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Trump's 'Mexican' label of judge evokes history of racial slur

'Mexican' describes a nationality, but it also has a long history of use as a slur against US-born Latinos as a way to dehumanize them and dismiss them as foreigners, say scholars.

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    Anti-Donald Trump demonstrators hold up signs and a banner across from the San Diego Convention Center where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was scheduled to speak, May 27. Donald Trump's description of a US-born federal judge as a 'Mexican' is bringing up the term’s history as a slur in the US, say experts.
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Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump referred to a US-born federal judge as a "Mexican" and saw a backlash, even from other Republicans.

A black Democratic lawmaker called Republican New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez a "Mexican" during a heated exchange with another lawmaker and was forced to apologize. John Calipari, then New Jersey Nets coach, faced criticism for lashing out at a Latino reporter by calling him a "Mexican idiot."

True, the term "Mexican" describes a nationality for a people of a country south of the United States. It also has been used as a slur against US-born Latinos as a way to dehumanize them and dismiss them as foreigners, according to scholars and those who've been targeted by the loaded word.

In the latest example, Trump recently used the word against US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, an American of Mexican origin. It came after Curiel agreed to unseal the details in a class-action lawsuit by people who say they were victims of fraud by Trump's real estate business education venture, the now-defunct Trump University.

"The judge, who happens to be, we believe, Mexican," Trump told a San Diego crowd in a rant against Curiel. "Which is great. I think that's fine."

But when pressed over his remarks about the Indiana-born judge, Trump suggested Curiel lacked the ability to be objective because of his ethnic background.

Curiel has "an inherent conflict of interest" because Trump is "building a wall," the billionaire real estate mogul said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. He also told CNN that Curiel is "of Mexican heritage," dismissing the fact that Curiel was born in Indiana and saying, "He's proud of his heritage."

Trump's remarks, however, drew strong condemnation from Latino activists and Republicans. GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan called Trump's remarks "the textbook definition of racist comments." Roger Rocha Jr., president of the League of United Latin American Citizen, the nation's oldest Latino civil rights group, said Trump's statement "epitomizes racism and is a slap in the face to minority judges across the country." Two prominent New Jersey Republicans left the GOP, citing Trump's "divisive and racist statements."

As The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Grier wrote Friday:

Generally party candidates, once they clinch presumptive nominee status, turn from their partisan primary positions towards a more centrist approach.... If anything Trump has turned in the other direction. He’s doubled-down on policies that split the Republican Party, such as his attacks on US-born federal judge Gonzalo Curiel for “Mexican” heritage, and his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants and general anti-Muslim jabs.

Trump’s warned GOP leaders who oppose some of this stuff, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, that they need to get behind him and “get tougher” or “be quiet.”

Alexandro Jose Gradilla, a Chicana and Chicano Studies professor at California State University, Fullerton, said the way the word "Mexican" was used to describe a Mexican-American judge likely helped fuel the widespread criticism

"Donald Trump's use of the term represents the long history of the word in the US," Gradilla said. "'Mexican' was often a stand-in for one of many closely related epithet targeting Mexican-Americans."

That's because the term "Mexican" often was tossed at Mexican-Americans to remind them that whites didn't think they belonged in the country or were part of the nation's history, especially after the United States-Mexico War, Gradilla said.

"That's what Trump is playing with when he described (Curiel) as simply a 'Mexican,'" Gradilla said.

Even as late as 1954, US Supreme Court justices were confused about the legal status of Mexican-Americans. During oral arguments about a case challenging a Texas law that allowed some Mexican-Americans to be excluded from juries, justices repeatedly called the residents in question "Mexicans," and one justice, Felix Frankfurter, used another epithet.

That epithet sparked civil rights lawyer Gus Garcia to argue that the first immigrants to live illegally in Texas were Southern whites.

Michelle Tellez, a Mexican-American Studies professor at the University of Arizona, said many Mexican-Americans also view the term "Mexican" as synonymous with bad because of the way it has been used against them.

"It's a reminder that we don't belong," said Tellez, who was targeted by the term and other epithets while going up in San Diego.

To get around it, Mexican-Americans will call themselves "mexicano"— the Spanish version of Mexican — or Latino or some other terms that also tend to emphasize their middle-class status in the US, Tellez said.

Lauro Garza, a retired police officer who lives in Houston and host the podcast Latinotalk Texas, said he grew up thinking "Mexican" was a negative word to be avoided. "It's comparable with other slurs, depending how it's used," Garza said.

Garza said even whites are uncomfortable using the term "Mexican" and thinks that's why some white Republicans are denouncing Trump.

But Trump is hardly alone in drawing scrutiny for using the word.

In 2011, New Mexico Democratic state lawmaker Sheryl Williams Stapleton gave a public apology after she told a Latina Republican lawmaker she was "carrying the Mexican's water on the fourth floor" — a reference to Martinez, the nation's first elected Latina governor. Calipari was fined $25,000 by the NBA in 1997 after referring to a reporter as a "Mexican idiot."

Gloria Garcia of Albuquerque, said Trump's use of the word was largely the reason she came out to vote in New Mexico's primary despite news that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton had collected enough delegates for the Democratic nomination. "It's offensive," said Garcia, who voted for Clinton. "It's like he's saying we are dirty."

Steven Michael Quezada, an Albuquerque resident and a Mexican-American actor who starred in the AMC television series "Breaking Bad," said it all depends on the tone of the person using the term. "At the end of the day, we're Mexican. I'm Mexican," Quezada said. "After all, this was all once Mexico."

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras.

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