¡Ask A Mexican!
By Gustavo Arellano
Dear Mexican: It seems that whenever Chicano professors want to show off their mexicanidad, they wear a guayabera. In fact, I saw a picture of you in the Los Angeles Times donning the shirt, along with Dickies pants and Converse All Stars. How trite and bourgeois! You go to a café or bar in any university town in Mexico, and the students will think you’re totally naco. I stopped wearing the guayabera when a friend said I looked like a waiter in a Mexican restaurant. Do certain clothes determine your Mexicanness?
Dear Wab: Abso-pinche-lutely. “The bigger the sombrero, the wabbier the man,” is a commandment all Mexicans learn from the Virgin of Guadalupe. But seriously, Mexican clothes correspond to social and economic status—sweaty T-shirt indicates laborer, calf-length skirt means a proper Mexican woman and if a cobbler used the hide of an endangered reptile to fashion your cowboy boots, you’re probably a drug dealer or a Texan. The guayabera (a loose-fitting, pleated shirt common in the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz and other tropical regions of Latin America) also announces something about its owner: the güey is feeling hot and wants to look sharp. Why the hate, Sexy? Remember what Andy Warhol said: “Nothing is more bourgeois than to be afraid to look bourgeois.” Who cares if people mistake you for a waiter if you sport a guayabera? Just spit in their soup. And who cares if Mexican university students call me, you or any guayabera wearer a naco (Mexico City slang for bumpkin)? They can’t be that smart if they’re still in Mexico.
Why do Mexicans call people with curly hair chinos? Most chinos I know have very straight, hard-to-curl hair.
Dear Confused Chinita: The Mexican has discussed the word chino before, as in why Mexicans call all Asians chinos (same reason gabachos call all Latinos “Mexican”). Chino is one of the more fascinating homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings) in Spanish. Its Old World meaning specifically refers to a person of Chinese descent, but in his Dictionary of Latin American Racial and Ethnic Terminology, Rutgers linguist Thomas M. Stephens documents how chino assumed different connotations once the conquistadors pillaged the Americas—and none of those connotations was positive. Stephens’ book devotes an incredible seven pages to chino; some of its more peculiar Latin American definitions include “female servant,” “slave from Mozambique,” “concubine,” “young Indian female who served in a convent,” and, yes, “curly-haired.” Chino also was the category in the Spanish Empire’s Byzantine castas (caste) system designated for the offspring of parents with varying degrees of African and Amerindian blood. Stephens’ only sin is that he doesn’t explain why chino took on so many non-Chinese connotations, though he did write that china in Quechua signifies “female servant or animal,” while Nahuatl speakers used chinoa (“toasted”) to describe dark-skinned people. And he offers no insight into the chino-curly connection.
But it doesn’t take a Ph-pinche-D to identify the common threads in chino’s various meanings: African blood and servitude. Many blacks, of course, have naturally kinky hair, so at some point over the centuries, chino became an ethnicon (a term meant to comment on an ethnic group’s prominent cultural characteristic that become popular shorthand for said characteristic) for both “black person” and “curly.” Mexicans then went on to drop the black denotation and kept the curly connection. Such linguistic amnesia isn’t unprecedented in Mexican Spanish: marrano, which many Mexicans use to call someone a “pig” or “filthy,” comes from the Inquisition-era slur used against Jews who converted to Christianity. All this wordplay is further proof that Mexico is a country with a racial problem that makes America seem like Sesame Street. The proper Spanish word for “curly,” by the way, is rizado.
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