Dear Mexican: What is it with the Mexican hang-up on body parts? When General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was struck by a cannon ball at the knee in one of his 8,000 wars, his right leg was removed from the knee down. When he returned to Mexico City, he ordered that a state funeral be held for his leg. Also, General Álvaro Obregon’s arm—blown off in battle—was enshrined in a huge bottle of preservative in the basement of a monument to him in Mexico City until about 15 years ago, when his family suddenly realized it was embarrassing. A tattoo on the arm read, “Lowriders rule!”
Relying on James Michener for history is like relying on Mexico to stop illegal immigration. So, readers: Gringo Solo’s assertions about lowrider tattoos and embarrassed family members are nothing more than damned lies; every other wild detail is true. And Solo forgot to mention Mexico’s other fetishized chopped-off body parts chopped: Pancho Villa’s missing skull, the decapitated head of patriot Miguel Hidalgo, Emiliano Zapata’s mustache, and the pickled remains of Mexico’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria (legend has it that two gabacho soldiers during the 1848 Mexican-American War tried to drink the liquid that preserved Victoria’s innards and promptly died). I could cry double standard, given America’s love for breasts, skin color and Britney Spears’ panocha, but I’m not going to dodge your point, Gringo Solo. Mexicans do obsess a bit much about the body parts of dead people, but that phenomenon is better understood when placed in the context of two “mexcellente” traits: the Catholic tradition of relics and megalomania. “The use of messianic imagery [in celebrating chopped-off body parts] was significant on two levels,” Columbia University professor Claudio Lomnitz wrote in his essay “Passion and Banality in Mexican History: The Presidential Persona.” “It was a way of identifying the presidential body with the land, and it cast the people as being collectively in debt to the caudillo for his sacrifices.” Lomnitz concludes that passage rather wryly: “Sovereignty, that ideal location where all Mexicans are created equal, has been a place that only the dead can inhabit, which is why we sometimes fight over their remains.” And ain’t that the pinche truth.
I recently learned the meaning of güero, which until that point I only knew as a Beck album. I started calling some of my whitish Mexican friends güero/a, and they seemed displeased. Is the term offensive?
—The Korean, Employer of Mexicans, Therefore Partners in Crime
Dear Chinito: Not really. Güero technically means “blonde” in Mexican Spanish, but also refers to a light-skinned person and, by association, gabachos. All Mexicans want to be güero; anyone who claims otherwise does it in the face of the country’s topsy-turvy racial history, where white made might and prietos (dark-skinned folks) were little better than Guatemalans. The most twisted part about güero, however, is that it was originally a slur. Sebastian de Covarrubias Horozco’s 1611 Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española (Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish Language) defined it as a “rotten egg” and added that Spaniards used it to describe a family’s sickly, pale child. Güero, in turn, comes from the medieval Spanish guerar, which describes when a chicken goes broody.
Interesting, fascinating etymology, right? Except … the official dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, the world’s foremost expert of español etymology, says güero originates from an American Indian language. The only indigenous language in which the Mexican could find güero is in Arawak, as listed in Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa’s 1628 Compedio y Descripción de las Indias Occidentales (Compedium and Description of the West Indies). Here, guero (no umlaut) is described as a wine, which ultimately makes more sense to signify “blonde” than “rotten egg” when one considers sorority girls.