What is it with the Mexican hang-up on body parts? When General Antonio López de Santa Anna was struck by a cannonball 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 a state funeral be held for his leg. Everyone in the city was commanded to attend. Later, when Santa Anna fell out of favor with the public (he was president 11 times), the aroused populace dug up his leg and paraded it in the streets. The last it was seen, a pack of wild dogs were carrying it across the Zócalo (see The Eagle and the Raven by James Michener). Also, General Álvaro Obregón’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!”
Readers: Gringo Solo’s assertions about low-rider tattoos, embarrassed family members and feral dogs 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: Pancho Villa’s missing skull; the severed head of patriot Miguel Hidalgo; Emiliano Zapata’s mustache; and the pickled remains of Mexico’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria.
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. Mexicans do obsess 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 writes 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.”
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
Not really. Güero technically means “blond” in Mexican Spanish, but it 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. However, güero 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.
Fascinating, 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 Arawak, as listed in Antonio Vázquez de Espinosa’s 1628 Compendio y Descripción de las Indias Occidentales (Compendium and Description of the West Indies). Here, guero (no umlaut) is described as a wine, which ultimately makes more sense to signify “blond” than “rotten egg,” when one considers sorority girls.