Was the Anti-Mexican Slur "Beaner" Invented in Orange County?
Photo by Brian Feinzimer
In tomorrow's ¡Ask a Mexican!, I tackle the origins of the anti-Mexican slurs "spic," "wetback," and "beaner." The first two are well-known among etymologists, with long, sordid histories documented for nearly 100 years. But as I researched the history of "beaner," I came to a shocking, though rather expected, discovery: the racist meaning of the word probably first became popular in Orange County.
"Beaner" in its earliest incarnation was a compliment, a meaning that has only survived in the saying "cool beans." Its negative, anti-Mexican connotation is of relatively recent usage—it isn't mentioned in canonical Chicano memoirs like Pocho or Barrio Boy. Etymologists say it's descended from the anti-Mexican slur "bean-eater," which goes back to the early 1900s. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the undisputed king of English in the world—and one I've consistently had to correct when it comes to the history of Mexican Spanish words—writes that the earliest known use of "beaner" in its anti-Mexican sense appeared in a 1965 citation mentioned in 1994's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Vol. 1, edited by J.E. Lighter.
But consulting Historical Dictionary shows that its citation's source is actually from Adolescent Subcultures and Delinquency, a pioneering work about youth social structures by Herman and Julia Schwendinger. Their book was published in 1985, but it included work that the couple gathered while Herman was getting hist doctorate in sociology at UCLA in the 1960s.
The problem with crediting Adolescent Subcultures as having the first documented use of "beaner" as an anti-Mexican word is that the citation is nebulous. The Schwendingers wrote in their book that the bulk of their research happened in 1963 between Santa Monica, East Los Angeles, and Long Beach, with added interviews four years later. Their only mention of "beaner" in Adolescent Subcultures is but one line, where they say that adolescents who get a reputation as troublemakers "run the risk of being branded...of acting more like 'Beaners' [Mexican-Americans]" than cool kids. There is no direct quote to a subject to tie this to a specific year, so let's chalk up this early appearance of "beaner" as a retcon created by the Schwendingers and propagated by Historical Dictionary and the OED.
And now, a musical interlude:
Tying "beaner" closer to Orange County is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), a legendary compendium that has tracked the use of American English across the country for nearly 50 years via questionnaires, books, newspaper articles and the like. Volume 1 mentions that their earliest documentation of "beaner" goes to 1969, uttered by a 34-year-old gabacho medical student from the Northern California city of Colusa as a response to the question, "Names and nicknames around here for people of foreign background" offered by DARE researchers. The other two participants who answered "beaner" to that question? A 15-year-old gabacha teen from Trabuco Canyon, and an 18-year-old white female college student from San Juan Capistrano, both interviewed in 1970.
It gets worse for OC. The DARE entry for "beaner" also has a citation for "beaner shoes" offered by the Trabuco teen, in response to the question "What nicknames do you have around here for men's sharp-pointed shoes?" And to the question "Nicknames for an automobile, especially an old or broken-down car," a 21-year-old white male college student from Long Beach responded "Beaner wagon—because beaners drive them."
Damn! And here's the kicker: I found a definitive 1965 use of "beaner," in a July 9 column that year about Southern California youth culture that appeared in the Detroit Free Press. The relevant excerpt is printed below:
Clipping from Detroit Free Press
Interesting how by the 1960s, "greasers" had lost its meaning as an anti-Mexican epithet, as "beaner" came in—but I digress.
To recap: of the five definitive earliest citations of "beaner" in its anti-Mexican sense, three are from Orange County, and one is from Long Beach. And the earliest known citation is from Newport. Did Orange County transform "beaner" into an anti-Mexican slur? Given Orange County still has streets and schools named after Ku Klux Klan members, I say, "Yes, Cerritos!"