected girl"—in other words, the bicha.

In "Bichiyal," Bad Bunny tries to introduce a new type of woman, one that exists in the in-between of the bicha and the yal. She races banshees on the weekends, while she also spends hours doing her makeup before going out. Introducing a term like this one, Dávila said, is an attempt to go back to the roots of reggaeton by celebrating women from the barrio.

But the mission fails; instead of saluting these women, Bad Bunny romanticizes the lives of one of the most vulnerable populations in Puerto Rico, she said. It's making the term "bichiyal" cool for women who live in privileged positions or have never experienced the discrimination that comes with fitting the profile of a yal. "These are women who are the most impacted by the economic crisis, by Hurricane Maria, by the earthquake, by the femicide crisis," Dávila explained.

And other women online agree. "The women using the term 'bichiyal' now would not hesitate to think less of 'yales' in real life," tweetedPatricia Velázquez, co-founder of the Hasta 'Bajo Project, a transmedia archive of Puerto Rico's reggaeton."I think women want the title now without knowing what real-life 'yales' go through, they want to appropriate from a privileged position," replied one follower.

In my own Twitter post, I wrote that bichiyal is a term that takes a lot of experience—and historical context from the island— to understand. Other Latinos and Latin Americans were receptive to the explainer, but the often-angry response from fellow Boricuas was unexpected. "Why do we have to analyze something so banal like reggaeton," one person replied, while another argued that "people were analyzing reggaeton to seem intellectual."

The song and album's popularity has elevated the conversation to a whole new platform. This week, YHLQMDLG debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, making it the highest ranking all-Spanish album ever. Bad Bunny also debuted the music video for "Bichiyal" – set in Yokohama, Japan – featuring the new term in Japanese characters and an all-Asian cast. While the mainstream adoption of reggaeton is certainly a call for celebration, Dávila and Negrón said it's important to continue having conversations about introducing Puerto Rican slang to a global audience without the proper context.

"In Puerto Rico, we refuse to engage in discussions about class and race," said Dávila. "But, when a genre this popular comes from one of the most marginalized communities, we have to talk about it."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frances Solá-Santiago