“The contemptuous word greaser…” (de León)

From Arnoldo de León, on the history and possible significations of the anti-Mexican racial slur “greaser” / grisero.

The contemptuous word greaser which whites used to identify Mexicans may well have applied to Indians as well, since the Indians’ olive color was thought to be a result of their practice of anointing their skins with oils and greases.[10] John C. Reid, passing through Texas as a prospective settler in the 1850s, sought to ascertain the origin of the application of the word upon finding that male Mexicans from Texas to the Pacific coast were called “greasers” and the females “greaser women.” He failed to find a satisfactory explanation, learning only that it had something to do with the similarity between the Mexicans’ color and that of grease. Another transient, commenting upon the vocabulary used in the El Paso region, supported this explanation: “A ‘greaser’ was a Mexican–originating in the filthy, greasy appearance of the natives.”[11]

Arnoldo de León, They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983., 16.


  1. [10]Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, p. 241.
  2. [11]John D. Reid, Reid’s Tramp: Or, A Journal of the Incidents of Ten Months’ Travel …, p. 38; Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean … 1857-1867, p. 239. There are, of course, several explanations of the origin of the word greaser. See Lloyd Lewis, Captain Sam Grant, p. 142; Américo Paredes, “On ‘Gringo,’ ‘Greaser,’ and Other Neighborly Names,” in Singers and Storytellers, ed. Mody C. Boatright et al., pp. 285-290; Cecil Robinson, Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest in American Literature, pp. 38-39; Daily Cosmopolitan (Brownsville, Texas), July 23, 1884, p. 3. Whatever the origins, the word was used commonly in reference to Mexicans.

“In the western states, racial discrimination against Mexicans shares an almost equally long history, appearing for example in California’s 1855 ‘Greaser Act'” (Haney Lopez)

California 1855 ‘Greaser’ Act — [using a Texas-origin ethnic slur… -CJ]

It may be that those who draft or support such laws are unconscious racists in the sense that they operate under the influence of prevalent social prejudices but cannot admit even to themselves the racial antipathies that rule their fears and desires. Racial prejudice against immigrants is a long tradition in the United States, evident [145] certainly in the prerequisite cases. In the western states, racial discrimination against Mexicans shares an almost equally long history, appearing for example in California’s 1855 “Greaser Act,” an antiloitering law that applied to “all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood . . . and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.”[65] Prejudice forms an established part of the contemporary social fabric, even as it stands in contradiction to society’s expressed disapproval of racial discrimination. Racial prejudice, though not consciously recognized as such, exists at a level that motivates and directs social hostility, giving it rhetorical and, more importantly, legal form.

The relative lack of intentional racial animus behind Proposition 187 and similar anti-immigrant legislation does not reduce the effect such laws have in maintaining and deepening racial hierarchies. […] Anti-immigrant laws, drawing on deep social beliefs in racial hierarchy, give effect to and entrench those same social beliefs.

The prevalence and daily material reinforcement of racist beliefs in our society ensure the continued legal construction of race in the form of ostensibly neutral but [146] actually discriminatory laws put forward by those who assure us, and are genuinely convinced of, their own good intentions.

Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 144-146.


  1. [65]Act of April 30, 1855, ch. 175, § 2, 1855, Cal. Stat. 217, excerpted in ROBERT F. HEIZER and ALAN J. ALMQUIST, THE OTHER CALIFORNIANS: PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION UNDER SPAIN, MEXICO, AND THE UNITED STATES 151 (1971).

Compare antebellum vagrancy laws in Texas and California (California Statutes vs. Oldham and White)

Text of the California “Greaser Act” (An Act to punish Vagrants, Vagabonds, and Dangerous and Suspicious Persons,” April 30, 1855.)

Section 1. All persons except Digger Indians, who have no visible means of living, who in ten days do not seek employment, nor labor when employment is offered to them, all healthy beggars, who travel with written statements of their misfortunes, all persons who roam about from place to place without any lawful business, all lewd and common prostitutes and common drunkards may be committed to jail and sentenced to hard labor for such time as the Court, before whom they are convicted shall think proper, not exceeding ninety days.

Sec. 2. All persons who are commonly known as “Greasers” or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood, who may come within the provisions of the first section of this Act, and who go armed and are not known to be peaceable and quiet persons, and who can give no good account of themselves, may be disarmed by any lawful officer, and punished otherwise as provided by the foregoing section.

The Statutes of California, Passed at the Sixth Session of the Legislature, Begun on the First Day of January, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty-Five, and Ended on the Seventh Day of May, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty-Five, at the City of Sacramento (Sacramento: B.B. Bedding, State Printer, 1855), 217.

(Sections 3-5 provide for Justices of the Peace, keepers of the Jail, and Board of Supervisors’ administrative powers and duties. Section 6 states when the act will take effect.)

Text of the Texas antebellum vagrancy act (“Of Vagrants,” Act of Aug. 26, 1856[?])

Art. 891. A vagrant is an idle person, living without any visible means of support, and making no exertion to obtain a support by any honest employment.

Art. 892. It is the duty of each Chief Justice of a county and Justice of the Peace, to order the arrest of vagrants, which may be done by warrant, directed to any peace officer.


Art. 895. When a person arrested is taken before the magistrate, he shall proceed to ascertain whether he is a vagrant within the meaning of the law; and if it be found that he is, the magistrate shall make an order that such vagrant be put to labor in such a manner as the County Court may direct.


Art. 897. The County Court of each county shall, by general regulation, provide for the manner in which vagrants are to be employed, and the kind of labor to which they shall be put, which may be upon any road, bridge, or other public work of the county.

Art. 898. The County Court shall so regulate the disposal of vagrants, as that they may be compelled to labor for the first offence not more than one week, and for the second, or any subsequent offence, not more than three weeks, during which time the person so compelled to work shall be supported, and, if deserving thereof, shall be paid an additional compensation, at the direction of the County Court, out of the county treasury.

Art. 899. The municipal authorities of incorporated towns and cities may make like regulations, respecting cases of vagrancy within their respective [668] jurisdictions, and vagrants may be arrested and dealt with under the warrant of the Mayor or Recorder of such town or city; may be compelled, in like manner, to labor upon any street or public work of such town or city, and shall be supported and compensated therefor out of the treasury of the corporation, at the discretion of such municipal authorities.

George W. White and Williamson S. Oldham, eds. A Digest of the General Statute Laws of the State of Texas (Austin, Tex.: Printed by J. Marshall & Co., 1859), 667-668 (link).


“The contention grew to the point where the americanos took up arms and said they would put an end to all the ‘greasers’ in their midst.” (Tafolla)

On the Texas side of the river, there was a captain named Brunington who belonged to our regiment and who had lived on the Rio Grande border for many years. He’d been captain of the Texas Rangers and knew the Mexicans well. He was in charge of a small patrol guarding the border on the Texas side. One day he came to our camp with ten men and delivered a Mexican prisoner to the guards, warning them to take twice as much caution with him or he would escape.

[…] [65] The corporal, getting impatient, just grabbed him by the arm and lifted him up. As he stood up, we discovered that he’d taken the chain off his feet and was just waiting for nighttime in order to escape. Upon standing, he looked down at his feet and said, “Look, it came loose.” This made everybody in the room die laughing, and shout and throw their hats up in the air. Captain Brunington came running at the sounds of the shouts and asked the prisoner, “What’s going on, man?” And the prisoner, with a feigned innocence, replied, “The chain came undone.”

Then the captain said to the soldiers, “This Mexican is going to get away from you, and the one who lets him get away is going to be punished severely.” And some answered, “I’d like to see him get away from me!”

Santiago Tafolla, A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Confederate. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press. Edited by Carmen Tafolla and Laura Tafolla. Translated by Fidel L. Tafolla. 64-65.

When Menchaca got back with the two prisoners, he said to the captain, “What do you think about Menchaquita? Will he at least be made a corporal?” Another one of us, a German who had also cut off from the group, came back with two more prisoners. Since the rest of us were already on Texas soil, and they saw the German alone on the Mexican side, a mob of men and women came up on him shouting “Kill him! Kill him!” and someone shot him in the back with a rifle. The bullet went through him and they would have killed him had our soldiers not lined up along the river’s edge and protected him. Our men fired a volley, and knocked down their leader, who was one horseback in front, and they succeeded in  dismounting him. And the rest of them fled when they saw us finish crossing over.

I came inside, cursing heavily against those who’d shot the German. […]

[69] But the Mexican we had chained earlier escaped in a tragically sad manner. [prisoner escapes across Rio Grande, unharmed despite attempts to shoot him while swimming the river] There were many Americans from up North on board and they began making fun of us, shouting harassments, and calling us cowards. […]

Santiago Tafolla, A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Confederate. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press. Edited by Carmen Tafolla and Laura Tafolla. Translated by Fidel L. Tafolla. 68-69.

[Tafolla goes on leave to visit family, Confederate Army begins retreat from Rio Grande to Corpus.] The day we arrived back to the regiment, I was surrounded by my mexicano friends who were still left in the regiment (as many had already deserted). They begged me to word a petition to Col. Duff asking that we be transferred to the regiment of Col. Santos Benavides, who was in charge of a regiment of mexicanos in the service of the Confederate States. Because of my absence, Corporal Juan Mercado had disappeared from one day to the next, and it was believed that he had been hanged.

We had in our regiment a group of about ten men who had the bad reputation of hanging folks. And it was said that they had hanged several men who didn’t go along with their ideas. Among these hangmen, there was a captain named Taylor who they said had a grudge against Corporal Mercado and had threatened to hang him. He made this threat in the presence of one of Corporal Mercado’s friends, a man named Juan Santa Ana. Santa Ana told Corporal Mercado about the threat. Since [71] Mercado had disappeared so suddenly, the boys believed he had been hanged. It was for this reason that the mexicanos wanted to be transferred to Benavides’ regiment. They feared for their lives in our own regiment, for at every step there were constant and ugly disagreements between the mexicanos and americanos. The colonel, however, denied our petition, telling us that we were mistaken. He assured us that Corporal Mercado had not been hanged.

About this time, Col. Duff received orders to take his regiment to the state of Louisiana. After marching about ten days, while camped on the Lavaca River, a dispute arose between a mexicano and an americano. The contention grew to the point where the americanos took up arms and said they would put an end to all the “greasers” [griseros] in their midst. Then I and a German friend of mine, Fred Metzger, who had previously served five years in the U.S. Cavalry with me, put ourselves in between the contending parties and succeeded in calming them. This friend’s name is Fred Metzger, and he lives today in Hondo, in Medina County. I believe that if it were not for him, many would have died that day.

That day, all my mexicano friends decided to desert that very night. They insisted that I go along with them, saying that we could take the best horses in the regiment and leave that night.

Santiago Tafolla, A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Confederate. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press. Edited by Carmen Tafolla and Laura Tafolla. Translated by Fidel L. Tafolla. 70-71.

Deserts: 71-80.