1. What Did They Call Them after They Called Them “Greasers”? A Genealogy and Taxonomy of the Mexican Other
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33 1 What Did They Call Them after They Called Them “Greasers”? A Genealogy and Taxonomy of the Mexican Other Oscar Martínez: Okay, Michael. Both my parents were born in Mexico. And, uh, they moved to the United States a year before I was born. Michael Scott: Yeah. Oscar: So I grew up in the United States. Michael: Wow. Oscar: My parents are Mexican. Michael: Wow, that is a great story. That’s the American Dream right there, right? Oscar: Thank you. Michael: So let me ask you, is there a term besides “Mexican” that you prefer? Something less offensive. Oscar: Mexican isn’t offensive. Michael: Well, it has certain connotations. Oscar: Like what? Michael: Like, well, I don’t know. Oscar: What connotations, Michael? —“Diversity Day,” The Office, season 1, episode 2 A basic precept of this critical endeavor: the figure of the Mexican Other has long been and continues to be central to the formation of whiteness on the border. For some, this may be a mundane statement —of course, there is a long tradition of Mexican stereotyping in the U.S. racial project. For others, this precept verges upon disciplinary and political heresy. As I began thinking through this project over the past few years, I spoke with family, friends, and colleagues. For 34 | What did they call them? some, the reaction was of obvious agreement. Others offered strenuous objections: “Really, aren’t you overstating the matter. Whiteness was actually constructed against blackness. Historically, depictions of Mexican Americans have not been as central” or “Surely, attitudes about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Mexico have changed over the past two hundred years. You can’t really lump these depictions together, can you?” Regarding the first objection, it rests on the logic of hierarchy. I would not advance the displacement of one pole of the racial dyad for another, substituting brown for black. Paraphrasing Richard Rodriguez, the heart of the U.S. racial imagination is a scary place to which no one should want to lay claim.1 However, white supremacy has thrived through not simply a singular binary but a set of interlocking binaries that form a multidirectional network of differential racialization. This project simply seeks to identify one binary—brown-white—in contribution toward a larger antiracist scholarly effort. As for the second disciplinary response that attitudes toward Mexicans have shifted over time, the purpose of this chapter is to identify, describe, and theorize the figuration of the Mexican Other, offering a genealogy and a taxonomy that form the intellectual foundation for the critical analyses of later chapters. To do this, one may find a useful point of departure in the concluding pages of Arnoldo de León’s critical study They Called Them Greasers. In the conclusion of his study of Anglo-Texan attitudes toward their Mexican/Mexican American countrymen, de León finds significant changes in race relations in the twentieth century: Sometime in the fifteen years after World War II, attitudes toward race, “depravity,” loyalty, and other aspects of prejudice underwent a visible change. . . . Legalized segregation ended, political mechanisms designed to obstruct voting toppled, and it became unpopular to be racist publically . . . . If our times are compared with the nineteenth century, Anglo Americans do not regard Mexican Americans as they did in the past. . . . Mexican Americans may no longer be suspected of being un-American, but ethnic slurs and racial epithets carry connotations that they are far from being WASPs. And even if Tejanos are no longer lynched, they are victims of psychological violence in the more subtle forms of discrimination.2 What did they call them? | 35 De León suggests that a broad-based Chicano movement and other freedom struggles as well as greater integration have led to improved relations. However, he is far from advancing the notion of a postracial utopian moment. He tempers his findings with another observation: “Still, many Anglos judge Mexican Americans not by their character, but by the difference they see between themselves and Tejanos.”3 How does one make meaning from de León’s two-part conclusion? Are the two points inherently contradictory? Do they suggest a progress narrative where the dream of Martin Luther King that de León invokes through judging based on “character” has yet to be achieved? It would be wise to situate de León’s analysis within the framework Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s concept of racial formation. Omi and Winant contended that race and racism were not...


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Subject Headings

  • Mexican Americans -- Race identity.
  • Mexicans -- United States -- Race identity.
  • Whites -- United States -- Race identity.
  • Mexican Americans in popular culture -- United States.
  • Chicano movement.
  • Stereotypes (Social psychology).
  • Racism -- United States.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- Social aspects.
  • Mexico -- Emigration and immigration -- Social aspects.
  • United States -- Race relations.
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