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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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In 2007, The George Lopez Show filmed an episode titled "George Can't Let Sleeping Mexicans Lie." In it, a white neighbor puts a sleeping-Mexican statue on his front lawn, infuriating the upwardly mobile Lopez and his family.

"That is just like white people—you know, to take a whole group and say they're all the same," a character comments. Lopez and his family debate what to do about it—confront the neighbor? Call code enforcement? "If you don't deal with this kind of stuff right away," he remarks, "it spreads."

Eventually, someone smashes the statue, angering the white neighbor. "Maybe the statue woke up, realized it was a racist lawn ornament, and smashed itself," Lopez cracked. It's revealed that Lopez's mother smashed it, and that his son smashed replacement statues. Lopez gently scolds his son about the vandalism and suggests that to help la causa, he get an education—and that was that.

"It's not even a funny episode," Alvarez sighs. "And it's really revealing about how it's affecting communities."

The sleeping Mexican continues to infuriate. In March, a proposal to paint one as part of a mural in San Antonio sparked a civic uproar. "Latinos are not asleep. We are on the march," a former member of the city's arts-advisory board told the press. "We must be portrayed as awake and active and leaders, not as being asleep at noon every day."

"You have got to be kidding me," artist Jesse Trevino added. "I have been fighting this all my life by trying my best to portray the positive images of Mexican Americans."

Alvarez is disappointed by such reactions.

"We need to make our peace with it," she says. "It's interesting how anger can be paralyzing. We need to take back the stigma. Once we own it, you take the sting out of it. This is the same process that has happened with the LGBT community and 'queer.' We need to resignify it."

She points to a recent effort by members of MEChA at Pueblo High School that turns the image on its head. They've printed T-shirts with two side-by-side images of the sleeping Mexican. The first shows the stereotype at its clichéd best; next to it, the Mexican has lifted his head.

It turns out he's been reading a book all these decades.

"How brilliant!" she says. "Those students—they get it. They know their history. They know what Pancho has meant, and what he really means. They refuse to let gringos tell them what our signs mean to us."

More by Gustavo Arellano

  • Ask a Mexican!

    Dear Mexican: What's up with pochos and their disrespect for their origins?
    • Dec 1, 2016
  • Ask a Mexican!

    Dear Mexican: We have Mexican teenagers here in my apartment building who are chronic troublemakers
    • Nov 24, 2016
  • Ask a Mexican!

    Dear Mexican: Math problem: If there are 20 Mexicans, 20 Indians, 20 Chinese, 20 Puerto Ricans, 20 Blacks, and one white person on a room, then how many people are there in the room who's identity is used as a benchmark to establish the identities of the rest of the people in the room? (Hint: not a colored person.)
    • Nov 17, 2016
  • More »

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