Mexicana: The case for sombreros and tequila
By Sean Ayres
Here we go again: it’s that time of the semester. I’m a third year and every year without fail the University Guild Tavern runs ‘Mexicana’, a monumental piss up with tequila and sombreros. In the same vein, every year without fail, the same angry backlash appears against what is seen as a racist cultural appropriation of Mexicans by the Murdoch Guild of Students. Apocalyptic rage ensues on every Facebook post associated with the event.
Before we launch into a tirade against either side at the mere mention of Mexicana, let’s look at exactly what the event is. The Tav is promoting specials on Mexican food and tequila, as well as previously encouraging students to go in sombreros. Before changing the event on Facebook, students were encouraged to get their faces painted in ‘Day of the Dead’ style. The Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a festival celebrated throughout Mexico from October 31 to November 2, coinciding roughly with Halloween. The festival is of mixed Christian and Aztec origin and involves celebrations, a traditional face paint style, and prayer for deceased love ones.
So what is the issue with the event? The opposition claim the event is racist to Mexican people and is a form of 'cultural appropriation'; the use of cultural elements that are used in a way that can be oppressive, insulting and demeaning to members of the particular culture. Perhaps there can be a case for face paint in the Day of the Dead style to be trivialising a religious practice considering it’s not even near October yet. But that’s not really what this issue is about is it?
The backlash against Mexicana isn’t nuanced debate on religious ceremonies and legitimate cultural concerns. The backlash against Mexicana is a backlash against wearing sombreros and drinking tequila. The backlash is against the very idea of country themed parties. I fail to see how the argument can be made that white people in sombreros drinking tequila is inherently racist. Racism is about discrimination, degradation and prejudice of other ethnicities. Is an Akubra hat and a VB racist to Australians? Are Irish parties with Guinness and green clothes damaging and offensive to any Irish students? They were colonised too, with religious strife and racial tensions in recent memory. To call the idea of wearing sombreros and drinking tequila a racist act is a stark contrast to the pursuit of equal rights by people of colour in the 20th century.
I understand the stereotype argument, I really do. It’s unhelpful and degrading for people to be wandering around making racist jokes about Mexican people or pretending to be the classic seedy Mexican villain from an old Western movie. I’m happy to have an open, thoughtful and reasoned discussion with anyone around whether Mexicana is insensitive. I’m not sure the response in calling out critics as virtue signallers and white allies is helpful, even if it is an understandable reaction to the personal hate levelled towards Guild committee members. Issues, rather than the people that bring them, should always be the focus of debate. But when sombreros and tequila are conflated with the slippery slope to hate crime and lynching… you’re being ridiculous.
Sombreros are a hat, an article of clothing. This isn’t a Native American war bonnet being worn by a white girl off her mind on MDMA at Coachella. This is a university student wearing a hat originating from Mexico and drinking Mexico’s delicious alcoholic beverages. You’ll be hard pressed to find an Australian offended by an American wearing an Akubra, drinking some sweet Swanny D and claiming that isn’t a knife.
Mexicana isn’t offensive just because you say it is. When you narrow down and look at the issue, it’s littered with complicated, often controversial, basis to the arguments. Colonialism, the modern context around America and Trump (despite the fact this isn’t America and our main connection is being white English speakers) and the different standards around racial groups and cultural appropriation are not cut and dry issues. You can’t just take your personal progressive view on an issue and use it to force the Guild into abandoning popular and fun events.
Keep posting on the Mexicana event on Facebook if that’s what you want to do, but here’s what I think is a reasonable reaction. It’s probably not appropriate to wear Day of the Dead face paint whenever the fancy strikes you, so it’s sensible to change the event. In the meantime, I’m ignoring the anti-sombrero and tequila trolls on Facebook, and I’m off to Mexicana next Thursday without any face paint on. I’m going to have a fantastic time and drink a very responsible amount of tequila.
Cheers to that.