Yesterday, I read Christian Zhang’s piece (“Facebook photos show Kappa Alpha Theta members dressed like Mexicans, other nationalities,” Feb. 23) in Spectator about a group of sorority girls who dressed up as Mexicans and other nationalities for an Olympics-themed mixer.
Students who saw the article immediately pounced on the way the “Mexican team” had represented its chosen national group. Donning large sombreros and fake mustaches (with a couple of maracas), they wore the stereotypical traditional garb of Mexicans of yore.
It is a costume 100 years out of date, and one that many take offense to. The sun-yellowed straw and plain white shirt evoke the Mexican countryside as much as they evoke abject poverty. It is the garb of the Mexican peasant, the proletariat, and the unwashed, voiceless masses whose assumed backwardness and simplicity set them up for easy ridicule. The image is understood as a hindrance to many Latinos, Mexican or not, who strive to better themselves and struggle to be taken seriously.
It is also a piece of Mexican history, one that is not wholly—or for many, even partially—disowned by the Mexican populace. Vicente Fernández, nicknamed “el Rey de la Canción Ranchera,” still wears a highly decorated version of this garb to his shows: a black hat and suit with red or gold adornments. Mexico’s sole participant at the Sochi Olympics, Hubertus von Hohenlohe, wore a skiing suit that resembled a traditional mariachi outfit, too. He may have crashed out of the event, but his choice of outfit—however loud—was selected with affection, love, and pride.
This is why when I, a born and raised Mexican from Monterrey, Nuevo León, saw those sorority girls wearing sombreros and mustaches—however casually—I failed to be offended. Instead, I got angry about something else and directed my energy toward a different group.
I’m unsure what to call them as a group: the “culturally sensitive,” the American social left, or as Ryan Elivo termed them in his op-ed on Monday (“Reflexive PC-ness is problem for Theta, Chad Washington,” Feb. 24), the Political Correctness Police. Take your pick.
Columbians are part of a generation that is thankfully not nearly as racist, essentialist, and nationalist as the ones that came before it. We tend to err on the side of what in America is understood as the leftist position on social matters. We try to make sure that we don’t tear apart the tenuous fabric of what is a diverse society. However, this sensitivity can often become a form of condescending behavior.
Consider, for a moment, what may run through my mind when I see people all up in arms about a costume that I am capable of looking at with some degree of affection. Am I meant to be embarrassed by a sombrero? From my perspective, disowning the costume is disowning my history—a form of self-hate. To have a trove of (mostly) Americans insist the costume is fundamentally offensive seems to me a hilariously ignorant intrusion.
However, I do not speak for all Mexicans. So I’ll skip through the rest of my opinions on the costume itself and get to what’s not merely bothersome but truly dangerous about Columbians’ affectations when it comes to cultural sensitivity: They often become a farce, a way to tell ourselves we’re good people when there are forms of social injustice that are far more insidious than reductive costumes that persist.
An obvious, belabored example: the Mexican drug war. Most of the people I know here have habitually smoked or tried marijuana. Sure, not all of it comes from Mexico, but I’d be particularly impressed if you knew how your bud got here in the same way you track UPS shipments. What about the coke some take during finals week or I-banking internships to stay awake? They indirectly feed a machine that makes it that much more probable that someone in my family, still living in Mexico, will be skinned alive tomorrow, cut up into itty-bitty pieces, and thrown on the side of the road. Maybe by accident. Sometimes they kidnap the wrong people who just kind of look like the person who didn’t pay up whatever he needed to pay up. It is common to the point where I am completely comfortable being crass about it.
But most Columbians are not concerned with this. Instead, our set of priorities dictate that we zero in on a small group of sorority girls.
I see people far more concerned with how they see themselves than what good or ill they inflict on the world. A lack of cultural sensitivity is understood, on the face of it, as a human problem, but in practice, it seems as though it’s internalized as merely an aesthetic asymmetry waiting to be corrected, satisfied. When I see people up in arms about costumes, I know I’m not a person to any of them.
But hey, we’re still good people. Right?
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in mathematics and economics.
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