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The Mouth Of Mencia

Carlos Mencia
In his show on Comedy Central, Carlos Mencia isn't just cracking wise about people of Hispanic heritage, he's "meliorating." (Ian White)

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund has fielded a few complaints about the use of the word on Mencia's show. Television critics have highlighted its use in their reviews. Cyberspace is filled with the word: Google it and once you get past Beaner's, the gourmet coffee franchise (no relation), it is used mostly in crude anti-Mexican diatribes about immigrants, illegal and otherwise.

But there are other appearances. Lalo Alcaraz, who does the widely syndicated comic strip "La Cucaracha," published a graphic novel last year titled "Leave It to Beaner." In 2003, the Mexican rap-metal group Molotov had a hit south of the border and on MTV en Espanol with the song "Frijolero" (Spanish for beaner), a counterattack against anti-immigrant gringos. The hip Mexico clothier NaCo picked up on the song and created "Frijolero" T-shirts. (The company is also a play on words: In Mexican slang, naco means tacky, lower-class, uncool.) Gustavo Arellano, a writer for the Orange County Weekly, an alternative newspaper, does a column called "¬°Ask a Mexican!" He's heard the term all his life, but says, " 'Beaner' is now nearly an inoffensive term among many Mexicans." He says it sounds funny, outdated, retro -- "like calling an Italian a pizza-eater."

For an Anglo to use it as a pejorative, "it just means they're not up on their racial slurs." Arellano says it's not really used much among Mexican Americans, except as a joke. It has a connotation more like "hick," but it would probably be more common for Mexican Americans in California to call a recent arrival a "wab," he says, which he speculated in a recent column was the mongrelization of "wetback" and "wop," though several of his readers contend that it stood for "walk across the border," or some variation of that.

For the offended among the Latino community, Arellano says: "Get a life. Get some humor. The majority of Mexican Americans like Mencia because he uses those words."

Resting for a few minutes backstage at the taping of his show, Mencia says, " 'Latino'? 'Hispanic'? They don't roll off my tongue." Though his Web site invites viewers to "send hate or fan mail," and he does a routine on his show where he reads it aloud, Mencia says most of his correspondence about the term "is mail that reads, Hi, I'm from Minnesota, what does 'beaner' mean?" He doesn't hear many complaints -- "Most intellectual people who would be offended aren't watching the show."

But on the Web, opinions are divided about the word and about Mencia. On his show, most people would assume that he is Mexican American. But it is actually more complicated. He was born in Honduras as Ned Mencia, son of Magdalena Mencia, a Mexican, and Roberto Holness, a Honduran. When he was 7 months old, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was raised by his mother's sister and her husband in East L.A. "I grew up Mexican," Mencia says.

Among the writers for his show there is a Steve Trevino -- and a Chris McGuire, Brian Rubenstein, Ted Sarnowski and Pamela Ribon, who wrote of Mencia on her blog that he "taught me a lot of things I probably didn't need to know about Hispanics, racists, bigots, religion, money, power, midgets, censorship, exactly how he has sex with his wife, and what the word beaner means."

Mencia says on TV he wouldn't use the raw slang for black because he isn't. "I know that word goes through a filter of hatred." As for "beaner," he is one, so he can use it, he says. What if his popularization of the word gets picked up by non-Latinos for casual use? "If someone called me a beaner, like a skinhead? I wouldn't be able to stop laughing," he says. "Words are not the problem. Intent is the problem."

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