"Sleeping Mexican" proposed mural draws Texas protest
by Jim Forsyth
ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A proposed mural of a sleeping,
sombrero-topped Mexican man has created a cultural minefield in South
Texas, where supporters say it's a tribute to a classic image and
opponents say it's offensive.
The image of a man sleeping
with his back against a wall, knees against his chest and hat covering
his face, has been floated as part of a proposed mural honoring San
Antonio's first drive-in theater.
"Latinos are not asleep. We
are on the march," said Gabriel Velasquez, a former member of the
city's arts advisory board who was removed after pointing out the images
earlier this week. "We must be portrayed as awake and active and
leaders, not as being asleep at noon every day."
The effort in one of the
state's largest cities, which is more than 60 percent Hispanic,
demonstrates a growing clash in the United States between efforts to
preserve and record history and the fight against honoring racist
In San Antonio, the issue
has degenerated into allegations of racism and cultural insensitivity
over the images, which appeared on the wall of the theater when it was
built in 1947.
"You have got to be kidding me," prominent San Antonio artist
Jesse Trevino said when he was invited to submit a bid to help create
the mural. "I have been fighting this all my life by trying my best to
portray the positive images of Mexican Americans."
Also on the walls of the
original Mission Drive-In Theater was an image of a Mexican man wearing a
sombrero and leading a burro - which some artists say is outdated and
should also be ignored.
"Mexican-American children around here have never seen a burro," Velasquez said. "They don't know what a burro is."
City officials sent out the
photograph of the original theater in its request for artist proposals,
but say they haven't decided or directed anyone to paint the "Sleeping
Mexican" or the burro into the mural.
They say they are trying to
balance a 21st century sensibility with the need for historic
preservation and an accurate portrayal of historically valuable images.
But they stress that the
photograph distributed to artists is only an example, and the final
mural won't include those two images if the public doesn't want them.
"We are not articulating
what actual components of the mural need to be applied," said Felix
Padron, the city's Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs. "We will
engage the community in a dialogue to see what would be appropriate to
apply as to the content of the mural."
The two images were removed
from the building in the 1960s, around the time the Raza Chicano
movement began to build steam and protest the negative portrayal of
Padron said the image
released by the city of the original theater, which was torn down in
2008, included the two images because the city wanted to hire artists
who could recreate the art deco feel and color of the original theater.
The Mission was a landmark
for decades on the almost entirely Hispanic south side of this city,
which was once the capital of the Mexican province of Tejas y Coahuila
and still prominently touts its Mexican culture and history in tourism
The struggle to balance
history with modern day sensitivities is an increasingly difficult one,
says Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental University in
California and an expert on the evolution of images.
The so-called "Sleeping
Mexican" image was created for 1940s era travel brochures and
billboards, to promote a then-sparsely populated southwestern United
States which included ethnic groups and cultures that were foreign and
exotic to many Americans.
It was a common sight on
advertisements and roadside souvenir stands through the sixties until
changing sensitivities in the 1970s raised awareness of its unflattering
portrayal of Mexicans as being lazy.
The same issue arose
recently on an episode of Hispanic comedian George Lopez' television
show, in his neighbor had erected a "Sleeping Mexican" statue in his
Wade says it's an issue
America is dealing with more and more, from the discovery of
long-forgotten "Whites only" drinking fountains in southern buildings to
advertising that was commonplace in the days of "Mad Men," but is
"Even if the images
themselves seem historical, the stereotype that Mexicans are lazy is
still a very strong stereotype in the United States," Wade said. "It in
fact contributes to the idea that they don't work hard as immigrants."
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth, editing by Karen Brooks and Corrie MacLaggan)