Why sombreros hurt: how cultural appropriation harms all students

Jaime Serrato Marks, Contributing Writer

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On Feb. 20, a birthday party at Bowdoin College led to campus-wide tension and the impeachment of two members of student government. That is because this particular party was a tequila-themed “fiesta.” Or, as the email invitation put it, “we’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that 🙂 .”

The students who threw the party were mysterious about the party’s theme because there had been two racially themed parties in the past two years: a Thanksgiving party with Native American costumes and a “gangster” party in which White students adorned themselves with baggy clothes, hair braided in cornrows and bucket hats. Additionally, all hard alcohol is banned on campus, and thus a tequila-themed party would not be tolerated by the administration.

At this tequila party, students were photographed wearing mustaches and sombreros. As pictures circulated on social media, many students were offended by the representation of Mexican stereotypes. Two of the students at the party were on Bowdoin Student Government, and are in the process of impeachment because they, along with the rest of the student government, signed a statement of solidarity with people of color last semester after the “gangster” party.

Many White students at Bowdoin have been posting on Yik Yak, a social media site with anonymous posts, to complain about politically correct culture and what they perceive as an affront to their freedom of speech.

In Brookline, I have heard many similar complaints about sensitivity to racial statements and politically correct behavior. In many ways I see Bowdoin and Brookline High as similar, and I worry that Brookline will soon face even more controversy as Bowdoin has. Both are Northeastern schools with a primarily White student body of about 1,800. For this reason, I would like to explain why sombreros hurt.

Sombreros cater to those who have a warped impression of Mexico. Maybe that comes from Cancun or Speedy Gonzalez. Maybe it comes from jokes. Regardless of the source, Mexicans are made out to be mascots.

Sombreros spread a stereotypical portrayal of Latinos. Many students, including myself, work so hard to break stereotypes because their pervasiveness diminishes our individuality. The resurgence of stereotypes reminds those they target of their own limitations in the eyes of others.

When I hear about another “fiesta,” I feel as if my first impression upon strangers is that of a dressed-down mariachi. There are 55 million Latinos in the United States, and thus there are 55 million ways to be Latino, yet people cling to sombreros and facial hair as the only representations of my culture.

Sombreros may be only slightly insensitive, but they are compounded with each time I have felt uncomfortable due to my race. They remind me of all the times I have been called a spic, beaner or wetback. They remind me of every time I have taken off my hood or hat when walking by a police officer, and every time I have been offended and said nothing. They remind me that at any given institution, there will be some who believe I attend because of affirmative action — just listen to complaints about SWS or college admissions.

There are many people who hope for equality of all peoples, yet believe political correctness is too stifling, or perhaps support the Black Lives Matter movement, but not their actions. In response, I draw from the late Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote that the most imposing obstacle to civil rights is the White moderate who agrees with the goals of the movement, but not the methods of action.

For this reason, I hope that you dress yourself and address others appropriately. There is a difference between calling someone “colored” and a person of color. There is a difference between she and they, Hispanic and Latino, sombreros and top hats. Choose wisely.