Sunday, April 15, 2012

Being Mexican, Mexican-American, or Chicano on Cesar Chavez Day in Chico Part 1

Unfortunately I wasn't able to post anything for Cesar Chavez Day like I had intended to do. I wasn't interested in posting a homage or brief history on Cesar Chavez the person, but I wanted to discuss  Cesar Chavez the day because it has become such a hot button topic . . . well mainly at CSU, Chico. If you don't know the controversy between the day and Chico State students, there isn't much to know other than  the university continues to try to live up to its party school reputation by binge drinking that day, but la patada in los patalones is that many of the students "dress up Mexican."

I don't think you need to use your imagination very much to figure out what dressing up Mexican looks like. Yes, a lot of oversized sombreros and equally oversized mustaches. And actually a lot of t-shirts screen printed by many of the local Greek orgs that they sell with catchy logos like "Viva Cesar,"and "Boycott Sobriety." That or they'll wear something with the Mexican flag on it, or the traditional green, red, and white to show their national pride. I remember one year seeing a girl wear a shirt that said "Cesar Chavez Graped Me," this was a week after the actual day of celebration. That shirt almost got her kicked out of a party she was attending.

For a long time I'd been wanting to post on Cesar Chavez Day, but I was biding my time until the day rolled around, and fortunately a friend sent me a link that addressed the issue from an opposing point of view. The link (attached at the bottom) is from an op-ed piece written by a Lucas Meek, where he tries to make the same old argument that I've heard many a times about how nobody gets offended on Saint Patrick's Day when people walk around dressed in green, wearing shirts that say "Kiss Me I'm Irish," or dressed as leprechauns, but people get upset about the costume ball that occurs on Cesar Chavez Day. Honestly when I hear people make that argument, I associate it with white guilt. They want to justify the disrespect not only toward Chavez but toward a Mexicans, and when they're called racists for doing so, all of sudden their voice starts to crack and they want to bring up Saint Patrick's day like Meek.

Since I can remember being a student at Xico State, the day was a day of racist ridicule toward Mexicans. My first encounter with this overt racism was driving down a street near campus, where at a corner house, I arrived at a stop light and I heard the a song blaring "What's a matter? What you say?" I know I've heard that song before, I'm not sure if I got the lyrics correct, but its basically being sung by someone with a heavy Hispanic/Latino accent. Aside from the song, there was a drunk white college student standing on his porch wearing a robe, drinking piss water (Bud Light), and singing along to the lyrics. He was pointing to cars as they drove by or stopped at the light. I was unfortunate enough to have to sit through about a minute of his rendition.

Not long after, around Spring of 2004, a local bar, Normal Street Bar, decided to commemorate not Chavez, but the day by having drink specials, which they advertised in a local publication and through the radio (don't know how to insert an mp3 clip). The image you see above is the actual advertisement used, needless to say people were offended. The image had been used before, but I think that many people on campus from the Mexican-American community finally had been talking with each other plenty, and decided enough is enough, at which point they mounted a protest against Normal Street Bar. The artist of the drawing never considered what he did in poor taste, he felt that what he'd done was just his job, which was to advertise the drink specials in relation to the day, and this could only be portrayed by a Bandido Dude and a Sexy SeƱorita in an apple orchard (notice she's climbing the ladder to pick apples). I'm not sure, but I'm guessing Normal Street still has the specials on that day, I'm not sure about the advertisement, but it'd be interesting to find out. Normal Street doing this really sucked, due to the ignorance, but also due to the fact that me and a couple of friends really enjoyed drinking there. To this day we're still boycotting the bar, we haven't set foot in that bar since that pedo began. Others have shrugged their shoulders and have walked back in (with reservations I'm sure).

Finally in 2008/2009 a friend of mine who happened to converse with Xico State President, Paul Zingg, told me that he had a heated conversation with the Prez over the Chavez Day issue. Zingg was basically put on the spot when my friend related the students dress up as Mexicans similar to the minstrels of the past (white actors using black face to portray African-Americans) and was asked "what are you going to do about it?" Zingg's response at first was that he couldn't really be held accountable for the student population's ignorance. Yet he made sure to hold all Greek orgs accountable for irresponsible behavior. Eventually Zingg left it in the hands of my friend, and told him that if he organized something he would show his support publicly. At which point my friend (a "Latino Greek") took up the reins and organized other students from various organization and worked with Xicano Studies and other faculty and students to organize a campaign against the ignorance. They created a poster featuring an image of Chavez, and the slogan underneath read (if I remember correctly) "Cesar Chavez: A Real American Hero." They presented papers on the topic of Cesar Chavez Day and the controversy occurring all around them. Not only that but they managed to organize a marcha. President Zingg kept his word as well.

Meek addresses this, by showing the memo sent to the student body: "The idea that Cesar Chavez Day should be regarded as a party day, to be compared, as some did, to St. Patrick's Celebrations, is at the very least disrespectful to the legacy of Cesar Chavez."

What was the most important of all of this was that the students organized against a common enemy, the apathy of the general student body, and in doing so held Zingg and the rest of the student population accountable for creating and continuing to uphold a hostile environment. However by responding through organizing and disrupting the festivities they also finally held themselves accountable, by not allowing it to continue. My friend feels that what they did had an impact, because according to him, he noticed that the following year, he noticed a drop off mainly in the costumes and t-shirts. Which is a triumph in and of itself, because it shows that it possibly touched the conscience of some of those students.

As it is this post is long enough, I wanted to give some history on the Cesar Chavez Day and CSU, Chico controversy, before I address the op-ed piece further.

Sombreros, mustaches, acceptable on Chavez

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