“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.

“Fiestas patrias celebrations … [and] various kinds of entertainment nurtured ‘mexico de afuera'” (De Leon)

From “Corridors North, 1900-1930.”

Habitually, the immigrants also used Mexico as a compass for proper behavior. Journalists advised parents, for example, to teach children the ways of propriety, to make sure that they abide by United States law, and to instill in them racial pride. Cultural and recreative clubs emphasized the need for the preservation of Mexico’s good name, as well as its customs and traditions. Fiestas patrias celebrations, which went back to [74] the 1820s in Texas, became yearly rituals for the display of allegiance.[32] Various kinds of entertainment nurtured “méxico de afuera” (Mexico in the United States). Theatrical presentations were provided by companies relocated to Texas because of the Mexican Revolution, and the music popular in northern Mexico (such as the accordion-led ensemble called the conjunto) was diffused by the newcomers throughout the state.[33] The Immigrant Generation proclaimed the concept of “Mexican” proudly and patriotically upheld the honor of the homeland.

Conversely, many of the recent immigrants held denigrating views towards the United States and even Mexican Americans, who, despite their efforts to Americanize, were still treated as second-class citizens by white society. Recent immigrants singled out the women, criticizing them for mimicking American customs and fashions. The newcomers referred derisively to Tejanos who adopted American habits as pochos.[34]

Arnoldo de Leon, Mexican Americans in Texas, 73-74.

  1. [32]De León, Ethnicity in the Sunbelt, pp. 33-34, 37, 38; Lowrey, “Night School in Little Mexico,” p. 39.
  2. [33]Nick Kanellos, “Two Centuries of Hispanic Theatre in the Southwest,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña, XI (Spring 1983), 23-25, 35; Nick Kanellos, A History of Hispanic Theatre in the United States (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), pp. 180-181, 198, 199-200; Manuel Peña, The Texas Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), pp. 29, 35-36, 38.
  3. [34]Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p. 129.