News & Opinion » Feature

The Sleeping Mexican Wakes Up

Two Tucson women seek to rehabilitate the most notorious Mexican stereotype of all



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."

The history of the sleeping Mexican is a saga that skips across class, cultures, commerce and borders. His body position is a motif that artists have depicted for thousands of years, in everything from African wood sculptures to the works of Michelangelo. His working-class method of dress and squat stature have existed in the American imagination since the Mexican War, when the Eastern press frequently depicted Mexico in such a sartorial fashion to distinguish him from suited, skinny Uncle Sam.

Posture and dress coalesced to manifest into flesh-and-blood sleeping Mexicans during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz, the autocrat whose privatization policies forced hundreds of thousands of rural Mexicans to move to urban areas and live in poverty during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Exhausted after a day full of work or travel, all that many working-class Mexicans could do was find a wall and sleep—an image American travelogues of the day breathlessly captured for their audiences.

"The Indians living in the hills took undisturbed position at night, and groups of tired Indios wrapped themselves in their sarapes, or shawls, and stretched their tired limbs out in the cold stones; or propped themselves against the walls of a building to rest," wrote Nevin O. Winter in his 1907 book, Mexico and Her People of Today.

Commentators at the time interpreted those sleeping Mexicans not as symbols of sloth, but as indictments of the Porfiriato's cruel regime. In 1912's Barbarous Mexico: An Indictment of a Cruel and Corrupt System, author John Kenneth Turner captioned a photo of a Mexican sleeping against the wall: "A Study in Despair."

After the Mexican Revolution and the terror of Pancho Villa, however, the image became mixed with the traditional American stereotype of Mexicans as lazy, and took a life of its own removed from the original proletarian roots.

By the 1930s, when an explosion of ethnic caricatures masquerading as tchotchkes and household items hit the American market, the sleeping Mexican was just one stereotype in a parade of mammys, Chinamen, cigar-store Indians, Dutch children and other stock characters. It was during that time that some genius decided to position the sleeping Mexican against the saguaro cactus, that giant of the Sonoran Desert. Indeed, one of the earliest known versions of this Mexican was used by Tucson's El Charro Café on matchbooks during the 1930s. But the logo still mostly contained itself to the borderlands.

It didn't explode until the opening of the Southwest after World War II, when Americans had disposable income, automobiles and time to explore their country. The tourism boom convinced the region's entrepreneurs that a visual iconography was needed to sear the Southwest into the mind of Americans, and the sleeping Mexican fit their desires perfectly. It became "Photoshop before there was Photoshop," says Alvarez with a laugh, an easy reminder of the easy life in the lands that were once Mexico.

An industry took off. Artisans in Arizona and on Olvera Street in Los Angeles produced sleeping Mexicans for Americans needing a reminder of their trips to Old Mexico; jewelers in Taxco, Guerrero, produced pieces en masse for Americans vacationing there. The sleeping Mexican became so popular that a factory in Japan produced them for decades.

But as the icon spread across Anglo America as kitsch, it quickly warped into an object of ridicule, a metaphor for the underachieving Mexican-American minority who always lived in mañana. Mexican Americans didn't let such stereotypes metastasize without a fight: Protests by Chicano groups convinced Taco Bell to drop their sleeping Mexican logo. One activist even complained to the National Advertising Review Board—the American advertising industry's self-regulatory body—in 1974, when The New York Times depicted a sleeping Mexican on a donkey with the phrase "mañana y mañana" to promote an art show. To good, conscious people, as an article in the Chicano magazine La Raza put it in 1970, Pancho was "a lazy ne'er-do-well, a Stepin Fetchit with a Spanish accent."

Meanwhile, the production of the sleeping Mexican continued. "It infantilized the Mexican," Alvarez says. "You can disavow that you have any racist thoughts by saying you simply think it's a cute image."

As the decades wore on, Chicano artists began to try to reappropriate the sleeping Mexican. In 1993, Judy Baca released her Pancho Trinity, in which she painted 3-foot-high plaster figures with powerful images lionizing el movimiento. While Mexican intellectual giant Carlos Fuentes decried Pancho as an embarrassing cliché embraced by Chicanos in his 1996 collection La Frontera de Cristal (The Crystal Frontier), author Miguel Méndez celebrated Pancho in his 1991 novela Peregrinos de Aztlán (Pilgrims of Aztlán), calling him the "champion of the fields" who was taking a much-deserved rest.

It was around this time that Alvarez discovered the image.

Alvarez is a Cuban by birth who grew up in Puerto Rico before her parents sent her to live with an aunt in Long Beach, Calif., in 1980, because it "seemed like a really safe place to hide from communism." Bucking the stereotype of the conservative Cuban exile, Alvarez gravitated toward the radical politics of the Chicano movement, focusing specifically on the arts. She earned a master's degree in political theory from Long Beach State, then a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona, focusing on the material culture of northern Mexico. She then helped found MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana, an art space in San Jose, Calif., dedicated to exploring off-topic, frequently taboo subjects.

In 1996, Alvarez accepted an offer from the UA to run its folklore department. Her doctorate had focused on craftsmen in the borderlands who worked with plaster to create statues and coin banks, of which the sleeping Mexican was by far their best-seller.

"My first reaction to the image was influenced by my education. What I learned really quickly is that your social standing shapes the lenses from where you see the images," Alvarez says. "I saw it as a stereotype, an offensive stereotype that the gringos used to put Mexicans in their place."

But when she asked the workers about the image, their reaction shocked the professor.

"They'd tell me, 'You see a stereotype in that? What sick mind would see that? How perverted is the gringo mind to think anything bad of it?'"

The workers would explain that the man they called Pancho was a hard-working mexicano who was resting, because he got up really early for a long, noble day of work. As Alvarez interviewed Mexicans in Arizona and California who owned the image, she became intrigued by Pancho's dual identity.

"On one hand, politically conscious Chicanos got really, really mad about it—they go nuts when they see the sleeping Mexican," Alvarez says. "But here in the border, in the barrios, people use the image for decoration in their front yards as a symbol of home. And that's fine. One statement is not invalidated by the other statement."

Over the next decade, Alvarez investigated the origins of the sleeping Mexican, interviewing artists who created it as art or as commerce, and presented her findings in academic papers and symposiums. She also amassed her own modest collection of the image.

One day, she received an email from Jill Janis, a professional organizer and learning/behavioral specialist.

"Jill emails me, saying she found me online, and noticed I studied the sleeping Mexican," Alvarez recalls. "She said she collected sleeping Mexicans, and (asked) if I would like to see (the collection), and that she also lived in Tucson."

Alvarez drove a short distance to Janis' house—and found treasures she could've never imagined.

"It's so much fun to talk to someone interested in this subject," Janis says with a laugh.

She owns what may be the world's largest collection of sleeping Mexican icons. The figure is in almost every medium imaginable: statues, clothing and pillows. Kitchen items, bookends and sterling silver jewelry. Cufflinks and belt buckles. An entire bedroom set from the 1940s, with the sleeping Mexican painted on a double-bed frame, a chest, drawers, a vanity stool, a mirror and a side table. Drinking glasses, pencils and menus. A scrapbook is filled with photos of items Janis couldn't "beg or borrow or steal" from their owner. She estimates the collection has more than 2,000 pieces, neatly boxed in a shed in her backyard and separated by category. It's not open to the public.

"The sign of a true collector," Janis explains. "They don't even have to display it; they just own it."

Janis had never seen the sleeping Mexican before moving to Tucson in 1978; before that, she was "a big-city girl," with stints in New York, London and Paris. "I had heard of a friend who collected sleeping Mexicans, but I had never seen them," she says. "Once I moved here, I just started seeing them, and then I started buying them, because I spend a lot of time in thrift stores. I knew (the sleeping Mexican) was controversial, but I was just so fascinated by how many iterations there were of this one little figure.

"And it was such a funky little image that I wanted to collect it," she continues. "Once I had it in my mind that I was collecting, I like to do things really, really well.

Her friends and family thought Janis was "a little nutty," but they became scouts, finding images across the world. Janis scoured thrift stores and swap meets in the early days, and switched to eBay and Craigslist in the Internet age—even eventually finding the sleeping Mexican in London, a catch that just "floored" her.

"He's spread all around the world as a symbol of various things—he's a symbol of good and bad," she says. "(Some) people are ignorant and racist, probably. ... A lot of depictions are not flattering—they make the Mexican look drunk or stupid."

Nevertheless, the icon doesn't bother Janis, who chooses to hew to an interpretation much like Alvarez's interpretation.

"I'm aware I'm not a Mexican, and I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but it's a choice," she says. "I choose not to interpret (the icon) in the negative way, and I'll pick the happier way. That would be someone who had to get up really early in the morning, and got tired midday, and was going to go back to working really hard in the afternoon. It's someone taking a well-deserved rest—a hard worker. Just the opposite of the stereotype."

Although she's not aware of many serious collectors of her obsession ("People say they have a collection," she cracks, "and they have five!"), the price of sleeping Mexicans has risen significantly in the past decade, thanks to a nationwide boom in kitsch and vintage items. She's now collaborating with Alvarez and a photographer to take pictures of her collection, with the hope of creating a book that would rival Jimenez's contribution, which she found "valuable, but crude."

"Jill is extraordinary," Alvarez enthuses. "She has pieces that I've only seen in books. In the 15 years I've been studying this, hers is the definitive collection. She's a thoughtful and critical collector. She represents the type of person who loves the Southwest and loves Mexicans and the land. It would be difficult for me to deal with her if she was just Pollyanna-ish about the subject, but she's not."

The book will eventually be the only memento Janis will keep of her collection, as she's seeking to sell it in its entirety.

"I want to sell it to someone who's really going to appreciate it," she says, declining to name an asking price just yet. "It's really been a labor of love for the last 34 years. ... It deserves to be shown, to be seen. It should stay together."

She repeats the last sentence. "It has so much of an impact all together."

And Janis wants the sleeping Mexican shown, specifically because of the political controversies that have affected Arizona—and Tucson in particular—over the past couple of years.

"I think that this time right now is perfect for us to be talking about him because of the immigration issues and the cutting of Mexican-American studies," she says. "The wall and all that crap. You can show people this image and say, 'Look, people have been putting us down with this guy. Let's get real about it and recognize what we're up against.' He's not a bad image, but that's Arizona for you: We can take anything that's really nice, and make it really, really bad."

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."

Comments (14)

Showing 1-14 of 14

Add a comment

Add a comment