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Essay: El Paso, That Place with All the ‘Greasy Mexicans’

By Tomas Maldonado

Wednesday: Sep 7, 1983 – Concert Review, El Paso Herald Post

Last night, Def Leppard played to a packed stadium of over 8,000 fans at the El Paso County Coliseum as a part of their Pyromania World Tour. The group headlined while supporting act, Uriah Heep, warmed up the audience. The last time the British boys of rock played here was back in 1981 for their High ‘n’ Dry tour opening for Blackfoot to a crowd of only 5,000. This show went above and beyond with several concert goers expressing deep satisfaction.

Jose Hernandez of Central El Paso said, “I saw them in '81 and they weren’t as good as this one. It was worth every penny.”

Consuela Martinez commented, “If they didn’t come to El Paso, I would’ve driven all the way to Arizona.”

The show opened up to the sounds of machine guns, then onto the Pyromania album intro. The Band played many hits from their current album, such as “Photograph”, “Rock of Ages” and “Foolin” but during their cover of CCR’s “Travellin’ Band” a group of rowdies began throwing objects onto the set. Lead singer, Joe Elliott, tried to confront them but security arrived in enough time to quell the back and forth before it escalated…


Gunter, glieben, glausen, globen…” are the strangest words you ever hear on a hard rock album. Sure, there are classic ones like Freddy Mercury blending the Islamic Bismillah and the Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro chant in Bohemian Rhapsody. Or the times your buddies and you play Stairway to Heaven backwards to decode the subliminal words and messages you all think you hear. You don’t really understand Satan or Hell, but when you’re eight years old words don’t usually have any significant meaning.

You remember asking one of your buddies what the opening to Rock of Ages means. He says he doesn’t know. What matters is the music. But you aren’t like the other kids. You want to know the meanings of words and the things they describe. You love language way before you even knew what language is.

Something about words mesmerizes you. You aren’t only obsessed with the big words you run into when you read your local newspaper, the El Paso Herald Post, but you’re even more drawn to derogatory words especially those linguists call the ‘dysphemism.’ Today, people use ‘the N-word’, ‘the B-word’, ‘the F-word’ as euphemisms to hide the wretchedness of their meanings. However, in the 80's, folks don’t hold back on the racial slurs or misogynist language and you obsessively want to learn them all. So, you do.

In 1983, you’re also obsessed with Def Leppard. A buddy you know makes a duplicate of Pyromania for you and you spend hours listening to the tape, then rewinding it to listen again. When you hear they’re coming to El Paso in September, you beg your mother to let you go with some school friends and their older brothers.

She says rock & roll concerts are filled with drugs, sex, and violence. She won’t have her son getting caught up in any of it. Besides, you’re too young. You want to stomp off and slam your bedroom door — you know better. Mom is the beat-your-ass-with-a-belt kind of Mexican parent. You frustratingly sit in your room and listen to Def Leppard until you fall asleep.


Thursday: Sep 8, 1983 – Concert Review, The Arizona Star

Wednesday night saw the English hard rock band, Def Leppard play to a sold-out show at the Tucson arena. A crowd of almost 10,000 jam packed the venue. After playing El Paso on Tuesday, the stage was filled with pyrotechnics, amazing sound and light effects, and a guitar solo by Phil Collen that left Arizonans in awe as he tossed guitar pick after guitar pick into the crowd. All of the latest hits from Pyromania were played and at one time during “Rock of Ages” leader singer, Joe Elliot, pumped the crowd up by asking them to make more noise than the El Paso crowd. The band ended their show with a cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Travellin’ Band” and sent the Arizona crowd shouting “One more song! One more song!”


You’ve never heard the word ‘wetback’ before in your life. You do remember a distant memory - you cannot remember if you were five or six - of watching a Disney short entitled The Wetback Hound. The story is about a dog named Paco who ventures across the Rio into the American side to find better opportunities after failing to be a mountain lion hunting hound for a group of Mexican farmers. Eyeing the other side, Paco makes the plunge into the water while the narrator clarifies, “Paco doesn’t know it, but he’s about to become a wetback.”

A relative chuckles and shakes his head. You want to know what that word means.

“What’s a wetback?”

“It’s nothing. You’ll learn when you’re older.”

And you do. You learn others as well: ‘beaner,’ ‘spic,’ ‘border jumper,’ ‘mojado,’ and your all-time favorite ‘greaser.’ You’re sure that there are more, but those are the most common ones you hear growing up.

To add to the ethnic slurs, there are the everchanging ethnic titles you have to keep up with every few years - mostly after a census. In the beginning, you’re told that you’re ‘Hispanic,’ then ‘an American of Mexican ancestry,’ and when that gets too long, they tell you ‘Chicano,’ then ‘Tejano,’ then ‘Mexican American,’ then ‘Latino.’ The latest, not catching on too well, is ‘Latinx’ — that one you like a little because it makes you feel like your teenage hero, Malcolm X.

Honestly, ‘wetback’ isn’t that bad, you say to yourself. It offends some, but Mexican Americans call each other far worse. And you’ve never had anyone not Mexican call you this. Well, there is this one-time many years ago. You’re the supervisor of a call center for a major telecommunications company in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

You’re taking a lunch break at your cubicle eating gorditas and this customer service representative that you’ve known for years, you’ll call him Billy Bob out of anonymity, walks up to greet you. You get to talking, as you normally do. Somehow, you end up on the subject of immigration. And for the first time, you get the opportunity to hear ‘wetback’ conjugated in all its wretched glory.

“You see, Tomas, the problem is these goddamn ‘wetbacks’ they keep letting in…”

This is pre-Trump. This is before the Wall. It’s 2001. Your mouth drops. He continues…

“Now, I wanna be clear. There’s a difference between you and them. You were born here. Your forefathers lost the land. Mine won it. Fair and square. They’re ‘wetbacks.’ You’re American.”

You don’t know how to respond. The moral of the story, you think you know someone until they prove otherwise. Wasn’t it Confucius who once said: It’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?

In that same call center, you hear a white lady say, after hearing you speak Arabic to a customer service representative, that, “You’re pretty articulate for a Mexican.” No dysphemism here, but clearly a ‘wetback’ moment.

Out of all of the ethnic slurs you learn for Mexican Americans as a kid, the one that you never fully grasp is ‘greaser.’ It’s an incident in 83 that will bring you closer to understanding the word’s polysemous complexity.



Saturday: Oct 1, 1983 – El Paso Herald Post Weekender Excerpt

By Michael Quintanilla

State and national Hispanic leaders joined El Pasoans on Friday, calling a rock band’s apology for an ethnic slur and the offer of a free trip for two El Pasoans to a European concert, an insult to injury.

They instead launched a state and national boycott against the top-rated British rock group Def Leppard, said a spokesman for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

[…] Elliot made the offer from Japan on Friday after apologizing for a comment about El Paso as “that place with all the greasy Mexicans” made to a Tucson, Ariz., concert audience the night after Def Leppard played in El Paso Sept. 6.


Around the time you begin middle school, you learn of the ‘other’ greaser. Ross Middle School is smack dab in the center of Central El Paso — in the heart of the barrio. Close by is Ft. Bliss Army Base and Northeast — the suburbs where military families live. The student population is diversely Mexican, White (back then they said Anglo American) and Black (back then they said Afro American) — with a smidget of Asians (unfortunately they lumped Indians, Chinese and Koreans together). Racial tensions among hormone evolving teenagers is imminent. There isn’t a day that goes by where Mexicans are fighting Whites or Blacks fighting Mexicans or everyone is fighting each other.

You remember seeing a group of Black girls fighting some Mexican girls by the basketball courts over something stupid during lunch period. You’re only there as a spectator hoping to see a nipple fly out or someone’s weave get savagely tore from their head. As you venture closer, a Mexican kid — a Cholo type — accidentally bumps into a Black kid.

“Oh, you want some, greaser?”

“Que onda?”

“Say it in English, muthasucka!”

“Quieres plato, [racial expletive]?!”

“Oh, I got yo [racial expletive] right here, wetback!”

And like that, the Cholo and Black guy go at it while the Black and Mexican girls keep fighting. You know it’s time to go when you see the principal coming with security guards and a police officer reaching for his gun.

You get to class on time from lunch period with ‘greaser’ heavy on your mind. It’s time for your favorite subject, English literature. The teacher passes out the required reading to everyone. Your copy smells old. The cover is worn and faded. The pages are brownish from age with highlights and dogeared. It was probably blue when it was new but now looks purple. The title catches your attention: The Outsiders.

You read that book in a week. After you read it, you have a whole new respect for ‘greaser.’ The way Ponyboy makes it sound, it’s more of a positive state of being, of taking a derogatory word and making it mean something above and beyond what everyone else thinks of you. Ponyboy makes it clear to you that even though there are the Socs on the affluent side of the tracks and Greasers on the poorer side, both are still human with the same problems and issues.


Arin Michaels: “Why a remark about ‘greasy’ Mexican Americans? Instead of just ‘Mexican Americans’?”

Joe Elliott: “I have no idea. I can’t answer that. Possibly because I watch too much Cheech and Chong. It wasn’t intended as a harmful thing. It was the same way we get called ‘limey teabags.’ Why ‘limey’? Why not just ‘teabags’? It’s the same thing. It was totally unintentional. Being English, alright, being an English person, I didn’t really understand that that was such an insult because I’m not a Mexican American. I do not live in El Paso. So, I don’t actually understand what is and what is not a good or a bad thing to say. And obviously that night I made a big mistake. It was unintentional and supposedly, just, you know, a bit of playful chit-chat with the audience. That was really what it was supposed to be. And if I’ve offended anybody, then I’m very very sorry about it.”

Excerpt from 1983 Interview with El Paso DJ, Arin Michaels, of KLAQ


You still love Def Leppard. You find yourself cranking Rock of Ages or Photograph when you’re feeling nostalgic. The El Paso boycott is your first exposure to the hypocrisy of cancel culture. The politicians and Latino organizations go beyond the boundaries in boycotting the band that year. You don’t understand what the big issue is — most El Pasoans feel the same way. The boycott results in such a level of hate that when drummer, Rick Allen, has to have his arm amputated due to a car accident, some ignorantly say it’s God’s punishment for Elliott’s words. To add fuel to the fire, they cancel their 1988 concert in El Paso when Elliott receives a large amount of death threats.

Despite the aftermath of those words, El Pasoans finally come to terms with letting bygones be bygones and the band eventually returns to play in 2000. In all of this, you learn that mistakes don’t make the person, the person makes the mistake. What matters after that is making amends and moving on.

When you think back to that whole incident, you realize sometimes words only have meaning and power if you let them. They don’t really define you. Being a ‘greasy Mexican’ is someone else’s perception of you in the same way polite euphemisms such as ‘non-traditional student’ or ‘aspiring writer’ attempt to depict what being below the norm or what you are supposedly ‘trying to be.’

You’re still equally obsessed with language. You now teach it at a community college in South Central Minnesota. Whenever you teach undergraduates logology, especially forms of expression, you always devote extra time to the euphemism-dysphemism dichotomy in the hopes that they’ll be aware and conscious of the words they hear and should never use.

After almost twenty-eight years of being in a religious cult that stripped you of your ethnicity and its cultural traditions, you’re learning who you are and your identity. You’re learning your indigenous roots and what it means to be Mexican. It’s the American part that you’re still working on.


About the Writer:

Tomas Maldonado is a Mexican American creative nonfiction writer and poet who teaches English for Academic Purposes, Intensive English and English Composition at his local community college and university in South Central Minnesota. He uniquely blends creative writing in his TESL courses while mentoring his multilingual students as they journal their writing experiences via poetry and creative nonfiction. When he’s not taking long walks through Kampala, he’s making snow angels in Mankato.


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