Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Dear Mexican: I heard you on NPR describing the various ways that Mexican food images are used to scare white people about the brown hordes from the South coming up here to steal their stuff and take away their ketchup.

You used the phrase “greaser” as an example of a culinary-related insult. But I thought “greaser” originated as an occupational term for Mexican helpers on 19th-century cattle drives who were supposed to keep the wagon wheels greased so they wouldn’t jam—not anything related to tacos or deep-fried rellenos or even hair oil.

What’s the real story?

Gabacho Academic

Dear Gabacho: Greaser, for the younger readers out there, was the illegal of its day, an epithet used by gabachos through the 19th century and beyond to degrade Mexicans as inhuman and, well, greasy. It’s nowadays also seen as a food-related epithet, even if it wasn’t originally the case. But, híjole, gabachos academics sure love folk etymologies!

Your theory is almost as bad as the one that gringo came from 19th-century American soldiers singing “Green Grow the Lilacs” while invading Mexico, with Mexicans mishearing it—didn’t J. Frank Dobie invent that one? Greaser was already established as a favored American slur against Mexicans by the time cattle drives became a thing, so to say the term came from wagon wheels is as laughable as Latinos for Trump. But don’t take it from me: No less a genius than Américo Paredes, in his paper “On Gringo, Greaser and Other Neighborly Names,” dismissed this theory—popularized in American letters by legendary raconteur H.L. Mencken in his supplements to the magisterial The American Language—as “probably never taken seriously by anyone.” BOOM.

Paredes, in the same paper, explained greaser’s popularity to insult Mexicans as being due to “the fact that people of darker complexions have oilier skins than do the Nordics”—a result of diet, not work. He had no idea about its origins, but noted an 1853 definition said greaser was how Texans referred to bedraggled rancheros who wore “economical apparel … shining from grease and long usage.” He also said the earliest known mention of greaser in its anti-Mexican tense dated to 1846, which is two years earlier than the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation.

Well, the Mexican is humbled to advance Paredes’ and the OED’s good work by announcing the discovery of an even earlier reference: in the Telegraph and Texas Register of Houston, Texas. On April 20, 1842, a letter from Mexico City by a nameless prisoner held captive for participating in the Texan Santa Fe Expedition (a failed invasion by the Republic of Texas against New Mexico) mentioned that "foreigners” in the metropolis used greaser to describe “a ragged fellow, or one with his breeches split up at the side”—again with the sartorial hint! Interestingly, the anonymous American didn’t mean Americans or Texans when referring to “foreigners,” but rather another nationality—the Brits, perhaps?

So where did greaser come from? The Mexican’s theory: It’s an English speaker’s mispronunciation of grosero, which technically means “rude” but sounds like “gross”—a false cognate if ever there was one. We at least know that the earliest use of the term referred to clothing, so perhaps gabachos picked it up from Mexican elites ridiculing poor Mexis.

Silly folk etymology, Gabacho Academic? Perhaps. But still better than yours.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

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Dear Readers: Behold your favorite Mexican’s annual Christmas gift guide, where I give shout-outs to some of my favorite books that deserve your money this holiday season! And for once, I won’t recommend my books—¡Ask a Mexican!, Orange County: A Personal History, and Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America—as gifts … oh, wait, I just did! In all honesty, while I always appreciate ustedes buying my libros and handing them out as regalos, the following items are just as chingones, if not more so.

The Perennials: I’ve plugged the following books in the past, and I’ll never stop plugging them, because they’re magnificent: North From Mexico by Carey McWilliams (the first serious history on Mexicans in the United States, by the legendary progressive journalist); Tex(t)-Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the “Mexican” in America by William Nericcio (to quote myself last year, a “scabrous take on Mexicans in the American imagination”); Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican-American Middle Class by USC professor Jody Agius Vallejo (a beautifully written analysis of how Mexis move up in societal circles, with an intro by your favorite Mexican); and anything by Lalo Alcaraz (the legendary cartoonista whose Latino USA—written alongside famous profe Ilan Stavans—is getting republished next year, with even more history); and Sam Quinones (who’s currently working on a book about America’s drug epidemic).

The Oldies-but-Goodies: The Mexican never stops reading, so here are some classics worth revisiting; all are great starting points for those of ustedes who want to know your Chicano history: The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 by Leonard Pitt (a late-1960s tome that explains in depressing detail how California’s Mexican-hating roots began); “With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero by Américo Paredes (a pioneering folklore study on the corridos surrounding Tejano hero Gregorio Cortez, written by one of the godfathers of Chicano Studies); and Occupied America, the ultimate textbook on Chicano Studies—because it’s the only one worth plugging.

The Newbies: Standing on Common Ground: The Making of a Sunbelt Borderland, by Northwestern professor Geraldo L. Cadava, is a much-needed, wonderfully researched, well-written overview of an often-forgotten part of Aztlán: Arizona. (I mean, Arizona is always part of the conversation due to Arpayaso and all of its Know Nothing politicians, but we rarely talk about the good of the state, other than Linda Ronstadt and bacon-wrapped hot dogs). Hotel Mariachi: Urban Space and Cultural Heritage in Los Angeles by Catherine L. Kurland is an awesome ethnography of the mariachis of Boyle Heights, with stunning photos giving readers a sense of place; it’s published by the always-impressive University of New Mexico Press. Finally, but definitely not least, a massive shout-out to Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, a collection of short stories by El Paso writer Benjamin Alire Sáenz that won this year’s prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—a huge victory not just for Chicano literature, but also small presses, as the cabrones who published it were my pals at Cinco Puntos Press.

The Pomade: So it’s not a book, but I also urge ustedes to buy the man in your family Orange County’s own Suavecito Pomade, which has an iron grip and floodlight shine that nevertheless washes out easily. It’s the only product this Mexican allows on his pompadour! Get it, hombre, at, or tell your barber to stock some.

And remember, folks: When you wrap up these gifts, make sure to stuff them in Xbox One boxes to trick the recipient—it’s the Mexican way!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or ask him a video question at!

Published in Ask a Mexican