When attorney Ricardo Torres II recently wrote a political mailer attacking City Council candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, he had a special message for Mexican American voters -- one conveyed in a word of just five letters.
Villaraigosa, the flier told voters, was not Mexican enough to be their political voice. And why? Because Villaraigosa is a pocho.
Although it may mystify the rest of the population, in Mexican American communities across California -- indeed across the Southwest -- pocho is a powerful and nuanced word, able to sting as it leaps off the tongue.
When Roxanne Devora’s husband uses it at home, she said, “He’s talking about a Mexican who speaks lousy Spanish -- like me. But if someone else said it to me, I’d be offended.”
Guillermo Salazar’s relatives in Mexico apply it to him, affectionately, “because they like to kid around that I was born in the United States.”
To John Hernandez, 14, it’s a fighting word. “It means a Mexican who acts like a white guy,” he said. “A sellout.”
One of the touchstones of life in the heavily Latino communities just east of downtown Los Angeles is an individual’s sense of self-recognition: Am I an ethnic American or a transplant loyal to Mexico?
“The word pocho sparks a visceral reaction from all of us born in the Southwest,” said Carlos Velez-Ibanez, professor of anthropology and director of the Ernesto Galarza Applied Research Center at UC Riverside. “The pejorative use of the word is at least eight decades old.”
“Like any pejorative, it reduces a person to a category,” he added.
But what, exactly, is pocho -- and is it a pejorative?
Under the most common definition, pocho -- or the feminine pocha -- is slang for a Mexican American who is neither one nor the other, who speaks no Spanish or speaks it poorly, who is adrift between two cultures, or lives comfortably in both.
Some have embraced the word, just as an earlier generation of Mexican Americans transformed Chicano -- once a jab at poor Mexican Americans -- into a term of pride. Lalo Lopez, a Los Angeles writer and co-editor of Pocho Magazine, summed up the word in an essay called “Generation Mex":
“The Pocho enjoys a peanut butter and jelly tortilla, eats Crispurritos, Enchurritos and Double Cheeseburgerritos regularly at Hell Taco and loves it. The Pocho’s lack of mastery of the Spanish tongue and inability to eat spicy Mexican cuisine dooms him to a life of inbetweeness.”
North of the U.S. border it can imply a class distinction, referring to people who speak the Spanish-English blend called pochismo and are assumed to be blue-collar working stiffs. South of the international line, however, a Mexican citizen may rely on the word to cut a wealthier Mexican American down to size as in, “You might have a fine job and a new car, but I’m pure Mexican and you’re not.”
Hence the word’s ability to endear or insult, depending on your point of view. Or, more precisely, how you view yourself.
It’s a term whose origins are as veiled as its meanings.
“Where did pocho come from? Maybe the same place as the word ‘Chicano,’ ” ventured Edgar Delgado, 28. “It’s been around as long as there’s been a border separating the United States and Mexico.”
Anthropologists and etymologists say it’s even older than that, and trace its roots to ancient Nuahtl languages of the Sonoran Desert in an area that is now the southwest United States and northern Mexico.
According to the Diccionario General de Americanismos by Francisco A. Santamaria, which is regarded as the ultimate authority on derivations of the words of the Americas, pochismo refers to use of a blend of Spanish and English by descendants of Spanish populations, especially Mexican Americans in the southwestern U.S., and particularly in California.
The word had a starring role in one of the first novels published in English by a Mexican American: Jose Antonio Villarreal’s “Pocho,” which came out in 1959. Set in Depression-era California, it tells the story of Richard Rubio, a bookish pocho torn between his family’s traditional Mexican culture and his attraction to new ideas.
A Chicano studies scholar, Rodolfo Acuna, has given the word even further spin, referring to the trend toward assimilation among Mexicans in California after World War II as “pochoization.”
That trend, which was marked by Mexican American parents’ refusal to let their children speak Spanish, was countered during the 1960s by a renaissance of Mexican consciousness among high school and college students.
Today, pocho continues to surface in debates over identity in communities where nearly everyone has an individual, sometimes a painfully personal, interpretation of the word.
Judy Figueroa, a cashier at Bob’s Hand Car Wash in Boyle Heights, recalled: “I was 10 years old when I was introduced by relatives to friends in Hermosillo, Mexico, as a pocha.”
“I felt horrible,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what it meant. But it made me feel different, and not in a good way.”
Beatrice Figueroa (no relation), an admissions attendant at Schurr High School’s adult education bungalow in Montebello, said, “It hurts my feelings when people say, ‘Oh, you’re a pocha,’ just because I’m not fluent in Spanish.”
But Lou Carreon, who teaches English as a second language at the same school, said, “While I don’t go around telling people to please call me pocho, I’m comfortable with the word.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco’s 14th District includes communities that remain gateways for new arrivals from Mexico and Central America. His ally, Torres, spiked 5,000 political mailers with several racially charged allegations against his challenger, Villaraigosa, including that he speaks “pocho Spanish.”
The mailers targeted recently registered Latino voters who were also new American citizens, and therefore might care about such a thing, according to a man close to the attack campaign.
“We were looking at voters who registered right after the passage of Prop. 187 -- when people were passionate about being Mexican,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used. “The word pocho can get you 100 votes in an election that can be won by 50 votes.”
In an interview, Villaraigosa said he was offended: “This was part of a cynical attempt to say to voters, ‘He doesn’t know you. He’s different than you, and won’t represent you.’ I’ve always felt that a leader should identify what we have in common, not what separates us.”
Richard Rodriguez, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State L.A., sees an irony in all this. “What we’re seeing is a game of one-upmanship over an imaginary constituency that is able to distinguish itself from pochos,” he said.
“That constituency does not exist. The vast majority of Latinos in Los Angeles qualify as pochos, especially Latino politicians,” he added. “Beyond that, how could Pacheco claim cultural legitimacy with a first name like Nick?”