Author Archives: Lily Mathison

Folk Etymology – Arizona

“When Pancho Villa, that is when American troops were chasing Pancho Villa across the border in a, in a series of skirmishes the Mexicans heard the Americans singing the song ‘Green grows the lilacs’ which was a popular st-st-st uh, song turn of the century. And so what the Mexicans heard was not ‘Green Grows the lilacs’ but they heard green – gringos. They said it really fast, ‘gringos’. So that’s what I, where I heard that that came from, was gringos.”

The informant is a 67-year-old caregiver residing in Whittier, California. He has divided most of his life between California, Iowa, and Colorado but lived in Phoenix, Arizona for a few years.

The informant said he heard it when he lived in Phoenix back in the 50’s when he was in late elementary school. He said it was closer to Mexico then (perhaps meaning that he was closer to Mexico then). The context that this folk etymology came up was my sister was showing pictures of her honeymoon in the Mexican Riviera and she mentioned that she felt like a gringo when she was down there as she didn’t speak any Spanish. We got to talking about the difference between the terms ‘gringo’ and “americano’ and the informant rattled off this little tidbit. He had told us this etymology before and with gusto, which likely indicates that he believes it is true.

The informant is a bit of an encyclopedia of random knowledge that he likes to spout off, and this etymology is likely one of those facts. I personally had believed the informant for many years until I asked him where he learned it and if he had corroborated this story. He learned it from someone else and hadn’t cross-referenced for veracity. I personally think it’s interesting how sure he is that his story is true. I think it’s interesting that this story would make the term seem fairly harmless. It’s just a linguistic mess up – so when someone calls another a gringo it’s just a local term for someone. And yet I have spoken to a few Spanish-speaking people, one in particular who was Dominican, who said she wouldn’t call her friends gringos – so apparently the term has negative connotations, yet this etymology makes to reference to the negativity surrounding the word.

Chili Peppers, Folk Medicine – Mexican

“I used to get sick at lot, like in high school with like, ah, chest congestion and all that lovely stuff. ‘Cause it’s, I guess, cold in the East Coast. So, uh, and I, and my parents would tell me, ‘oh, you should just eat chili peppers’ like red chili peppers ’cause their spicy.’ And you know my mother would always say, ‘So you father’s mother’ – so I guess my grandmother, ah, ‘she never never used to get sick ’cause she would always eat chili peppers.’ You know, and she said, “you know that’s the good thing about Mexican people they would eat all these chili peppers so they would never get colds and stuff like that.’ So, I don’t know why my mother would say that because my mother’s not Mexican, my Dad is. So he would say the same thing but my mother, being my mother, would really try to push that. I think she heard that from my Dad and just took off from it.”

The informant is from Arlington, VA. She said that she thought the concept of eating chili peppers to keep away a cold or to fight a cold made sense. The chili peppers likely kill the germs (i.e. a cold) and clean out the system. Though she has never tried it, she said it might work.

I think her analysis of why her Slovenian mother and not her father repeated this bit of folklore was telling. It seemed her mother may have had a more maternal instinct for trying to make sure her children were healthy and so grasped at this as a chance to do just that. She also may have seen this bit of folklore as a way to control something that was more than likely a great deal out of her control – that her daughter seemed to have a predisposition to getting colds in a cold climate. It may have relieved her that there was some way to help her daughter out there. I think it is also telling that Andrea has never tried this – that says to me that her Mom may have been trying to relieve some anxiety rather than truly cutting up some chili’s and putting them on a plate for her daughter. The informant’s conclusion that it makes sense that it would work may come from her theoretical biology knowledge as learned from her Neuroscience major.

Chili Peppers

‘Potato Slop’ – North Carolina

“This is a recipe that I learned from my mother. Ah, and we call it ‘potato slop’ even though outside of our family it would probably be called shepard’s pie. But basically what you do is you take a sauce pan and you brown up some ground beef and drain out the oil. And then you dice some onions and add them in. And then once you have the onions and the meat you fill the pan with water – almost to the very brim. And then you put really really thinly sliced potatoes in it – and they have to be thinly sliced so they cook quickly. And then you just put a lid on it and simmer it until the potatoes are kinda squooshy and then you take the lid off and let the water boil off. And then you have this kind of uh, potato, onion, ground beef mush. It sounds really unappetizing but then you stir in this taco seasoning and sometimes peas or corn if you feel like you need vegetables.”

The informant is a 20-year-old Theatre student at the University of Southern California. She grew up in North Carolina.

It was a dish the informant would eat on a day when her mother didn’t have a lot of work as it takes some time to make it. She thinks this recipe is delicious and she is fairly good at making it. If she’s cooking with friends or is trying to impress someone with her cooking this is her go-to recipe, unless they’ve already had it.

I think the Mexican influence is interesting, as North Carolina is not all that close to Mexico and yet this recipe has taco seasoning. This seems to evidence that the Mexican culinary traditions are becoming a standard part of American cooking. I would note that this is contrary to what assimilation theory would predict as this evidences Americans – as natives of the host country – incorporating Mexican traditions into their own. I would not say that this necessarily evidences a holistic acceptance of Mexican immigrants, certainly this shows that Mexican food is becoming increasingly thought of as American.

Animation Christmas Tradition/Pinata/Effigy – American

“We in, at my animation school every year we decide to – we make a piñata based on a recent…so Polar Express made it one year. We made a piñata of Tom Hanks in Polar Express and uh, we were gonna beat the crap out of it but unfortunately they made it out of duct tape so…boy it was a long, everybody got a swing. I thought they – then ended up having to tear it down and stomp on it and then it – ah, why duct tape! It’s like that’s not even fun! Actually no, it was fun. But I’ll tell you what it took us an hour then we were like something’s wrong. [Laughs.] This is, this is a – and we had a metal bat. We’re like, okay, something is up about this piñata. This piñata is really resilient! Okay. So finally we tore enough away that we realized, I was like, “Who made it out of duct tape!? What the heck!?” “Well, I don’t know we wanted to make sure that everybody – ” because the previous year, you know it was like bam bam done. [Makes grumbling noises.]”

The informant is a 25-year-old Story Board Artist and animator who works in television. She is originally from Denver, Colorado and moved to Los Angeles for college and work.

This particular incident took place during the California Institute of the Art’s (CalArts) Character Animation department Christmas party. Before describing this installment of the beating-of-the-animation-pinata tradition she told me she was unhappy when Polar Express came out because “It was gross, because the people didn’t move and animators are starving thanks to motion capture.” The informant, is an animator, though “not a starving one” but she does “have starving friends thanks to motion capture.”  She also was opposed to motion capture on a technical level:

“The effect is similar to mascots walking around Disneyland with giant hats. They move natural but it doesn’t make any sense with the character shape because you have to – if the character has a giant head and is a penguin or something they should not move like a human being! But they do and motion capture looks really gross.”

She then repeated that “animators are starving” because of motion capture.

The year before the pinata was “the bee from Bee Movie,” though it was not motion capture it was just a bad silly movie. “Besides everyone likes killing bees. They’re an endangered species.” “You cannot hit bees in real life so we make piñata bees,” the informant told me.

I think this is pretty clearly a cathartic tradition. The animators are frustrated that they are getting put out of the job by this, as they consider it, second rate technology. They cannot take any direct action against the inventor and users of motion capture, but they can make a pinata that represents all of that and beat it with a metal bat.

I would argue that this example of a holiday tradition is an interesting twist on the practice of beating or burning effigies of political figures in order to protest their policies or actions. The same day the informant was telling me about her Polar Express pinata, protesters in Pakistan were burning an effigy of American President Barack Obama as well as the American flag to express their anger regarding the recent US attacks on tribal Pakistani areas (Rodriguez). The anger toward the figure-in-effigy in both cases is clearly there. The bitterness in the informant’s voice as she talked about her friends that couldn’t get a job because of the widespread use of motion capture tells us that her mental state in beating the Polar Express pinata was more akin to that of the Pakistani protesters than a child having fun at a birthday party. Seen in this light, this tradition is surprisingly political.

Works Cited:

Rodriguez, Alex. “U.S. drone attack kills 25 in Pakistan.” Los Angeles Times 23 April 2011. Accessed online:,0,5711991.story?track=rss.

Folksong – North Carolina

‘The River, she is flowing, flowing and growing

The River, she is flowing back to the sea.

Oh, Mother carry me – a child I will always be.

Oh, Mother carry me, back to the sea.

Back to the sea.”

The informant learned this song at a summer camp called the Green River Preserve in North Carolina. It was a song that they would sing on the bus on the way to a hiking site or sometimes in the evening around the camp fire. It was “theoretically a Native American song” though she wasn’t sure about that. She said that if her friends ask her to sing a song and she’s not warmed up she would sing this song because “it’s an easy song and it sounds nice”. She said it was “rather haunting and almost relaxing.”

I think it makes sense that this folk song was a song from a summer camp, as they are typically for children and the line, “Oh, Mother carry me – a child I will always be” is clearly relevant for children. For a young adult to be singing this song also makes sense as being college aged is this interesting time, that some refer to as emerging adulthood, where one is in a liminal stage between adulthood and childhood and this song expresses a resistance to growing up. I also think it is particularly suited to a young woman who moved across the country from North Carolina to Los Angeles to miss her home state and the land there. The East Coast actually has rivers that are not paved in concrete and so an organic notion of a river would likely remind the informant of her home, as this song clearly references as the river in it is “flowing and growing back to the sea.” The folkness of the song, in that it seems to be a song written by the people of her home state would also suggest a certain nostalgia is at play here.

Folk Song, CN