The Mouth Of Mencia
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
On his new television show, "Mind of Mencia," funnyman Carlos Mencia is just loving the B-word. He calls himself Comedy Central's "resident beaner." He does bits along the line of "You know you're a beaner when . . ." He has a routine called "Out the Beaner."
He did his act a few weeks ago for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in Washington. Some people laughed, some people winced. At a recent taping of his cable show at a Hollywood studio, the pie-faced cutup from the barrio of East L.A. stood before a whooping audience and talked about Hurricane Katrina. "You want to know how bad it got? Mexico sent us help! They said it was 39 trucks filled with 180 soldiers." He rolls his eyes: "I'm telling you white people . . . there's at least a thousand beaners there right now."
He's talking, of course, about Mexicans or Mexican Americans or, more broadly, Latinos.
Oh, the crowd was digging it, and Comedy Central is about to announce that it's buying a second season of the popular "Mind of Mencia," which took the coveted Dave Chappelle time slot -- 10:30 p.m. EST Wednesdays -- after Dave went AWOL. But here is the thing: The word remains an offensive ethnic slur to a lot of people, who might be surprised to hear it coming out of their TV sets during prime time. "It's a derogatory word. No, let me amend that. It's a racist word," says Armando Navarro, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Riverside. Indeed, when Mencia used a slur for Chinese people at the taping of his show, Comedy Central bleeped it out for broadcast. But not so the B-word -- so what gives?
Whether a word might be considered a slur depends, of course, on who's using it and where and when and why. It now appears that "beaner" is a word in play, a term in transition, and that a jester like Mencia is performing an act of what linguists call "melioration," the reclamation of the pejorative, taking a word meant to sting and bending it backward and removing its barb.
"It's really quite an interesting process," says Grant Barrett, project editor for the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, who reminds us that language is alive with changing meanings. Consider as a recent classic example of melioration, Barrett says, the word "queer."
As recently as the 1970s, "queer," in the sense of meaning homosexual, was used almost exclusively as a slur. Then members of the gay community began to claim the word for themselves, as a badge of pride, and so the word makes a journey through the culture, from the street with the radical AIDS activists of Queer Nation to the academy (you can major in queer studies at a dozen colleges), until finally finding broad use and bland acceptance, as in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." And, ho-hum, nobody raises an eyebrow anymore.
Of course the most controversial slang term among blacks (and everybody else) that's in the process of being claimed is the word that Chris Rock would use in nightclubs (a lot) but Bill Cosby would not. That word, and we all know what it is, remains in the twilight zone of reclamation -- common acceptable slang in one setting, and absolutely radioactive in another.
The first printed use of "beaner" that the editors of the Historical Dictionary of American Slang could find was in 1965, which would make it relatively recent, as slurs go (its predecessors being "bean-eater" from 1919 and "bean bandit" from 1959). The slang dictionary lists the word as "usually considered offensive." Vernacular language often takes years to find its way from the spoken to the written word.
Those who grew up in the 1970s might remember hearing the term in a stoned-out Cheech and Chong song. Many Latinos in California and the Southwest can recall hearing the word on the streets and schoolyards back in the 1940s, and its use is probably even older. "They called you a beaner back then -- boy, that meant fighting words," says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, an advocacy group working to increase the presence of Latinos on TV. Nogales, now 63, grew up in the farm fields of California, and says, "that word was meant to hurt."
But now, Nogales says, "I like the fact that Carlos Mencia is using it. He's cutting-edge and I like it. He is doing a service by neutralizing a word that meant so much in another time." But he adds, "I understand how older people, people in their fifties or sixties, they might think differently." Nogales says that was his impression during Mencia's act at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "The older you were, the more likely to be sitting there wincing. The younger people were laughing along."