They call it Bibaporru, Beep Vaporu, El Bic, El Bix, El Vickisito.
And many think of the sticky, stinky menthol goop as their own, even though it’s used around the world.
In the Latino community, Vicks VapoRub inspires a curious, nostalgic devotion — for its many nicknames and uses far more creative than relief for the common cold and muscle pain.
“If I say to someone, ‘Hey, bring me El Vah-po-ru!’ they’ll know exactly what I’m talking about,” said Luciano Roldan, 78, of Los Angeles, who has been rubbing VapoRub all over, including up his nose, since he was a kid in the El Salvador countryside.
Since the ointment was invented as a croup and pneumonia cure by a North Carolina pharmacist more than a century ago, many have relied on the little blue jar to solve all sorts of problems: athlete’s foot, stretch marks, stomach aches, earaches. Some actors even rub it on their eyes to cause tears. Others scoop it into their coffee or tea.
Online, there are countless tributes to its mighty powers. Some testimonials are real, some are jokes — meant to mimic and spoof those with limitless faith.
Latinos have created vivaporu hashtags, memes, emojis, comedy skits and, for those still scratching their heads at the love affair, explanatory videos. Some have written about their nostalgia in dissertations, poems and published essays.
Others have dressed up as the Vicks container for Halloween or celebrated mom’s birthday with a cake in its image.
Growing up in Connecticut, Michael Diaz remembers his Dominican parents put VapoRub on acne, scrapes, cuts, bruises. They kept the jar on the dresser in their bedroom.
When he was in second grade, Diaz came home on a snowy day. Just as he had reached his family’s porch, a sharp icicle broke off the gutter and landed straight on his head. His mom saw the bloody gash and started crying. His dad, Jose, raced to grab the Vivaporu. He slathered a big chunk of goo on his son’s head and told him, “Hey, you’ll be fine.”
Julia Longoria started pondering the Vicks phenomenon only after she grew up and began thinking back on her childhood. In 2017, the WNYC radio reporter and producer decided to dig into the topic a little.
She interviewed dozens of people, but in the end found the best tale right at home: with her Cuban grandmother.
Malvina Camejo, 82, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, loves Vicks VapoRub so much she affectionately calls it her Vickisito.
She’s used it for toenail fungus, to strengthen her nails, condition her hair and moisturize her skin. Sometimes she has five or six of the jars on her vanity.
In interviews she learned that her grandma loved the ointment because it took her back to Cuba, to the happy days before the revolution when her own mother used to rub the salve on her in the comfort of her little pink bedroom.
After the embargo cut off the conduit to American products, Longoria’s grandma couldn’t get her Vickisito for years.
Lunsford Richardson invented a lot of remedies in the 1890s, but the one that clicked was Vicks Magic Croup Salve, created to help people breathe better when they had colds. (His son later came up with “VapoRub.”)
In 1918, the Spanish flu sent sales soaring, from $900,000 to $2.9 million in a single year.
Richardson was one of the thousands who died in the epidemic.
His company went on to market the ointment in England, Mexico and Central and South America, and then dozens of other countries. In the 1920s, Vicks salesmen went door to door handing out coupons in small towns in Bolivia.
In the summer when sales would fall, Vicks placed ads in newspapers promoting alternative uses: boils, bee stings, frostbite, headaches, poison oak, and even distemper in horses.
Procter & Gamble, now its parent company, did not respond to requests for comment, but the company website and Vicks hotline emphasize that users should stick to the recommended uses listed on the label.
Maybe it was all the advertising. Maybe it was product loyalty. Maybe it was simply a tradition passed from one generation to the next.
Rachel Herz, a cognitive neuroscientist at Brown University, thinks its strong scent might play a role. She’s included the product in several studies about the powerful memories that smells evoke. She said VapoRub often brought up flashbacks that were positive, “not of feeling sick, but of being cared for and being soothed.”