'Sleeping Mexican' dusted off for exhibit

A racist stereotype to some, a symbol of hard work to others
2012-06-17T00:00:00Z 2014-08-05T10:47:15Z 'Sleeping Mexican' dusted off for exhibitCarol Ann Alaimo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 17, 2012 12:00 am  • 

For decades, a sombreroed peasant named Pancho has been sleeping against a saguaro, seemingly unaware of any controversy over whether he's a racist stereotype.

Now, he's opening eyes -and minds - at Tucson's main library.

This month, the downtown library is showcasing images of the so-called Sleeping Mexican, depicted on countless kitschy souvenirs and motel and restaurant signs.

To some, he's as politically incorrect as a black-skinned lawn jockey, a stinging insinuation that Mexicans are lazy.

Others see Pancho in the opposite light, as a tribute to manual laborers who work themselves to exhaustion, then catnap so they can get up and work some more.

Library officials almost didn't allow the Sleeping Mexican exhibit, fearing some visitors would be offended, said the owner of the items on display.

"They thought it would be too controversial," but later reconsidered, said Jill Janis of Tucson, who's been collecting the figure since the 1970s.

The library's new director, Melinda Cervantes, said the display was approved before she started the top job. She said it seems there was an internal review, during which the library briefly removed information about the Sleeping Mexican exhibit from its website.

Janis, a professional organizer, owns about 1,300 items bearing the image, likely one of the world's largest collections.

Her stash includes furniture, jewelry, clocks, clothing, candle holders, ashtrays, bookends, dinnerware, wall tiles, wind chimes and an array of salt-and-pepper shakers.

Many are thrift-store or yard-sale finds from the U.S. and Europe. Others were obtained online or at auction, like the vintage 1940s bed Janis sleeps on, which has a Sleeping Mexican on the headboard.

About 160 of her pieces are on loan to the library, arranged in glass display cases inside the front door.

"No matter what you think of this widespread, controversial image - reviled and beloved - you'll be impressed by all the different kinds of objects that were decorated with it," the library website now says.

Janis said she started collecting because she was charmed by the image and its ubiquity. Only later did she realize it rubbed some people the wrong way.

"I have a couple gorgeous silver pins and as many compliments as I get, I've also had people tell me they're offended," she said.

Maybe that's because not all Sleeping Mexicans are created equal. A few Janis has come across have been modified in ways that make her cringe.

"They are not all innocent little guys. Some are showing flat-out drunks, where someone has taken the image and made it seem very negative."

Tucson has become a ground zero of sorts in the debate over the figure's meaning.

Besides being home to Janis' collection, it's also home to one of the world's few experts on the image's history and symbolism.

Maribel Alvarez, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Arizona who specializes in folklore and culture of the Southwest, has been researching the Sleeping Mexican for 10 years. She and Janis recently became acquainted, and are collaborating on several projects, including a coffee table book and a traveling exhibit.

Alvarez said the first references to the Sleeping Mexican are found in travelogues from the late 1800s, written by Americans who visited Mexico and observed indigenous laborers at rest.

Later, as auto travel grew and U.S vacationers had more access to border areas, the image took hold on tourist souvenirs, motel signs, and eateries offering Mexican food.

"It's interesting to see how people assign different meanings to it that are so opposite, so much at odds," Alvarez said.

Some find it deeply upsetting, she said, citing the example of a 2007 TV show starring comedian George Lopez, who was outraged when a Sleeping Mexican statue appeared on a white neighbor's lawn.

Conversely, those who see the image as an homage to hard work roll their eyes if anyone suggests it's a sign of laziness, Alvarez said,

"They think that is sick, as if to say 'Don't they know Mexicanos are very hardworking people?' "

At the library one recent morning, the Sleeping Mexican exhibit drew curious gazes from patrons, but no one seemed offended.

"I don't know how other people see it, but I see it as a Mexican stopping to take a rest after a hard day's work," said Melissa Angulo, 24, a bright-eyed blonde. "I've never thought about it in a negative way. Not at all."

Alvarez said the image's meaning continues to evolve.

Some Chicano artists and activists are giving the Sleeping Mexican a cultural makeover - for example, by showing him reading, rather than sleeping, in the shade of his hat.

"I don't think there's a right way or a wrong way to view him," she said of Pancho, who's said to be named after Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

"To assume it's one-dimensional, all good or all bad, nothing in culture is like that."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

If you go

• What: Collection of Sleeping Mexicans

• Where: Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave.

• When: Daily until June 30. For library hours, call 594-5500.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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