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The Sleeping Mexican Wakes Up 

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

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"It's so much fun to talk to someone interested in this subject," Janis says with a laugh.

She owns what may be the world's largest collection of sleeping Mexican icons. The figure is in almost every medium imaginable: statues, clothing and pillows. Kitchen items, bookends and sterling silver jewelry. Cufflinks and belt buckles. An entire bedroom set from the 1940s, with the sleeping Mexican painted on a double-bed frame, a chest, drawers, a vanity stool, a mirror and a side table. Drinking glasses, pencils and menus. A scrapbook is filled with photos of items Janis couldn't "beg or borrow or steal" from their owner. She estimates the collection has more than 2,000 pieces, neatly boxed in a shed in her backyard and separated by category. It's not open to the public.

"The sign of a true collector," Janis explains. "They don't even have to display it; they just own it."

Janis had never seen the sleeping Mexican before moving to Tucson in 1978; before that, she was "a big-city girl," with stints in New York, London and Paris. "I had heard of a friend who collected sleeping Mexicans, but I had never seen them," she says. "Once I moved here, I just started seeing them, and then I started buying them, because I spend a lot of time in thrift stores. I knew (the sleeping Mexican) was controversial, but I was just so fascinated by how many iterations there were of this one little figure.

"And it was such a funky little image that I wanted to collect it," she continues. "Once I had it in my mind that I was collecting, I like to do things really, really well.

Her friends and family thought Janis was "a little nutty," but they became scouts, finding images across the world. Janis scoured thrift stores and swap meets in the early days, and switched to eBay and Craigslist in the Internet age—even eventually finding the sleeping Mexican in London, a catch that just "floored" her.

"He's spread all around the world as a symbol of various things—he's a symbol of good and bad," she says. "(Some) people are ignorant and racist, probably. ... A lot of depictions are not flattering—they make the Mexican look drunk or stupid."

Nevertheless, the icon doesn't bother Janis, who chooses to hew to an interpretation much like Alvarez's interpretation.

"I'm aware I'm not a Mexican, and I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but it's a choice," she says. "I choose not to interpret (the icon) in the negative way, and I'll pick the happier way. That would be someone who had to get up really early in the morning, and got tired midday, and was going to go back to working really hard in the afternoon. It's someone taking a well-deserved rest—a hard worker. Just the opposite of the stereotype."

Although she's not aware of many serious collectors of her obsession ("People say they have a collection," she cracks, "and they have five!"), the price of sleeping Mexicans has risen significantly in the past decade, thanks to a nationwide boom in kitsch and vintage items. She's now collaborating with Alvarez and a photographer to take pictures of her collection, with the hope of creating a book that would rival Jimenez's contribution, which she found "valuable, but crude."

"Jill is extraordinary," Alvarez enthuses. "She has pieces that I've only seen in books. In the 15 years I've been studying this, hers is the definitive collection. She's a thoughtful and critical collector. She represents the type of person who loves the Southwest and loves Mexicans and the land. It would be difficult for me to deal with her if she was just Pollyanna-ish about the subject, but she's not."

The book will eventually be the only memento Janis will keep of her collection, as she's seeking to sell it in its entirety.

"I want to sell it to someone who's really going to appreciate it," she says, declining to name an asking price just yet. "It's really been a labor of love for the last 34 years. ... It deserves to be shown, to be seen. It should stay together."

She repeats the last sentence. "It has so much of an impact all together."

And Janis wants the sleeping Mexican shown, specifically because of the political controversies that have affected Arizona—and Tucson in particular—over the past couple of years.

"I think that this time right now is perfect for us to be talking about him because of the immigration issues and the cutting of Mexican-American studies," she says. "The wall and all that crap. You can show people this image and say, 'Look, people have been putting us down with this guy. Let's get real about it and recognize what we're up against.' He's not a bad image, but that's Arizona for you: We can take anything that's really nice, and make it really, really bad."

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