Chitlins Ain't Menudo
Dear Negrito: Why should Mexicans deviate from history? The American ethnic experience hews to a rigid trajectory that goes like this: Immigrants settle in the bad part of town because gabachos won't tolerate minorities near their homes. Said immigrants revitalize undesirable neighborhoods. The barrio/ghetto/'hood is born. It flourishes for a generation. Gabachos visit solely for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, prostitutes, drugs, gambling and cockfights. The immigrants sweat through life in order to get their children into college, only to see the kids repudiate their wabby parents and move to the suburbs. A new wave of immigrants living eight to a couch settle in the old neighborhood. The remaining pioneer immigrants despise the newbies for replacing the businesses, languages and culture of their once-familiar streets but can't stop the change. The old generation dies. The new immigrants prosper. And the circle of life begins again. You claim to understand this, Chitlins, so get over your lost catfish stands, and join Cleophus and LaKeisha in scaring the gabachos out of the suburbs and back into their hipster downtowns. But don't get too settled in: In a couple of years, Mexicans will relocate to your suburban 'hood to get away from the Guatemalans who are destroying our quaint barrios as we speak.
Dear Mexican: 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 why 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 were 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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