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Why Are Mexicans Called "Greasers"?
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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, and 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 that 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 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 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 Texians when referring to “foreigners,” but rather another nationality—the Brits, perhaps?

ORDER IT NOW

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 themexican@askamexican.net, be his fan on Facebook, follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

 
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  1. Jefferson says:

    Mexicans and Hispanics in general use way too much gel on their hair, that is why they are a greasy haired people.

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  2. The correct gringo pejorative directed at Latinos is greaseball, not greaser.

    In the US. a greaser is any man with shiny, slick backed hair, hence the movie and musical Grease.

    grease·ball

    /ˈɡrēsbôl/

    noun
    North Americaninformaloffensive

    noun: greaseball; plural noun: greaseballs

    a foreigner, especially one of Mediterranean or Latin American origin.

    https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=greaseball

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    • Replies: @Jim Bob Lassiter
    Spartanburg, South Carolina's native son Trey Gowdy is my absolute all time fav greaser!!
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  3. @Joe Franklin
    The correct gringo pejorative directed at Latinos is greaseball, not greaser.

    In the US. a greaser is any man with shiny, slick backed hair, hence the movie and musical Grease.

    grease·ball


    /ˈɡrēsbôl/


    noun
    North Americaninformaloffensive

    noun: greaseball; plural noun: greaseballs


    a foreigner, especially one of Mediterranean or Latin American origin.


    https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=greaseball

    Spartanburg, South Carolina’s native son Trey Gowdy is my absolute all time fav greaser!!

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  4. Guys, you should see the ‘gabacho’ who cleans our common area, he works for a landscaping company. He is so greasy right now, when he came to tell me that they are done with the yard work, that I could call him greaser! He looks like brad pitt, blond hair and blond beard. But who cares, the fact is that any one can be a greaser, while working, under the Arizona sun!

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  5. Comanche says:

    hahahaha Trump’s winning Nevada and polling at 35% with Hispanics and this greaser thinks there isn’t any real “Latino’s for Trump.”

    Trump’s winning in all the polls!

    hahahahaha I can’t wait for those greasy Mexican tears on election day.

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  6. I find the term obnoxious.

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    • Replies: @Jim Bob Lassiter
    I respect your right to find any term any way you care to find it. That said, there are a whole lot of other things out there that far more obnoxious than "greaser".
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  7. @Fran Macadam
    I find the term obnoxious.

    I respect your right to find any term any way you care to find it. That said, there are a whole lot of other things out there that far more obnoxious than “greaser”.

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  8. “to scare white people about the brown hordes from the South coming up here to steal their stuff and take away their ketchup”

    WTF is this guy talking about? I’m convinced the Mexican is writing his own questions.

    BUT i think what everyone is growing tired of is this example. When a news station was highlighting the plight of an older Mexican lady who’s SNAP benefits were being reduced the reality was she was illegal, had been living in the USA for 20 years, never had a job and didn’t speak hardly any English.

    i feel for the woman but there are many of us who were born here, worked all our lives and, based on what here apartment looked like, are pissed that she seems to have nicer things than the rest of us…….how is that possible? How can you live here and never work yet have the big screen TV? I can barley afford rent these days and from where i sit she’s living better than i am.

    that is the problem, i don’t care if she takes my catsup it’s my tax dollars being stolen that pisses me off.

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  9. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    “Greaser” came from the Mexican cultural preference to put animal fat their hair, then Crisco became popular, then by the sixties, whatever hair product was around, like Brill Cream, or Vitalis or whatever. Some still used Crisco.

    Nothing more than that.

    I’m a longtime California native, and that’s what we meant specifically to identify Mexican gang members with the above grooming habits. Average working Mexican families were not considered “greasers” by any white folks I was ever around.

    It was a pejorative term meant to apply to stupid Mexican gang members. No money. No brains. No class.

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  10. sheen says:

    Grosero comes from grueso, which comes from Latin grossus. Gross also comes from Latin grossus. Thus saith the internet dictionaries.

    When called greasy, why not play it off as a compliment? Why, thank you. I plan on staying wrinkle-free for at least [x] years

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  11. You can theorize away, but my own experience is that when I was in high school in the Chicago area in the ’60s, “greasers” was a social category for blue collar youths who greased back their hair and typically wore black leather jackets. It wasn’t even necessarily a term of disparagement, as it was self-applied much of the time. It was more likely to refer to Italian or Puerto Rican or Appalachian kids, than Mexicans, if only because there were more of the first three groups around Chicago than the latter.

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/group-efforts-rising-up-angry-and-the-greasers-revolution/Content?oid=874469

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    • Replies: @Jim Bob Lassiter
    Ditto here in the South during my Jr. High and Sr. High school days. (mid-sixties to early seventies) There were no "Lah-teen-ohs" and forced integration/busing was in full swing. The White kids from the other side of the tracks wore white socks, discount store demin stove pipes, horseshoe metal heel taps and started smoking cigarettes at age 11. By age 14, they were 1/2 pack a day smokers. They were from lower working class families who worked in the textile mills and were (by and large) social pariahs at school.

    I can clearly recall the pejoratives used to refer to them: "hoods", "mill grits", "mill scum" and "greasers".
    , @Jefferson
    "greasers” was a social category for blue collar youths who greased back their hair and typically wore black leather jackets."

    Did they always have blonde girlfriends like Sandy from Grease?
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  12. I’ve never heard Mexicans referred to as greasers before. We always called them beaners and spics.

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  13. Jefferson says:

    There is a Mexican restaurant in my own neighborhood. The Mexican woman who owns that place has hair that is as greasy as fried chicken. There are probably grease stains on her bed when she wakes up in the morning.

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  14. @Laugh Track
    You can theorize away, but my own experience is that when I was in high school in the Chicago area in the '60s, "greasers" was a social category for blue collar youths who greased back their hair and typically wore black leather jackets. It wasn't even necessarily a term of disparagement, as it was self-applied much of the time. It was more likely to refer to Italian or Puerto Rican or Appalachian kids, than Mexicans, if only because there were more of the first three groups around Chicago than the latter.

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/group-efforts-rising-up-angry-and-the-greasers-revolution/Content?oid=874469

    Ditto here in the South during my Jr. High and Sr. High school days. (mid-sixties to early seventies) There were no “Lah-teen-ohs” and forced integration/busing was in full swing. The White kids from the other side of the tracks wore white socks, discount store demin stove pipes, horseshoe metal heel taps and started smoking cigarettes at age 11. By age 14, they were 1/2 pack a day smokers. They were from lower working class families who worked in the textile mills and were (by and large) social pariahs at school.

    I can clearly recall the pejoratives used to refer to them: “hoods”, “mill grits”, “mill scum” and “greasers”.

    Read More
    • Replies: @Jim Bob Lassiter
    They did keep the Negro undertow fairly well in line for what it was worth.
    , @iffen
    Are you sure you know what you are talking about? I think that if you did, then linthead would have been the 1st pejorative on your list.
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  15. @Jim Bob Lassiter
    Ditto here in the South during my Jr. High and Sr. High school days. (mid-sixties to early seventies) There were no "Lah-teen-ohs" and forced integration/busing was in full swing. The White kids from the other side of the tracks wore white socks, discount store demin stove pipes, horseshoe metal heel taps and started smoking cigarettes at age 11. By age 14, they were 1/2 pack a day smokers. They were from lower working class families who worked in the textile mills and were (by and large) social pariahs at school.

    I can clearly recall the pejoratives used to refer to them: "hoods", "mill grits", "mill scum" and "greasers".

    They did keep the Negro undertow fairly well in line for what it was worth.

    Read More
    ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
  16. Jefferson says:
    @Laugh Track
    You can theorize away, but my own experience is that when I was in high school in the Chicago area in the '60s, "greasers" was a social category for blue collar youths who greased back their hair and typically wore black leather jackets. It wasn't even necessarily a term of disparagement, as it was self-applied much of the time. It was more likely to refer to Italian or Puerto Rican or Appalachian kids, than Mexicans, if only because there were more of the first three groups around Chicago than the latter.

    http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/group-efforts-rising-up-angry-and-the-greasers-revolution/Content?oid=874469

    “greasers” was a social category for blue collar youths who greased back their hair and typically wore black leather jackets.”

    Did they always have blonde girlfriends like Sandy from Grease?

    Read More
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  17. The grosero theory is certainly consistent with the English habit of changing the pronunciation of foreign words before assimilating them into the language.
    The same thing may have happened to the ethnic insult “gook”, which some
    Asian-American linguists believe may have been derived from the Korean word
    “hankook”, which means –”Korean”.

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  18. Literalist pejoratives are funny – like listening to 9 year olds talk. It’s the equivalent of calling someone with a big nose “big nose”.

    At least you have some decent ones for blacks (like ‘Shine’ and ‘Monday’, and the old ‘wiping the face’ signal).

    In the civilised (i.e., non-US) West, we prize inventiveness: we have names like ‘bubble’ for Greek (rhyming slang – “bubble ‘n’ sqeak”), and ‘power-point’ for Asians (because their eyes and mouth, taken together, look like an Australian-style power-point).

    During grad school, a mate of mine (who is very much a ‘bubble’) and I constructed a complex vector of convert racist and sexist epithets, by mixing Armenian and Greek slang (sometimes running an existing English epithet through a converter).

    So we had the following:

    fish (Armenian for power-point, apparently) – Asian;
    sev (Armenian for black) – anyone darker than a caffe latte but lighter than a white coffee*;
    mav(contraction of Greek ‘mavro’, black) – anyone darker than a white coffee*;
    tennesse - an attractive woman (a feminine ending appended to the root ‘tenn-’ from Armenian ‘tenelle’ – put – which also has a sexual context);
    havra (bastardised Greek for Hebrew) – Jew;
    stick – far too rude to go into detail here;
    pez – from Turkish ‘pezevenk’ (dickhead, wanker, idiot);
    govno or malakies (bullshit).

    There were a bunch of others, but I still use ‘fish’ and ‘sev’ a lot. And ‘govno’ and ‘malakies’.

    Yes, taxpayers: from 1995 to 1999 you paid us $40k a year (our merit scholarship stipends were $27k a year, tax-free) and paid our grad school fees (scholarships included full fee relief) … and we sat around talking nonsense for hours and hours every day.

    * American white coffee is a lot lighter than Australian white coffee.

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  19. They were called greasers because of all the grease they put in their hair. They were trying to look like Elvis or Richie Valens back in the day. When that fashion ended for white people, the Mexicans kept it up, Pachucos.

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  20. iffen says:
    @Jim Bob Lassiter
    Ditto here in the South during my Jr. High and Sr. High school days. (mid-sixties to early seventies) There were no "Lah-teen-ohs" and forced integration/busing was in full swing. The White kids from the other side of the tracks wore white socks, discount store demin stove pipes, horseshoe metal heel taps and started smoking cigarettes at age 11. By age 14, they were 1/2 pack a day smokers. They were from lower working class families who worked in the textile mills and were (by and large) social pariahs at school.

    I can clearly recall the pejoratives used to refer to them: "hoods", "mill grits", "mill scum" and "greasers".

    Are you sure you know what you are talking about? I think that if you did, then linthead would have been the 1st pejorative on your list.

    Read More
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  21. xx says:

    what are your sources

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