Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination

Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination

Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination

Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination


"Bender's got a noble goal: to show that the stereotypes Americans heap on Latino immigrants don't just make for rude conversation, they directly shape policy decisions. The book compellingly articulates just how deeply ingrained the images of lazy, thieving, drunkard Latinos and sexually voracious, fertile Latinas are in American culture." - City Limits

"Is any society able to exist free of stereotypes? Steven Bender tackles the question head on as he dissects the cornucopia of Latino types, prototypes, and archetypes that populate our mendacious imagination. His answer takes us into the realms of politics, jurisprudence, and cartoons. It involves an attack on poverty, a strive for an equal, more honest educational system, and the 'reinvention' of the future tense in American English. Let Bender challenge your ignorance!" - Ilan Stavans, author of The Hispanic Condition and On Borrowed Words " - Berta Esperanza Hernßndez-Truyol, University of Florida College of Law "A hopeful and empowering challenge to those who work to transform American life." —'Gerald Torres, University of Texas School of Law Although the origin of the term "greaser" is debated, its derogatory meaning never has been. From silent movies like The Greaser's Revenge(1914) and The Girl and the Greaser(1913) with villainous title characters, to John Steinbeck's portrayals of Latinos as lazy, drunken, and shiftless in his 1935 novel Tortilla Flat, to the image of violent, criminal, drug-using gang members of East LA, negative stereotypes of Latinos/as have been plentiful in American popular culture far before Latinos/as became the most populous minority group in the U.S. In Greasers and Gringos, Steven W. Bender examines and surveys these stereotypes and their evolution, paying close attention to the role of mass media in their perpetuation. Focusing on the intersection between stereotypes and the law, Bender reveals how these negative images have contributed significantly to the often unfair treatment of Latino/as under American law by the American legal system. He looks at the way demeaning constructions of Latinos/as influence their legal treatment by police, prosecutors, juries, teachers, voters, and vigilantes. He also shows how, by internalizing negative social images, Latinos/as and other subordinated groups view themselves and each other as inferior. Although fighting against cultural stereotypes can be a daunting task, Bender reminds us that, while hard to break, they do not have to be permanent.Greasers and Gringosbegins the charge of debunking existing stereotypes and implores all Americans to re-imagine Latinos/as as legal and social equals.


Originating in the mid-1800s, the term greaser first came to be used against those of Mexican appearance in California and the Southwest. Although some suggest the derogatory description came from the practice of Mexican laborers in the Southwest greasing their backs to facilitate the unloading of hides and cargo, others suppose it stemmed from a similarity between Mexican skin color and grease. Its origin may be more disparaging still—the “greasers” label may derive from longstanding conceptions of Mexicans as unkempt and unclean, with unwashed, greasy black hair. “Greasers” was a popular reference by U.S. troops in the U.S.-Mexico war of 1846–1848, as well as by settlers in gold rush California. Its original usage appears to have been sexualized, a way to describe a “treacherous Mexican male who was sexually threatening to and desirous of white women.” Although the term continued to be associated with Mexican men in its Hollywood usage, “greasers” came to refer to Mexicans generally, encompassing both sexes as well as both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Further, the term originated as a derogatory reference toward those of Mexican origin, but its use expanded over time to encompass Peruvian and Chilean miners during the California gold rush and, more broadly, to describe anyone of Spanish origin.

The term greasers and the negative sentiments behind it had legal bite too. In 1855, California adopted the Vagrancy Act, known popularly as the Greaser Act, addressing “all persons who are commonly known as 'Greasers' or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood … and who go armed and are not peaceable and quiet persons.” Targeting the supposed “idle Mexican,” this antiloitering law was the precursor to modern laws directed at loitering, gang activity, and other apparently race-neutral offenses that in practice are often used to justify interrogatory stops of persons of color.

Hollywood embraced the “greasers” label to describe its unflattering . . .

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