When did “Mexican” become an insult?

I wish I had something more fun to talk about but it looks like I’ll be blogging about racism for the second post in a row. I feel as if I’ve been bombarded by it on all fronts lately.

First our youngest son came home from school and asked, “Mommy, is there such a thing as a bad ‘N’ word?… Someone said it on the bus.” I couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath that I took. I tried to be calm, since some of the “bad” words he’s asked me about before turned out to be funny misunderstandings. Perhaps he hadn’t added yet another bad word to his vocabulary so soon.

“Well, what word do you think is a bad ‘N’ word?” I asked.
“I don’t think I should say it,” he said, reaching for a pencil and a piece of paper on the desk. “I’ll write it.”

And so he began… N-I-G … he paused. “I think it has two G’s,” he said, writing the second one. G-A-R. Well, he misspelled it by one letter, but the word scratched onto the piece of paper in his childish manuscript made me sick. I scribbled over it and erased it then threw it in the trash before answering him.

“Yes. That is a very bad word. That is worse than all the curse words put together.”

His eyes widened. “But…what does it mean?”
“It’s just a bad word. It’s a mean word to call someone. Never ever say it or write it again.”
“I won’t – but what does it mean,” he persisted.

I sighed before launching into a discussion about slavery, Martin Luther King, racism and the power of words to hurt others. I told him that if he ever hears anyone say that word again, no matter how much bigger or older they are, he should tell them to their face that they’re racist and ignorant.

He nodded his 8 year old head in understanding and promised he would.

A few days later, my oldest son came home and told me a girl had pushed past him in the hallway at school and said, “Get out of my way, Mexican!”

He doesn’t know her name, and he said, even if he did, he doesn’t want to report her. This would get him a reputation as a “snitch” and a “cry baby”.

I told him to correct her next time. I told him to say, “First of all, that’s an ignorant thing to say because I’m not even Mexican, I’m half Salvadoran. Second of all, why do you think it’s insulting to call me a Mexican?” I’m sure that such a measured response will be answered by a mouth breather like that girl with silence, as the tiny gears in her undersized brain, come screeching to a halt.

Maybe I shouldn’t make fun of the child though. She is probably just a product of her ignorant parents… yet if her parents were raised the same way, how can they know better? … Does being ignorant make someone blameless or do they have a responsibility to challenge the beliefs they were taught? What if they aren’t intellectually capable?

Racism directed at the children brings out the mother tiger in me, but the one time I dealt with blatant racism directed at myself, I laughed, and I’m still not entirely sure why. Walking through the shopping mall, holding hands with my husband, a large white male in motorcycle riding attire, passed by on my side. “Race traitor,” he whispered viciously.

I stopped in my tracks, my mouth fell open, as his words registered in my brain. Race… traitor… Me? As if I belong to him, to whites? As if I owed him some sort of loyalty?

“Did that guy say something to you?” my husband said.

“Yeah… he called me… a race traitor…” I said, and then I started laughing. My husband looked at me for a split second, quite sure I had lost my mind, but he decided he would worry about my mental state later as he took off in the other direction. He isn’t sensitive to racism specifically, but he will defend my honor to the death, (as any decent caballero should.)

“Where are you going?!”

“I’m going to beat the shit out of that guy! Let me go!”

I felt his muscles tense as I held tight to his arms. “No, no. It’s not worth it!”

Every time I loosened my grip, my husband started to take off again until I convinced him that he would end up with a police record and jail time, or worse, in the hospital, and we didn’t even have health insurance.

That happened last year but just today, my husband tells me the conversation turned to politics with an Anglo co-worker. The guy asked my husband who he voted for. This is something my husband has learned to keep to himself but for whatever reason, he answered truthfully.

“I voted for Obama,” he said.
The co-worker groaned. “Why’d you vote for him? You know his middle name is Hussein? That’s a Muslim terrorist name right there.”

My husband doesn’t get riled up by those sort of comments the way I do. He just ignored it and said calmly, “I voted for him because I felt he was the best person for the job.”

End of discussion. Hopefully that guy doesn’t have a white hood in his trunk.

All of this comes at an interesting time. My husband and I are probably going to the Immigration Reform March in Washington D.C. this next Sunday. Our oldest son wants to go, and although I think it would be a great experience for him, I don’t plan on taking him. I’m just nervous about how dangerous it could be. I’m not worried for myself, but as any mother knows, when your kids are with you, that changes everything. Suddenly the crowd looks that much bigger, the counter-protesters that much angrier, and you realize that it wouldn’t take much, (a single racial slur yelled out to the wrong person), for things to dissolve into total chaos.

I hope it will be peaceful, but I’m not betting my children’s safety on it. There are too many people out there with too much hate in them.


  1. It’s not easy dealing with this. Especially with children. You answers are wonderful. I’m glad you are teaching your children to stand up for themselves.

  2. It is very eye-opening for me to read about this. I live a sheltered life I guess and don’t see this going on where I live.

    I think you handled the situations with your sons beautifully! If you teach them to be graceful when others aren’t they will always be in control of the situation.

    Good job!

  3. What a powerful post. I’m sorry your children have to deal with ignorance, but you handled it in a really intelligent, thoughtful way.

    I think most kids have no idea what they’re saying, or they just mimic what other kids are saying. When I was in third grade, I had an older fifth-grade friend who started using the word “beaner” one day. She used the term for every Mexican-American kid she saw, and then her friends started to use it, too. I didn’t know what the word even meant, or that it was derogatory. I remember her asking me, “You’re not mad?” She stopped using it once she saw she couldn’t get a reaction out of us.

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