Last Thursday, I logged on to Facebook and saw a post that knocked me in the gut. It was an op-ed about a new Mexican restaurant in Amarillo named Big Beaners; the word “beaner” is a racial slur with a long and ugly history. The restaurant’s red-and-green sign also features a cartoonish kidney-bean mascot, complete with a handlebar mustache, sombrero, and pointy cowboy boots. Together, the name and logo have all the trappings of debasing caricature that has long stereotyped Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and their food—from the term “wetback” to the infamous “sleeping Mexican” image once used by Taco Bell and other restaurants

The news had already caused a ruckus on Reddit, where some presumably Mexican American users wrote that the name didn’t offend them, while others called it “very racist” and marveled, “This can’t be real.” In the op-ed I’d seen on Facebook, Amarillo radio deejay Danny Wright wrote that he initially assumed the name was a joke. He asked, “Would you accept a store that sold swimsuits called Wetbacks? I think not.” Wright was referring to another demeaning term, one first used in print in 1920 by the New York Times. It was also used in the name for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s mid-fifties mass deportation of Mexicans, Operation Wetback.

Over the weekend, as people across the nation protested the death of yet another unarmed black man in police custody, things intensified. A Change.org petition calling for restaurant owner Jesse Quackenbush to change the name and logo popped up; as of this writing, about 6,700 people had signed. Someone also broke windows at the restaurant, according to a Facebook post by Quackenbush, who told Texas Monthly that the restaurant is set to open on June 19.

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To understand the controversy, it’s worth taking a step back and learning about the history of “beaner.” The pejorative derives from the millennia-long importance of beans to the Mexican diet. While from the white American perspective beans are often seen as a poverty food, they’re high in nutrition and are eaten by cultures across the globe. Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, traces “beaner” back to a 1965 story in the Detroit Free Press. I also found an early instance of the word in a 1979 Fort Worth Star-Telegram story, which acknowledged that it was in usage at the time: “Now … the brown-skinned people are ‘conks’ or ‘beaners’ or aliens.” A 1985 AP article in the Tyler, Texas, Courier-Times mentioned Beaner, an epileptic pet bobcat from Mexico. Over the decades, though, the term fell out of favor.

Frankly, if you call Mexicans a beaner, you’re a seventy-year-old racist at this point,” Arellano said. “Now they just call you ‘illegal’ or an ‘illegal alien.’” Unfortunately, “beaner” has made a comeback. In 2018, a man named Pedro visited a Los Angeles–area Starbucks. His coffees arrived with the word “beaner” written on both cups. (Starbucks, which was already planning employee-bias training due to an unrelated incident, apologized.) And in January of last year, the New York Times used “beaner” as an answer in its crossword (the question was about baseball). The paper later ran an apology.

For Omar Lopez, who grew up in the Panhandle town of Wheeler and now lives in Amarillo, “beaner” calls to mind painful memories from junior high and high school. “It is a term that me and other Mexicans around my school would get called by some racist white people [when] we got into arguments or [when] they wanted to be edgy. Same with ‘wetback,’” says Lopez, who is the administrator for the Amarillo Progressives Facebook group. The page members are currently compiling a list of Latino-owned businesses Amarillo residents can support.

Big Beaners owner Jesse Quackenbush defended his choice of name and logo in a Facebook screed, noting that he’d gotten some complaints. “I have no intention of changing the name or cowering to pressure from these troublemakers, most of whom are not even Hispanic,” Quackenbush wrote. He added that he’d gotten a call from Abel Bosquez, president of the Amarillo chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), urging him to change the name. Quackenbush also said that Bosquez name-dropped LULAC and the Amarillo Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “He had no intentions of listening or understanding, so I cut the conversation short by advising him and his alleged complainers to ‘f— off and go to Starbucks!’” Quackenbush wrote, adding, “Able [sic] Bosquez is nothing more than a self-serving, wannabe politician with the common sense of a shit fly.”

When we spoke by phone later that day, Quackenbush said that he’d “probably treated Abel Bosquez a bit curtly and unprofessionally. … He called me. And the tone that he had to me, I felt was intimidating and strong-armed. And I didn’t appreciate it.”

Bosquez tells a slightly different tale. The two did speak by telephone, he said. Bosquez did mention the complaints, explained how the sign and name of the restaurant were hurtful, and inquired if Quackenbush could change the name and logo. However, he says he didn’t mention LULAC or the Hispanic Chamber. “[Quackenbush] went off the deep end,” said the Latino community leader. “And then he hung up on me.” Bosquez told Texas Monthly that he heard the epithet “beaner” often during his youth in the Panhandle in the sixties. “His name and sign are derogatory and racist,” Bosquez said. “There were other names [Quackenbush] could have used. … That logo is making fun of Mexican culture.”

On Friday, the Hispanic Chamber released a statement declining to take sides in the dispute. “The AHCC is a business organization and not a civil rights organization,” wrote executive director Ruby Moreno.

The entire controversy had caught him by surprise, Quackenbush said. “I never expected this was going to blow up like this,” he said. His business will be focused on specialty beans, he said. “I guess I could have called it Big Beanery. … We’re serving Mexican food in Texas, and that’s the reason for the cowboy boots [in the logo].” 

So why not call the restaurant Big Beanery, I asked? “I like Big Beaners,” Quackenbush said. “That’s the name of our corporation—we’ve spent money branding this. Would that have been as offensive as well? Anything with the word ‘bean’ in it is off-limits in America now?”

The complaints he’s seeing online, he continued, are primarily from non-Latinos. “Texas Mexican Americans, at least not in this community … They’re not offended by this. They think it’s a cool name. Is my intent to send a racist message? Absolutely not,” he continued. “I would never do anything purposely to try to offend someone because of their heritage, their culture. … I love Hispanic culture. I have a house in Costa Rica.” He later pointed out via email that at least one other restaurant has a similar name: Beaner’s Mexican BBQ in Hebron, Illinois.

Of the several Amarillo Mexican restaurants I called and the managers and owners with whom I spoke, most said they’d never heard of Big Beaners. Only one would go on the record. “Oh. I don’t think that’s a term of endearment,” said Mary Martinez, owner of 35-year-old La Frontera, a small adobe mission-style restaurant. “That’s not very nice.” Nevertheless, she wants to give the owner the benefit of the doubt. “I’m sure they don’t mean it that way—I don’t know—but it doesn’t come across as nice,” she said.

I asked Quackenbush if he’s considering changing the name. “I’m not backing off my position with this,” he said. It’s too late, he explained—he’s already ordered coffee cups and other merchandise with the logo.