The Sleeping Mexican Wakes Up 

Two Tucson women seek to rehabilitate the most notorious Mexican stereotype of all

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The history of the sleeping Mexican is a saga that skips across class, cultures, commerce and borders. His body position is a motif that artists have depicted for thousands of years, in everything from African wood sculptures to the works of Michelangelo. His working-class method of dress and squat stature have existed in the American imagination since the Mexican War, when the Eastern press frequently depicted Mexico in such a sartorial fashion to distinguish him from suited, skinny Uncle Sam.

Posture and dress coalesced to manifest into flesh-and-blood sleeping Mexicans during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, the autocrat whose privatization policies forced hundreds of thousands of rural Mexicans to move to urban areas and live in poverty during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Exhausted after a day full of work or travel, all that many working-class Mexicans could do was find a wall and sleep—an image American travelogues of the day breathlessly captured for their audiences.

"The Indians living in the hills took undisturbed position at night, and groups of tired Indios wrapped themselves in their sarapes, or shawls, and stretched their tired limbs out in the cold stones; or propped themselves against the walls of a building to rest," wrote Nevin O. Winter in his 1907 book, Mexico and Her People of Today.

Commentators at the time interpreted those sleeping Mexicans not as symbols of sloth, but as indictments of the Porfiriato's cruel regime. In 1912's Barbarous Mexico: An Indictment of a Cruel and Corrupt System, author John Kenneth Turner captioned a photo of a Mexican sleeping against the wall: "A Study in Despair."

After the Mexican Revolution and the terror of Pancho Villa, however, the image became mixed with the traditional American stereotype of Mexicans as lazy, and took a life of its own removed from the original proletarian roots.

By the 1930s, when an explosion of ethnic caricatures masquerading as tchotchkes and household items hit the American market, the sleeping Mexican was just one stereotype in a parade of mammys, Chinamen, cigar-store Indians, Dutch children and other stock characters. It was during that time that some genius decided to position the sleeping Mexican against the saguaro cactus, that giant of the Sonoran Desert. Indeed, one of the earliest known versions of this Mexican was used by Tucson's El Charro Café on matchbooks during the 1930s. But the logo still mostly contained itself to the borderlands.

It didn't explode until the opening of the Southwest after World War II, when Americans had disposable income, automobiles and time to explore their country. The tourism boom convinced the region's entrepreneurs that a visual iconography was needed to sear the Southwest into the mind of Americans, and the sleeping Mexican fit their desires perfectly. It became "Photoshop before there was Photoshop," says Alvarez with a laugh, an easy reminder of the easy life in the lands that were once Mexico.

An industry took off. Artisans in Arizona and on Olvera Street in Los Angeles produced sleeping Mexicans for Americans needing a reminder of their trips to Old Mexico; jewelers in Taxco, Guerrero, produced pieces en masse for Americans vacationing there. The sleeping Mexican became so popular that a factory in Japan produced them for decades.

But as the icon spread across Anglo America as kitsch, it quickly warped into an object of ridicule, a metaphor for the underachieving Mexican-American minority who always lived in mañana. Mexican Americans didn't let such stereotypes metastasize without a fight: Protests by Chicano groups convinced Taco Bell to drop their sleeping Mexican logo. One activist even complained to the National Advertising Review Board—the American advertising industry's self-regulatory body—in 1974, when The New York Times depicted a sleeping Mexican on a donkey with the phrase "mañana y mañana" to promote an art show. To good, conscious people, as an article in the Chicano magazine La Raza put it in 1970, Pancho was "a lazy ne'er-do-well, a Stepin Fetchit with a Spanish accent."

Meanwhile, the production of the sleeping Mexican continued. "It infantilized the Mexican," Alvarez says. "You can disavow that you have any racist thoughts by saying you simply think it's a cute image."

As the decades wore on, Chicano artists began to try to reappropriate the sleeping Mexican. In 1993, Judy Baca released her Pancho Trinity, in which she painted 3-foot-high plaster figures with powerful images lionizing el movimiento. While Mexican intellectual giant Carlos Fuentes decried Pancho as an embarrassing cliché embraced by Chicanos in his 1996 collection La Frontera de Cristal (The Crystal Frontier), author Miguel Méndez celebrated Pancho in his 1991 novela Peregrinos de Aztlán (Pilgrims of Aztlán), calling him the "champion of the fields" who was taking a much-deserved rest.

It was around this time that Alvarez discovered the image.

Alvarez is a Cuban by birth who grew up in Puerto Rico before her parents sent her to live with an aunt in Long Beach, Calif., in 1980, because it "seemed like a really safe place to hide from communism." Bucking the stereotype of the conservative Cuban exile, Alvarez gravitated toward the radical politics of the Chicano movement, focusing specifically on the arts. She earned a master's degree in political theory from Long Beach State, then a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona, focusing on the material culture of northern Mexico. She then helped found MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an art space in San Jose, Calif., dedicated to exploring off-topic, frequently taboo subjects.

In 1996, Alvarez accepted an offer from the UA to run its folklore department. Her doctorate had focused on craftsmen in the borderlands who worked with plaster to create statues and coin banks, of which the sleeping Mexican was by far their best-seller.

"My first reaction to the image was influenced by my education. What I learned really quickly is that your social standing shapes the lenses from where you see the images," Alvarez says. "I saw it as a stereotype, an offensive stereotype that the gringos used to put Mexicans in their place."

But when she asked the workers about the image, their reaction shocked the professor.

"They'd tell me, 'You see a stereotype in that? What sick mind would see that? How perverted is the gringo mind to think anything bad of it?'"

The workers would explain that the man they called Pancho was a hard-working mexicano who was resting, because he got up really early for a long, noble day of work. As Alvarez interviewed Mexicans in Arizona and California who owned the image, she became intrigued by Pancho's dual identity.

"On one hand, politically conscious Chicanos got really, really mad about it—they go nuts when they see the sleeping Mexican," Alvarez says. "But here in the border, in the barrios, people use the image for decoration in their front yards as a symbol of home. And that's fine. One statement is not invalidated by the other statement."

Over the next decade, Alvarez investigated the origins of the sleeping Mexican, interviewing artists who created it as art or as commerce, and presented her findings in academic papers and symposiums. She also amassed her own modest collection of the image.

One day, she received an email from Jill Janis, a professional organizer and learning/behavioral specialist.

"Jill emails me, saying she found me online, and noticed I studied the sleeping Mexican," Alvarez recalls. "She said she collected sleeping Mexicans, and (asked) if I would like to see (the collection), and that she also lived in Tucson."

Alvarez drove a short distance to Janis' house—and found treasures she could've never imagined.

More by Gustavo Arellano

  • Ask a Mexican

    Dear Mexican: Why is it in their nature for Mexicans to steal?
    • Oct 20, 2016
  • Ask a Mexican!

    Dear Pocho: You don't want your balls too big in Mexico
    • Oct 13, 2016
  • Ask a Mexican

    Dear Viejito Gabacho: Since when has a harp not been "conventional"?
    • Oct 6, 2016
  • More »

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