What Is the History of the Anti-Mexican Slur 'Greaser'?

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, gabacho academics sure love folk etymologies! Your theory is almost as bad as the one that says the word 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 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 “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 use 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.

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