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Comes from the Spanish conquests where the Spaniards apparently in those days called each other “chivato,” which means, you know, goat. “Ay chivato, que estas hacienda chivato?” And it became vato and it went, passed down through the ages as dude, guy. But you know I had that talk and I had that accent and though I looked Irish. And we got to this neighborhood and suddenly I went to fifth grade and I was in the restroom my first week of fifth grade and this spectacularly white boy, you know, freckles, bright red hair the epitome of who I’d be with from now on said to me, “You’re a greaser wetback.” And I thought, “What is that?” And I said, “I’m a what?” And he said, “You’re a greaser wetback.” And all the boys laughed at me, walked out of the bathroom. And I remember sitting there thinking well, you know, you’re a kid and you internalize these things and you take them concretely. And I was convinced somewhere on my back there was a patch of grease I couldn’t find, right, and I was looking for the grease, I couldn’t find it. And that was the most spectacular moment for me when I realized I was other, I hadn’t known it before.

BILL MOYERS: Well, now, that’s a common experience for immigrants in America, wop, spic— all of that. How do you process it?

LUIS ALBERTO URREA: I came home that day and my father processed it for me. And this may be partially why I’m a writer. But I got home, my father worked in bowling alleys night crew, he was a very smart, literate man who had achieved quite a bit in Mexico, couldn’t get there in the United States. He couldn’t find his way in a lot of ways. He, you know, he knew English was paramount, so he memorized the dictionary, five pages a week. I had to give my father English tests. But I got home and my father was getting ready to go to the night shift. And he always smoked Pall Malls, and he would tip his head when he had a point to— he’d do this. And he was looking at me when I came in and he said, “What’s the matter with you?” And I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Mi hijo, que traes?” And I said, “Nothing.” “I can see you’re upset. What are you upset about?” I said, “Oh, they called me a name.” He said, “Really? What name did they call you?” I said, “They told me I was a greaser.” And he looked at me just for a second, and I knew because he went like this and I thought, “Oh, here it comes.” And what I thought was going to happen didn’t happen, because I thought he was going to go on a diatribe about these people. And he says to me, “Mi hijo, in the western expansion across the United States the Americanos came in covered wagons. The wagons were made of wood, entirely of wood. The axles, los ejes was made of wood, mi hijo. So they would get to about Texas and the friction heat up the wood.” He said, “y se quemaba todo.” The wagons would burn down. He said, “You know who the only people in the world with the technology to grease the axles was Mexicans.” And I was looking at him, and he said, “So when they call you a greaser hold your head up because it’s a term of pride.” And I knew my dad was lying. You know, I knew he— but it was so brilliant. Even as a fifth grader, I saw my father take a moment of shame and through a story, right, turn it into something to try to lift his kid up. And then he went off to the bowling alley to clean toilets all night.

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