I grew up on California’s Central Coast, near a tiny town called Castroville, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World.” The homes that line the blocks and house Castroville’s just-over-five-thousand-inhabitants cluster together like a raft that floats upon a green sea of artichokes. A mile to the west sit Salinas River State Beach’s sand dunes, blasted by the Pacific Ocean’s waves, and inland, over the slightly rolling hills, the artichoke fields carry to the foothills where they merge with strawberry fields and blend into the Gabilan Mountains, six miles to the east.
Though I grew up near it, I did not live in Castroville. Humans must work those artichoke fields. The humans who work the artichoke fields live in Castroville. Those humans are almost exclusively of the Hispanic ethnicity. I am white, and my parents did not work the artichoke fields. We lived in a housing development between these artichoke fields and the hills of the eastern mountains.
As all American children are required, I attended school, and there was no school in my housing development. My school sat amidst Castroville’s tiny houses. My schools’ (elementary, middle, and high schools’) demographics were Hispanic, White, and Other. Almost all of my classmates were Hispanic, the children who shared rooms in the one- or two-bedroom ranch-style homes that make up the raft that is Castroville awash in its artichoke sea. The other white kids lived near me, in my housing development, with their parents and their siblings, in the nearly-uniform three-bedroom, two-bath houses that sat on half-acre lots.
The school bus pulled into my neighborhood from Highway 156 and picked me up from where I waited at the curb under a two-hundred-year-old coast live oak, in a lot filled with golden brome. The bus then meandered the neighborhood’s thoroughfare past my neighbors’ gardened lawns and steep driveways to suck up the other children through the doors that yawned open. This neighborhood was not quite suburban, for there was no nearby “urbanity,” nor was it quite “rural” in the sense of a desolate wilderness road, or a dusty lane bordered by bucolic strawberry fields—although this did literally exist less than a mile away. And all of us white kids bussed into Castroville and met up with our Hispanic counterparts. There were, I think, two Black kids and two Asians I went to school with.
These Hispanic classmates were, to be more specific, Mexican Americans. It was not uncommon to hear racial slurs about Mexicans. In fact, more than once I’m ashamed to say these slurs ushered forth from my own mouth. From inside that school bus, or from inside my parents’ station wagon, I and my white classmates, or I and my brother and sister, might laugh at a rusting and dented old Ford, its muddied wheel wells lowered to the tires, and the bumper sending up sparks when it hit a bump, all weighed down by the seven or eight field workers the vehicle carried. At some point—and I don’t remember when we gained the vocabulary—we knew to say, “Check out those jaggers.”
If you are like pretty much everyone else who is not from California’s Central Coast you’ve likely never heard the word “jagger” used in this context before. A simple Google search brings up—no surprise here—countless websites devoted to Mick Jagger, and Jagger’s Pizza, and the definition of “jagger,” as in a jag, or something sharp that protrudes, like a thorn, and some Maroon 5 song called “Moves Like Jagger,” the performance of which features Christina Aguilera (although, Aguilera, due to her Puerto Rican ethnicity would not, technically, be a jagger). If you keep going through the pages on that Google search, by page seven, near the bottom, you’ll come across the Urban Dictionary entry for “Jagger,” which accurately defines the word I grew up knowing and using:
1) A Mexican person, [sic] that is straight out of Mexico. Ie. A first generation [sic].
2) A slang term used while talking to your friends. (If your [sic] Mexican.)
1) Their house is jagger-like.
2) So I was talking to [this] jagger and she was like….
But this “dictionary’s” definition of jagger is still lacking. Not to be outdone by other racial slurs, jagger is a complicated word, used in different ways by different people under different circumstances. It has a multitude of meanings and implications, some endearing and meant to signal belonging to a select group, some scornful, others mean. In fact, jagger is not always a racial “slur.”
I have taught the famous Gloria Naylor essay, variably titled either “The Meanings of a Word,” or “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” many times. It is perhaps telling that the same essay exists with two completely different titles and, despite my efforts to research a reason as to why that is the case, I can only hypothesize it has something to do with audience. A high school teacher, for example, might run into trouble with a title like “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?” should it be discovered by a concerned parent on her daughter’s course syllabus. The unfortunate truth is, as David Foster Wallace has pointed out, that “some of the cultural and political realities of American life are . . . racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair.” That is our America. The irony is that Naylor’s essay explores the complications inherent in a complex word like nigger, demystifies its various uses, especially for the politically-corrected whites who might come across her essay. I wish to demystify jagger, to express my regret for ever having used it pejoratively. Yet I also aim to show that, when you grow up on California’s Central Coast, the word jagger becomes a part of you. I speak a word for Truth, and, to again quote Wallace: “pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever actually changing them.”
“Don’t be such a jag.”
“What a jagger . . .”
“Those fucking jaggers over on Axtell Street drive Pintos an’ shit.”
The above snatches of dialogue have been taken out of context, but demonstrate a few ways in which the word might be used. Jagger was used, of course, derisively, by both white and Hispanic people around the Central Coast. The term meant different things to each group. White people, while talking to other white people, might talk about jaggers. They’d say something like, “Jesus, there are so many jaggers in Castroville,” with a tone full of exasperation. Sometimes we’d even say our mass was held before the jagger mass at Our Lady of Refuge, because the Spanish mass was held at 11 AM.
Mexicans who were truly jaggers (in this context) did not refer to themselves as jaggers. In fact, many of these Mexicans couldn’t speak English well enough to form the hard J sound required to utter “jagger,” and so did not say the word. They were usually darker-skinned Mexicans. Their sometimes lighter-skinned, more-fluent-in-English, more upwardly-mobile brethren, however, often talked about jaggers, calling the darker-skinned non-English-speaking Mexicans jaggers, as in the example above referring to “Those fucking jaggers over on Axtell Street . . .”
But Mexicans on the Central Coast did not always use jagger to demean someone. A Mexican might use the other dialogue examples cited above, usually when talking to a friend or relative. In these cases the word was used as a mild, loving, ribbing on someone. Example: My childhood friends Christina Bueno and Cindy Marin might be getting ready for the high school dance that evening and while doing their hair, Christina’s waiting for Cindy to finish using the hairdryer and in mock impatience says, :Why don’t you finish already, jag,” or, “Hey, jagger, you gonna use the hairdryer all night?”
This is, of course, not quite the same as Gloria Naylor’s explication of the variety of uses for the word nigger. She says that, “In the singular, the word was always applied to a man who had distinguished himself in some situation that brought . . . approval for his strength, intelligence, or drive,” or “When used with a possessive adjective by a woman—‘my nigger’—it became a term of endearment for her husband or boyfriend.” No, jagger, was always used as a put-down. But it was different kind of insult when a white person used it when talking about a Mexican, than when two (or more) Mexican friends or relatives used it. In those cases jagger meant, “I am a Mexican and you are a Mexican, and I can call you this because I love you and I’d like to use the hairdryer, too, please, so if you could hurry up and finish that would be great.”
As a white kid growing up in this environment I somehow knew I wasn’t supposed to call a Mexican a jagger to his face, that it was disrespectful and hurtful. From an early age my use of the word in this manner was relegated to only the worst kind of comeback in a bout of shit-talking, and almost surely precipitated a physical fight. One time this boy named Javier, who everyone called Javi for short, would not relinquish the marble I had rightfully won from him in a game of “keepsies.” Javi was a big and tall Mexican boy and I was scared when he called me a “fucking guero.” This—along with gringo—was the “pejorative” for a white person. I say “pejorative” (with the quotes) because the literal translation for guero is “blond-haired guy,” so it’s not really an insult. But I was not such a small kid myself, and the social consequences of not reacting to the insult, and of not defending myself and getting the marble I had rightfully won were dire. I told Javi he was “acting like a fucking jagger.” Immediately thereafter we rolled around in the dust of the schoolyard’s little corner where we’d set up to play our game until a third party stepped in before one of us hurt more than just feelings, and—luckily—before either of us got caught by a teacher and was suspended.
At the same time, I heard Mexican children use jagger to shit-talk other Mexican kids—Mexican kids who were not their friends or relatives. However, this was almost never followed by a fight. Imagine, as Antonio and Beto discuss the relative merits of the Garbage Pail Kids cards they’re intent on trading with one another:
Antonio: I’ll trade you this Leaky Lindsay for that Phoney Lisa.
Beto: Fuck that, eh. What you think: I’m a jagger?
Antonio: You got two of them and you don’t have no Leaky Lindsay.
Beto: Eeeeeeeee, all right, eh. You’re a fucking jagger already.
I do not remember adults using the word jagger, and I have never heard one say it since I was a kid. As per the examples above, as evident in the profusion of profanities, jagger was relegated to youth and, often, to gangbangers. The southern gangbangers called the northern gangbangers jaggers. The northern gangbangers said of the southern gangbangers, “Those scrap jagger pendejos better watch their asses.”
There was a certain lilting rhythm to the vowels in the selections mentioned above, where they stood in for emphasis, as in, “eeeeeeeeeee, you’re such a jagger, eh!” where “jagger” was pronounced like “dagger.” Or, “don’t be such a jag!”, with the emphasis on the æ of d͡ʒægɛər . This latter shortened version of my titular epithet was almost exclusively used as a term of endearment, saved for shit-talking from one Mexican-American friend to another. But the same word turned derisive when used as a put-down: “The Grijalvas are fucking jaggers. That’s why they drive that fucked up Pinto.” “Jagger” almost always meant someone on a lower rung of the socio-economic ladder, or, when used to signal membership in the group of Mexican Americans, it meant solidarity, identity, while at the same time one Mexican friend telling another Mexican friend who was likely on the same socio-economic level that, in a joking way, they were acting like they were lower class, but—just the same—at least they were Mexican too.
The Mexicans with whom I grew up expressed musical vowel sounds for emphasis in sentences. A long-breathed long E (i), especially, should enemies or friends utter insults: “eeeeeeeee, what he said!” You might think they sounded like a cartoon stereotype of a Mexican penciled by a white person, and, in fact, stereotypes come in their beginnings from places of truth. But these vowels came with a grammar. The short exasperated Aye! in an instant of pain or surprise. A longer, drawn out Aiiiyyy to signal frustration and annoyance or impatience. “¡Aye me rompas el Corazon!” “¡Aiiiyyy, Jaime: esperate!”
Of course, not all of the Mexicans in Castroville worked in the fields. On the south end of town sat big boxes for buildings: the packing warehouses. Some of my friends’ parents were foremen and loaders and packers and forklift operators. Others were my teachers and school principals and the school secretaries and the butchers and produce people and checkout clerks at Fairway Supermarket and the pharmacists and checkout clerks at R&R Pharmacy and at Coast to Coast Hardware. But, on the whole, solely the agricultural industry supported Castroville. In the late 19th century the Union Pacific railroad selected Salinas—the much larger city ten miles to the south—over Castroville as a point of arrival and departure for passengers. Today only the freight trains rumble in to load up on crates full of artichokes bound for semis and boats in the Bay Area from whence they’re transported across the nation and in some cases internationally, despite Castroville’s unsupported artichoke world-center claim. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s artichokes come from Italy.
This is all meant to dispel the stereotypes I’ve pointed out, even if those stereotypes existed in great abundance in Castroville. The reality, though, is that Castroville houses a variety of people from different socio-economic backgrounds, with different education and skill levels, and people of different kinds of ethnic mixes. Mexico is a rather diverse nation, composed of the descendants of native peoples, the descendants of the Spanish colonists who ruled the country for three hundred-plus years, the mestizo mix of these peoples, people of African descent, of French and Italian lineage. Gather these many different kinds of Mexicans together and transport them to the tiny coastal town of Castroville, California, present-day United States of America, and you can understand what Shirley Brice Heath meant when she referred to the “schizophrenia of being both Black and mainstream American.” Simply revise that to Mexican and American. And do not forget that all of the people with whom I grew up were American.
Despite what sounds like my family’s linguistic, racial, and geographical isolation from our Mexican compatriots, there was—as in such situations there is bound to be—integration. My parents’ house was literally higher than Castroville, and the Mexicans who lived there, by about fifteen feet of elevation—at a grand summit of 29 feet above sea level. Not only that, the housing development was called Oak Hills, and from our lofty Caucasian polis I could gaze down on the trodden peasants who worked the not-so-distant fields as I rode my bicycle on the bucolic oak-lined streets. But the center of our socio-political lives was Castroville. Oak Hills was simply a bundle of houses. There were no grocery stores or gas stations, no post offices and no schools. All such business was conducted in Castroville, where we moved among the Mexican people who lived in town.
While we attended the English mass at Our Lady of Refuge, the Spanish mass followed directly, and the townspeople were already gathered in front of the church, waiting, as we exited and congregated outside the large wooden doors of the vestibule’s entryway. We shared a religion in Catholicism, even if some Sundays before we left my mother complained about the Mexicans standing outside and waiting for the Spanish language mass to begin. She’d say, “Can’t they just wait for our mass to be over before they’re crowding up the place?” Not even the sanctity of faith could dissolve the silt of racism. I never attended a Spanish mass, but I learned Spanish. Always having had a penchant for language in all its forms, I took to the trilled melodies my classmates and their parents sang to one another. It was a secret code, or a puzzle, to break and solve.
Because my school was predominantly Mexican I inevitably gained Mexican friends. Some days after school, instead of bussing three miles back to Oak Hills, I stayed in Castroville. I would amble the streets with my Mexican friends. We played baseball at the ballpark and bought baseball cards at Ken and Sons Produce. We ate French fries at Burger King. My friends invited me into their tiny homes. Individual experiences have melded together in memory: a small living room with grandparents watching Spanish language television. Upon a shelf or in an alcove on one wall hung or sat a painting or a statuette of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and surrounding her candles and the withered black ends of spent matches. The homes consisted of two bedrooms, one for my friends’ parents and another for the grandparents and what children might fit in said room, while the remaining children pulled out the sofa bed every night, or curled up under blankets on the floor.
Sometimes, my friends visited me in Oak Hills. More than once one of them remarked that my family was rich. We had a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home, and a large yard. My parents had built a deck off the back of the house and outside their master bedroom’s French doors was the hot tub.
Among my brother and sister and my Mexicans friends was the Bueno family and one of their children, Christina, who, throughout her childhood and up till today remains my sister’s best friend, and a close friend to my family. I met Christina when she was five years old, when my sister was the same age and they shared a kindergarten classroom. I played Little League baseball with Christina’s brother, Teddy, while their father, Eddie, was my coach. The day after Christina broke up with her high school sweetheart, Frankie, I was there with my sister, in Christina’s apartment down the highway in Marina. When Christina cried and my sister held and hugged her, and told her it would be okay, I poured Christina a glass of red wine and drove to Blockbuster and returned with Men in Black and a bag full of candy and the three of us laughed the rest of that sad night into memory. Last year, after Christmas, Christina and her nephews, and my wife and I, went to my family’s cabin in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, where I tossed the boys into the soft snow banks during our snowball fights. This year, at Christmas, Christina brought one of her handmade monkey hats for my infant daughter.
What I mean is, I have an intimate relationship with Christina. And, as it turns out, calling a Mexican a jagger when you’re white isn’t always an insult. When we were kids my brother and I made fun of our sister and Christina (as brothers are wont to do): when Christina came to our house we mimicked her accented Mexican English: “Eeeeeee, Christeeeeena, what’s up, eh?” When Christina and my sister said for us to shut up and leave them alone, my brother and I looked at each other in mock surprise and said, “Oooh, talking shit, eh. Eeeeeeee, what a bunch of jaggers, eh.” And Christina and my sister both could not help laughing.
I really had no room in which to talk shit. I had my own Mexican friends, and that, with my desire to learn the Spanish language, coupled with the social stigma of being white in a predominantly Mexican part of the world, made me wish I actually was Mexican. I moussed back my hair and donned long-sleeved pointed-collared shirts buttoned to my neck. I wore Z Cavaricci pants and black loafers. I drew cartoonish figures in sunglasses, with zootsuit chains dangling from their pants. I scribbled “Jaime de Castro” everywhere. I wished I could change my name’s spelling permanently to “J-A-I-M-E”. When we sparred verbally, Christina came right back at me with an ironic, “What. Ever. Jaime de Castro.” That always made both my brother and sister turn to shit-talking me for being such a wannabe white kid dork.
Today, I live in the southeastern United States, in what was once the center of this country’s movement for social and political equality in the 1960s: Atlanta. When I moved to Atlanta, I found what I thought to be a diner up the street from my new apartment, but when I stopped in for lunch I found a soul food restaurant clinging to the then-gentrifying Midtown. It might have been my discomfort in my new surroundings (I mean, I’d never lived near so many Black people in my life), and it could’ve been because of that process of gentrification, but the customers and employees of that establishment looked at me like I had to have been someone recently escaped from the local sanitarium when I stepped inside one day after the lunch rush in the middle of the week.
In a movie there would have been a record playing, and the record would come to a scratching halt for no apparent reason attributable to physics. Whatever the cause for discomfort, I felt it when the thin black man behind the slit separating the front counter from the kitchen (there did not seem to be a clerk or any other employee working said counter) asked what I wanted and looked at me incredulously when I said, “A cheeseburger.” The buffet had not appealed to me upon my inspection, consisting as it did of fried chicken and a crusted tin of grits, and a likewise partially-crusted tin of collard greens, and black eyed peas, and cornbread. Remember: I’d just moved from the west. In fact, I’d never once in my life seen grits. I don’t think I‘d ever even seen them in a movie, since you cannot see the actual grits in a film like My Cousin Vinny. Maybe nothing was happening at all. Maybe I was hyperaware of my difference in that restaurant and the people working there were simply working, and tired, and had finished the lunch rush, and that cook just didn’t want to cook me a burger when there was a perfectly good buffet just sitting there, and I could eat all I wanted, but I chose not to, and I was what you might call a pain-in-the-ass customer.
The unfortunate truth is that there is that difference, there was that difference. In Atlanta there is de facto segregation. Black folks tend to live in certain neighborhoods and white folks in others. There are “Black” and “white” business establishments, such as Dugans, the sports bar where Black folks watch football on Ponce de Leon Avenue, which sits across the street from The Local, a white hipster kid bar. There are no Jim Crow laws enforcing any kind of segregation here, but this is the cultural norm.
There’s a tendency to assume racism in America is relegated to the pre-Civil-Rights-Act South, even though we all know that’s complete horseshit. I never thought about the racism and segregation inherent in my own little fog-drenched pocket of the California coast, but as my wife likes to say, “There is no monopoly on racism.”
Today there’s this conservative surge of anti-immigrant sentiment, racism masked by platitudes like, “We just think American citizens deserve American services, and that illegal aliens do not.” And how do we know if someone is an illegal alien? Well, in Alabama and Arizona and Georgia and Indiana and South Carolina, apparently, the way to know is for a cop to stop someone they suspect of being an illegal alien and ask them for identification that proves they are in the United States legally. And just whom, do you think, might the predominantly-Caucasian cops “suspect” of being illegal? A blond-haired white guy like me?
This sentiment in the United States is not new. I was there in California in 1994, when the movement to support Proposition 187 grew. This proposed California state law, passed that November nearly twenty years ago, wasn’t all that different from Arizona’s SB1070 from 2010. Prop 187 required state law enforcement to investigate suspected illegal aliens and request documentation proving their legal status in the state. It cut off any funding to children of illegal immigrants and would not allow them to attend school. I remember my friends—my legal Mexican American classmates—wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Mexican flag. They waved the Mexican flag in our senior class photo, taken in the stands of the football stadium. Their parents advocated the boycott at school, when they all stayed home. The law passed, was challenged in the federal courts, was overruled, and appeals dropped. All of the counties whose voters stood in opposition to Prop 187 centered around the Bay Area.
Historical irony: California has been one of the United States for 162 years. Alta California was part of the Mexican Estado de California, which included the contemporary Mexican states of Baja California Sur and Norte, for 29 years. Nueva California was part of the viceroyalty of Nueva España, itself subject to the Spanish Crown as a colony for 52 years. The native tribes that lived in what is today the State of California, the people of which—prior to contact—represented the densest and most culturally and linguistically diverse population of native peoples in all of North America, have been subject to the periodic visitations by Spanish, Russian, English, American, and Mexican explorers, and are still inundated by the settlers from these nationalities and their descendants who have never left: this a total of 472 years. It is, at the very least, hypocritical—never mind whatever other legal, anthropological, ethical, and social implications such thinking and legislation can and might have—to enact and enforce anti-immigration bills proposed in any of the individual states United of America. It’s downright stupid to complain of Mexicans “infiltrating,” or “invading,” or “taking advantage of” a place where they’ve long already been, a place that is “home.”
What I’m really attempting to point out here isn’t how the word “jagger” can be used to insult and humiliate one group of people while at the same time it can be used by that very group of people to say, “I am part of this group and I am proud of it,” and all of jagger’s other manifestations. This is really about the plurality of human nature. To paraphrase Whitman: we are large; we contain multitudes. We can be rude, harsh, insulting, evil; we can be gentle, tender, magnanimous, beautiful. I found all of this in one little town and its environs, far from any real “city,” surrounded as it was by the billions of thistle-y artichoke leaves that hemmed it in.
We still call Christina a jagger, and she still calls me one, too. When I got home last September and Christina came over for dinner, she walked in the front door, and just before coming in for a hug, said, “What’s up, jagger?” Christina still makes fun of me in the old ways, calling me Jaime de Castro. I am perpetually reminded of my wanna-be-ness, my deep connection to the Mexican American extended family around me. Today, my sister sent me a text message telling me she would call this weekend so that we could catch up. The message reads: “Pinche hermano, I’ll call this weekend.” And trust me when I tell you that I am as white as white can get, but I am from California’s Central Coast. We are family. And so I am Jaime de Castro. All those years in Castroville, with the Reynas and the Buenos and the Padillas and the Ramoses and the Jimenezes, and there lived us Iredells in Oak Hills, set apart upon an oak-studded hill, looking down on the flat coastal plain that housed our Mexican friends. All this time we considered ourselves Californians, thought that we were above the racism of the South, that we sat just south of San Francisco. Dios mio, how could we be racist? But it’s there, built into the fabric of being an American. Or, as Heath wrote: the schizophrenia. I don’t want to be an apologist, but it pervades all things; it is us. The Civil War is still us. And we still fight that war. Some of us still hope that this great experiment will not tear itself into tiny pieces of memory in the universe.