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Behind the story: Hunting for the mystique behind ‘Beep Vaporú’

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Oregon tourists Emmanuel Juarez, 4, and his mother Esmeralda Orozco take a whiff from a jar of Vicks VapoRub during a visit to Santee Alley in downtown Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Every day I search for stories big and small about Latinos in Los Angeles.

I find tales everywhere — in swap meets, parks, panaderias, buses and schools.

The Column One I wrote about Vicks VapoRub came from a source I know quite well: my big Salvadoran family.

Growing up, my mom and tias each had their own jar of Vicks and their special way of calling it: Beep Vaporú, El Bic, El Vix Vaporoob.

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I didn’t learn the real name of the stinky, gooey ointment until high school when I finally took a good look at the little blue container. This was also around the time I learned not all families were as devoted to VapoRub as mine.

Over time, I came to consider Vivaporú a Latino thing — a fond, funny connection shared from L.A. to Miami to New York by many Central Americans, Mexicans, Cubans and Dominicans.

To talk about Vicks is to go back in time, to hear stories about moms and abuelas and all the off-label ways many cleverly and sometimes questionably put the salve to work.

Most used it for colds and sore muscles. Others on cuts, burns and bruises. Some drank it with coffee, sipped it with tea or used it to battle headaches, toothaches and nail fungus.

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“As a kid, you never really stop and question these kinds of things,” said Michael Diaz, a Dominican from New York whose childhood involved lots of Vicks. “You figure it must be normal.”

For a long time, I thought it was normal, too. Doesn’t everyone have stories about Vicks?

The North Carolina pharmacist who invented the ointment, I recently found, was a master when it came to marketing his product worldwide. You’ll hear plenty of VapoRub tales from the Philippines to India to the far reaches of the Himalayas.

But it’s among Latinos where you’ll find a treasure trove of tributes. Some are nostalgic. Others hilarious.

I’ve been stumbling across Vicks videos and Vicks lists online for years: 10 Curious Customs of Latina Moms, What’s With Our Vivaporú Obsession?, Latinas Use Vicks VapoRub For Everything.

The story idea had been on my list since college. When I brought it up to my editor recently, we decided to explore the topic.

I was fascinated to find much more material than I could ever use.

The Latino-Vivaporú connection was easy to find on the internet. On TV, too — on popular Latino-based television shows like “Jane the Virgin” and “One Day at a Time.” Some people had written about their in nostalgia in dissertations, poems and published essays. Others sold all sorts of merchandise featuring the little blue jar.

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Diaz, the Dominican from New York, was so inspired by his parents’ loyalty he and his friends a few years back made a Vivaporú rap video.

“We knew it was something Latinos would relate to,” he said.

When I spoke to Sion Boney, the great-grandson of Vicks VapoRub creator Lunsford Richardson, he chuckled on the phone as I mentioned all these tributes, most of all the rap video.

His family sold the company to Procter & Gamble in the 1980s, but they still gather once a year to talk about all things Vicks.

“My great-grandfather always wanted Vicks to be a universal experience,” he said. “I think he would be shocked and also very proud.”


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