You’ve probably seen the image before. A Mexican dressed in a traditional white shirt and sarape, a huge sombrero covering his face. He sleeps against a wall, or sometimes a cactus.
Some people have named him Pancho, or Ramón. But often he’s referred to simply as the sleeping Mexican.
His image sparked protests in San Antonio, when in 2012 the city planned to include him in a mural. Taco Bell used him in their logo until Latino activists pressured the company to stop. He even had a cameo on the George Lopez show, when George’s neighbor buys a sleeping Mexican for his lawn, and later accuses George of smashing it in the middle of the night. “Maybe the statue woke up, realized it was a racist lawn ornament, and smashed itself!” George shouts.
Hot Taco, a new Mexican restaurant in Charlotte’s South End, came under fire recently for, you guessed it, two sleeping Mexican statues displayed by the front door. More than 300 people have signed an online petition to remove the statues, calling them racist and ignorant of Mexican history.
Amalia Deloney, a Charlottean who emigrated from Guatemala when she was young, started the petition. She saw the statues outside Hot Taco when eating there recently, and soon after sent a letter to the restaurant. When she got no response, she started the online petition asking Hot Taco to remove the statues.
She says they perpetuate the “lazy Mexican” stereotype. “This is an old racist trope,” Deloney says, “What we’re talking about is the power of an image when it becomes negative, and when it comes to stand in for all kinds of other things which lead to harmful treatment of communities of color in particular.”
But the sleeping Mexican has a long history in Mexican folk art. Rosalia Torres-Weiner grew up in Mexico and remembers seeing these clay or ceramic figures sold in the marketplaces. Her grandmother had some in her garden. She was puzzled when she heard of Amalia’s petition.
“In Mexico, it's not a sign of 'Mexicans are lazy.'” she says, “No! This is a sign of, after a good meal, you need to take a siesta. You need to take a break."
Torres-Weiner now works as an artist-in-residence with Latin American Contemporary Art projects. “I think the owners have the right to decorate how they want it to look and I think they are doing a good job. They have bright colors that represent our Mexican culture. The statues are funny, you know?”
The real story of the sleeping Mexican begins in the late 1800s. At that time, traveling Americans first wrote about how Indios, exhausted after a full day’s work, would wrap themselves in shawls and sarapes and prop themselves against buildings to rest.
In the 1930s, Mexican folk artists began using the image in their art. Diego Rivera drew him. One of his pieces titled “Sleep” depicts two children dozing in the arms of their mothers, themselves next to a man asleep under his sombrero.
During the same decade, Mardonio Magaña, the modernist sculptor, modeled statues and woodcarvings out of Mexican laborers taking siestas.
In his book, The Sleeping Mexican Phenomenon, writer Charles Phillip Jimenez points to these early examples and argues the sleeping Mexican doesn’t sleep because he’s lazy. It’s because he’s been working so hard.
It wasn’t until the 1940s when the tourism industry kicked off, that merchants began mass producing the sleeping Mexican. They were sold as souvenirs for Americans on vacation. And later, in the 50s and 60s, the kitschy collectibles became shorthand for the tequila-drinking, burro-riding, maraca-shaking Mexican caricature.
Even the Carolinas saw this happening around World War II. Remember South of the Border?
“That was a huge amusement park where you had hotels and rides and restaurants and all kinds of things,” says Astrid Chirinos, who works with the Latin-American Economic Coalition in Charlotte. “and it was right there on the border of South Carolina.”
The roadside attraction, built in the 1940s near what’s now I-95, is decked out with neon cacti, sombreros, and sombrero wearing cacti. The place in still in operation today.
“And there were tons of signs on the highway that say, “Come see Pedro!” and “Pedro is waiting for you!” says Chirinos, “I mean over and over and over and over.”
She doesn’t remember any large scale controversies over this roadside attraction. But times have changed. She says anti-immigrant political rhetoric has heightened many Latino’s sensitivities. This petition to remove Hot Taco’s sleeping Mexican statues is evidence.
“I wonder if this would have happened 10 years ago, 20 years ago.” she says, “It would be different, it would be folkloric. But right now it is a much more sensitive and delicate subject to talk about.”
Artist Jose Vasquez is a Mexican immigrant. He supports the petition.
“Most Mexicans don’t look like that now. They don’t dress like that now. I haven’t even checked their menu, but I’d like to see if that’s even real Mexican food.”
He says he wishes the restaurant had picked some other symbol that’s not so fraught with history.
Recently, some Latino activists have taken it on themselves to reclaim the sleeping Mexican. Following this latest controversy, Rosalia Torres-Weiner painted her own version of the siesta motif. In her painting, a traditionally dressed Mexican crouches on a bright orange landscape. He’s behind a barbed wire fence. But there’s a difference here.
“My particular painting is not taking a nap. He's dreaming.” she says, “He's dreaming for an immigration reform and he's dreaming for a better future for us immigrants in the United States.”
She wishes activists would focus on other issues, like immigration, or education, but in the end, she’s glad people are taking notice.
“If it was not for this little guy,” she says, “maybe we would not be talking about our culture and being as present in Charlotte.”
Hot Taco is owned by The Bottle Cap Group, a local company that owns several restaurants in the area. Three of the other Bottle Cap Group restaurants are located right on Hot Taco’s block. The company declined to comment for this story, and says it doesn’t plan to release a statement.
This story was produced as part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance.