Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Greasers and Gringos

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

Steven W. Bender
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 293
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Greasers and Gringos
    Book Description:

    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 Gringos begins the charge of debunking existing stereotypes and implores all Americans to re-imagine Latinos/as as legal and social equals.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3944-0
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 The Confluence of Stereotype and Law
    (pp. 1-10)

    Evident in this study of Latina/o stereotypes is the role of American¹ media in sustaining derogatory stereotypes that have plagued Latinas/os for decades. Although others have identified and explored the undeniable linkage between media and Latina/o stereotypes,² particularly the influence of motion pictures, less attention has been paid to stereotypes as contributing to the maltreatment of Latinas/os under American law and legal systems. This book contends that most of the long-standing demeaning social constructions of Latinas/os have helped ensure their legal detriment.³ In turn, the legal rules that disadvantage Latinas/os, as well as the underlying images, often spur private citizens...

  6. 2 Latinas/os in the American Imagination
    (pp. 11-20)

    In the aggregate, stereotypes of Latinas/os paint a staggeringly negative view of America’s most populous minority group. Most years, I teach a course to undergraduate college students on the intersection of law and Latina/o identity and culture. When I ask my students, a mix of Latinas/os, Anglos, and others, how American society imagines Latinas/os, I expect a familiar response. Perhaps the first trait they mention will address criminal tendencies—involvement with gangs, drugs, or some other criminal livelihood or inclination (“they carry knives”). Following this prompt, the social construction of Latinas/os unfolds as the students suggest, sometimes drawing laughter, other...

  7. 3 Centering Latina/o Stereotypes in Those of Other Groups
    (pp. 21-29)

    Stereotypical constructions abound in American society; some intersect with Latinas/os and others do not. Stereotypical “fault lines” are evident on such diverse grounds as gender, sexual orientation, hair color, and religious beliefs, as well as race, geographical region of residence, economic class, skin color, and national origin. For example, Americans construct those of Irish origin as drunkards and violent. Those of Polish origin have been subjected to an onslaught of “Polish jokes” ridiculing them as unintelligent and sexually desperate. The French are rude, Italians are mobsters, Gypsies are thieves and cheats (“I was gypped”), Russians are heavy drinkers, and Greeks...

  8. 4 Greasers and Gangsters: Latinas/os and Crime
    (pp. 30-63)

    Latinas/os are seen as criminally inclined. Their trademark is thievery, often by force rather than by stealth. Latinas/os are also constructed as predisposed toward violent, vicious behavior, so that their crimes may be cold-blooded. Latina/o youth are assumed to be gang members who will eventually graduate from wielding spray-paint canisters to carrying knives and guns. Latinas/os young and old are viewed as suppliers and users of illicit drugs.

    Roots of these conceptions predate reality television shows such asCops. In 1942, a Los Angeles sheriff’s captain presented to a grand jury a report arguing for the indictment of twenty-two Mexican...

  9. 5 Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me): Fertility and Welfare
    (pp. 64-81)

    Latinas/os are perceived as lazy and as reluctant to work. At the same time, they are seen as fiery, passionate lovers, reflected in the male stereotype of the Latin lover and the less-flattering female stereotypes of the easy Latina, the fertile Latina, and the Latina whore. These images of the lazy yet sexually driven Latina/o underlie the related perception of Latinas/os as public charges who are complacent or even enthusiastic in receiving welfare and other public assistance.

    Images of the lazy Latina/o, particularly of Mexicans, have dominated American media for decades. In popular music, Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour depicted...

  10. 6 In the U.S.A., It’s English or Adiós Amigo: Latinas/os and Assimilation
    (pp. 82-103)

    Latinas/os are dogged by the stereotype that paints them as foreigners who are unwilling or unable to assimilate into mainstream American life and culture. Although assimilation is an indeterminate concept, for Latinas/os this perception focuses most prominently on their use of the Spanish language instead of English.

    The perception of Latinas/os as unassimilable is reflected in the remarks of diverse commentators, ranging from politicians and writers—even Latinas/os—to a flamboyant rock musician. Senator Alan Simpson has observed that “[t]he assimilation of the English language and other aspects of American culture by Spanish-speaking immigrants appears to be less rapid and...

  11. 7 One of the Smart Ones: Latina/o (Un)Intelligence
    (pp. 104-113)

    Several years ago, an Anglo insurance defense lawyer aware of my ethnicity told me he had been retained years earlier to defend a suit arising out of a faulty gas-tank design that spewed gas on the vehicle’s occupants after a collision. The driver had burned to death in the fire that ensued. As the California lawyer explained to me, the driver was of Mexican heritage, and although “you wouldn’t think that would cost you a lot of money,” he conveyed his sense of his client’s miserable luck that this “Mexican” (American) was a high-ranking executive in a major corporation. As...

  12. 8 No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed: Subhumanity
    (pp. 114-153)

    Many Anglos regard and treat Latinas/os as a lesser class of people, indeed, as less than human. The stereotypical conceptions described previously of idleness, promiscuity, failure to assimilate, criminalmindedness, and lack of intelligence all contribute to this perception. However, this construction of Latinas/os as subhuman goes beyond those supposed traits to encompass those associated with animals, particularly dogs, and with a savage, primitive culture.

    Latinas/os, particularly Mexicans, are regarded as dirty and diseaseridden. In 1955, theScience News Letterwarned of the public health threat posed by Mexicans under the headline “Wetbacks Bring Insects.”² Especially offensive is the belief that...

  13. 9 Gringos in the Latina/o Imagination
    (pp. 154-161)

    The Latina/o reference to Anglos as “gringos” (and “gringas”) dates back at least as far as the derogatory reference to Latinas/os as “greasers.” Although the “greasers” label is always demeaning, the “gringo” reference is sometimes humorous, other times intended or taken as derogatory, and often meant to be merely descriptive of Anglos and perhaps other Americans of non-Latina/o origin, such as Asian Americans. Pedro Malavet has best researched the unsettled origin ofgringo:

    One [account] argues that it comes from “green coats,” thus, a reference to the uniforms worn by U.S. soldiers during the Mexican War. Another story argues that...

  14. 10 Latinas/os in the Mirror: Intra-/Interethnic Glimpses
    (pp. 162-168)

    Previously, I mentioned the potential for Latinas/os to internalize their media-driven negative stereotyping into feelings of inadequacy, self-hatred, and despair.² Their derogatory social construction may prompt another dimension of internalized oppression—the potential for Latinas/os to direct their self-hatred toward others who occupy an equally subordinate, or perhaps even an inferior, station in American society. At the same time, the influences of internalized oppression through negative social constructions compel these other marginalized groups to view and treat Latinas/os on similar terms, leading to intra-/interethnic conflict and tensions that, ironically, impede the cooperation and coalition necessary to confront media and societal...

  15. 11 Eradicating Stereotypes: Community-Based Strategies of Media Counterspeech and Protest
    (pp. 169-186)

    Given my contention that derogatory stereotypes contribute to the unfavorable legal and social treatment of Latinas/os in the United States, it will surprise no reader that this book adds to the call for eradicating stereotypes. But determining an effective means to eliminate and to counteract media and societal stereotypes is daunting. Moreover, even if media were to routinely present authentic constructions of Latina/o ethnicity and culture, it would not ensure that negative stereotypes that exist in the collective public consciousness could be erased in the same generation. Still, many of the strategies suggested below confront stereotypical media productions. Even if...

  16. 12 Mi Familia as Counterspeech
    (pp. 187-192)

    Directed and cowritten by Latino Gregory Nava, the film dramaMy Family/Mi Familia(1995) offers a compelling multigenerational account of one Latina/o family’s struggle for an economic and cultural foothold in California. Their odyssey begins in 1926, when José Sánchez leaves Michóacan, Mexico, on foot, headed for Los Angeles, where his great-uncle lives. Once there, José meets Maria, a housekeeper for a wealthy family on the West Side of the Los Angeles River, while working as a gardener. Maria had journeyed from central Mexico to become a U.S. citizen. José and Maria marry and raise six children—two daughters and...

  17. 13 Eradicating Stereotypes: The Collision of Legal Strategies with the First Amendment
    (pp. 193-224)

    Whether contesting particular stereotypical productions, seeking more mainstream visibility for Latinas/os through positive portrayals, or urging the adoption of self-policing codes of media ethics on group imagery, protestors face a peculiar challenge in today’s crowded media market. Now, even financial arguments against media stereotyping must be constructed carefully. Simply pointing to the burgeoning Latina/o population (in the United States or elsewhere) and suggesting that this audience may be lost to stereotypical productions may no longer be a compelling strategy. In the network television market, at least, the proliferation of programming choices on cable and other competing media has created a...

  18. 14 Beyond Stereotype: Movement toward Social Change
    (pp. 225-234)

    This book has advocated a multidimensional attack on the propagation of stereotypes by using law and litigation, voluntary industry standards and hiring practices, counterspeech, and community-based protest as its tools. Moreover, it has suggested ways in which enlightened judges, legislators, and the public can help dampen the effects of stereotype on the adoption and enforcement of law. Further, it has considered legal challenge to laws prompted by negative social constructions of Latinas/os and other subordinated groups. Yet endemic shortcomings exist in these approaches, particularly those dependent on law and lawyers, that go beyond the many obstacles I have mentioned previously....

  19. Notes
    (pp. 235-288)
  20. Index
    (pp. 289-292)
  21. About the Author
    (pp. 293-293)