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."
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 pamie.com 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."