In the spring of 2017, as word spread of a marketing campaign to promote good feelings about the city of Chula Vista — and amid a bid to persuade Amazon to bring a second headquarters to town — a couple of concerned citizens wrote letters to the editor of the local weekly condemning what they understood would be a name change for the municipality itself: drop the Vista and keep just the Chula. The city of Chula, in other words. "If it's true...," one letter writer noted in the Star-News, "I am appalled. We all know Chula Vista means beautiful view in Spanish. There is a special lilt to Chula Vista. Chula by itself sounds so cold and ugly."
Under the headline, "Chula Vista is a beautiful name," was also this: "I was shocked and find it totally abhorrent that the mayor...promoted marketing our beautiful city as Chula...Also, we are not interested in having billboards advertising the town as Chula. The entire idea is disconcerting."
Don't look up, but the billboards are back, and all of them proclaiming that "This is Chula." The "this" is invariably underlined. On the campaign's Twitter account, it reads, "#THISisChula," ("THIS" being all upper case. A half-dozen or so billboards are popping up here and there with that same catchphrase and at least one of them, a photograph of a magnificent sea turtle that one can see live at a local bay front attraction, introduces passersby to an additional theme of the awareness campaign: Come to Chula and discover beauty. Chula?
"In Mexico," writes Leonora Simonovis-Brown, a Spanish professor at the University of San Diego, "it mostly means beautiful and it’s not just for people (you can say an event is chulo). It can be used in the masculine or feminine form in both cases."
Adds her colleague, Amanda Petersen: "Chula Vista would mean something like cute, beautiful (or gorgeous, lovely) view, though the word certainly has many meanings...'This is Chula' is a play on words. It's similar to a structure in Spanish. In Spanish we could say "Esto es Chula," meaning either this is cute / pretty or this is Chula (Vista).”
The professors point to a flip side. As “chulo,” in the masculine gender, the meaning is procurer, pimp. It is used as a catcall. Various associated adjectives smack of the unsavory. In the Real Academia Español, a reputable Spanish dictionary, “Chulo, la” as an adjective not only means nice, pretty, handsome and/or funny, but also, at least in the masculine gender, thuggish. Rufian, a noun, is translated as pimp. As both a male or female noun, it can mean an evil, despicable person; one without honor. Also. according to a Google translation, chulo is a man who “helps closure of older cattle at the slaughterhouse.” (Hombre que ayuda en el matadero al encierro de las reses mayores.)
“The City is aware of the various connotations associated with Chula," writes Chula Vista spokesperson Anne Steinberger in an e-mail. "When we launched 'THISisChula' last year, our advertising team created a bold, eye-catching campaign with the goal to get people’s attention, make them aware of the many interesting and beautiful assets and attractions in Chula Vista, and change perceptions. That worked."
And USD's Petersen notes that, though there are negative connotations to the word, "Perhaps because it can be used as a catcall but, well, it's a perfectly positive and appropriate word to describe anything lovely when not being used as a catcall."