SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) - A proposed mural of a sleeping, sombrero-topped Mexican man has created a cultural minefield in South Texas, where supporters say it’s a tribute to a classic image and opponents say it’s offensive.
The image of a man sleeping with his back against a wall, knees against his chest and hat covering his face, has been floated as part of a proposed mural honoring San Antonio’s first drive-in theater.
“Latinos are not asleep. We are on the march,” said Gabriel Velasquez, a former member of the city’s arts advisory board who was removed after pointing out the images earlier this week. “We must be portrayed as awake and active and leaders, not as being asleep at noon every day.”
The effort in one of the state’s largest cities, which is more than 60 percent Hispanic, demonstrates a growing clash in the United States between efforts to preserve and record history and the fight against honoring racist imagery.
In San Antonio, the issue has degenerated into allegations of racism and cultural insensitivity over the images, which appeared on the wall of the theater when it was built in 1947.
“You have got to be kidding me,” prominent San Antonio artist Jesse Trevino said when he was invited to submit a bid to help create the mural. “I have been fighting this all my life by trying my best to portray the positive images of Mexican Americans.”
Also on the walls of the original Mission Drive-In Theater was an image of a Mexican man wearing a sombrero and leading a burro - which some artists say is outdated and should also be ignored.
“Mexican-American children around here have never seen a burro,” Velasquez said. “They don’t know what a burro is.”
City officials sent out the photograph of the original theater in its request for artist proposals, but say they haven’t decided or directed anyone to paint the “Sleeping Mexican” or the burro into the mural.
They say they are trying to balance a 21st century sensibility with the need for historic preservation and an accurate portrayal of historically valuable images.
But they stress that the photograph distributed to artists is only an example, and the final mural won’t include those two images if the public doesn’t want them.
“We are not articulating what actual components of the mural need to be applied,” said Felix Padron, the city’s Director of Arts and Cultural Affairs. “We will engage the community in a dialogue to see what would be appropriate to apply as to the content of the mural.”
The two images were removed from the building in the 1960s, around the time the Raza Chicano movement began to build steam and protest the negative portrayal of Mexican Americans.
Padron said the image released by the city of the original theater, which was torn down in 2008, included the two images because the city wanted to hire artists who could recreate the art deco feel and color of the original theater.
The Mission was a landmark for decades on the almost entirely Hispanic south side of this city, which was once the capital of the Mexican province of Tejas y Coahuila and still prominently touts its Mexican culture and history in tourism promotions
The struggle to balance history with modern day sensitivities is an increasingly difficult one, says Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental University in California and an expert on the evolution of images.
The so-called “Sleeping Mexican” image was created for 1940s era travel brochures and billboards, to promote a then-sparsely populated southwestern United States which included ethnic groups and cultures that were foreign and exotic to many Americans.
It was a common sight on advertisements and roadside souvenir stands through the sixties until changing sensitivities in the 1970s raised awareness of its unflattering portrayal of Mexicans as being lazy.
The same issue arose recently on an episode of Hispanic comedian George Lopez’ television show, in his neighbor had erected a “Sleeping Mexican” statue in his yard.
Wade says it’s an issue America is dealing with more and more, from the discovery of long-forgotten “Whites only” drinking fountains in southern buildings to advertising that was commonplace in the days of “Mad Men,” but is offensive today.
“Even if the images themselves seem historical, the stereotype that Mexicans are lazy is still a very strong stereotype in the United States,” Wade said. “It in fact contributes to the idea that they don’t work hard as immigrants.”
Reporting By Jim Forsyth, Editing by Karen Brooks and Corrie MacLaggan