In the mid-1990s, Maribel Alvarez embarked on a pilgrimage to a bookstore in Whittier, Calif., hoping to meet the biggest heretic in Mexican culture since Santa Anna.
The bookstore's owner, Charles Phillip Jimenez, was an amateur historian from the nearby city of El Monte who had self-published a booklet in 1990 that attempted to do the unthinkable: put a positive spin on one of the most notorious caricatures in American racism—the sleeping Mexican.
After existing for decades across the American Southwest and spreading across the world by the end of the 20th century, the icon—a sitting man dressed as a Mexican peasant in huaraches, a sarape and pantaloons, with a sash as a belt and a massive sombrero that hides his face, usually reclining against a saguaro cactus—was loathed. Americans used the image again and again as shorthand to ridicule Mexicans, angering Chicano activists who had borne the brunt of his sting for far too long.
But Jimenez didn't subscribe to victimhood. He had amassed more than 500 examples of the sleeping Mexican, from salt-and-pepper shakers to tiles, planters to bottles, paintings to trays, and nearly everything else imaginable. After years of what he described as "joyous study," Jimenez concluded that the American public had it wrong: The Mexican isn't sleeping because he's lazy; he's sleeping from exhaustion, from working so hard. Thus, the Chicanos were also wrong: The sleeping Mexican shouldn't be an object of shame, but of pride.
"The association of laziness to the siesta design is a misrepresentation of the Mexican and is no doubt a negative stereotype," he wrote in The Sleeping Mexican Phenomenon. "This unfortunate portrayal of the Mexican has been the work of deliberate prejudice, ignorance and lack of historical knowledge on Mexico and Mexicans. It is my deepest hope that (my booklet) will be a milestone in correcting this grievous error."
As an academic study, The Sleeping Mexican Phenomenon wasn't the sharpest of efforts—Jimenez had a tendency to ramble and repeat himself, and the glossy, stapled sheets yellowed quickly. But it was already a much-sought souvenir by scholars by the time of Alvarez's visit, in part for the 77 pictures featuring Jimenez's collection, a visual tsunami partnered with captions that described each item and how he attained it.
"Here was this man, who's so passionate about this controversial subject, that he published it on his own," says Alvarez, an associate research professor at the UA's Southwest Center and the chairwoman of Tucson Meet Yourself. She had just earned her doctorate in anthropology and was beginning to investigate the sleeping Mexican herself. "I had to meet him."
But by the time Alvarez got to Whittier, "He had disappeared. There was no trace of him."
The booklet was long out of print, and Jimenez died a couple of years ago, his rehabilitation efforts largely fruitless. But The Sleeping Mexican Phenomenon inspired Alvarez to pick up his torch. Today, she's America's leading expert on the sleeping Mexican: its public interpretations, its appearances and the angst it creates. She's leading an effort to give the man she calls Pancho his day in the sun—not as a laughable stereotype, not as a Southwestern curio, but as a symbol of honor and resistance.
"He's not sleeping," Alvarez says. "He's dreaming of a better future."