Latino-themed images at Sac State, UC Davis draw criticism

A Cinco de Mayo-themed flier promoting a May 5 Sacramento State baseball game has been taken down after student groups called it offensive.
A Cinco de Mayo-themed flier promoting a May 5 Sacramento State baseball game has been taken down after student groups called it offensive. Denise Fernandez

A Cinco de Mayo-themed flier promoting a Sacramento State baseball game and an online picture of the UC Davis women’s lacrosse team have drawn criticism in recent days for being racially offensive.

With a sign stating “Los Sen(i)ors,” the UC Davis photo shows lacrosse players wearing checkered shirts, T-shirts, baggy pants, knit caps and mustaches – costumes the team apparently tried to associate with Latinos. The picture of the team’s seniors was taken last week and posted on Facebook.

The Sacramento State flier features a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of school mascot Herky the Hornet dressed in a serape and sombrero. The mustachioed Herky has a maraca in one hand and stick in the other. A broken piñata is spilling its contents in the background.

The Sacramento State flier was posted Monday to Instagram by the student director of the school’s Green Army, a student volunteer group that promotes university events and encourages school spirit. A T-shirt, sombrero, and maraca were to be part of a $5 promotion that includes tickets to the Hornets-Aggies Causeway Cup baseball game at Raley Field on May 5.

“I feel very offended and just outraged,” said Denise Fernandez, a Sacramento State student and member of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, a student cultural group. “We aren’t just people who wear ponchos, sombreros and mustaches. We have a culture that has meaning.”

The flier was posted for a few hours before the student director learned that others found it offensive, said Bill Macriss, Sacramento State athletics director. “It was obvious the students who looked at it didn’t understand the inappropriateness of it and the negative stereotypes that it portrayed.”

The fallout from both incidents was immediate, with student organizations at both universities penning letters of protest and demanding apologies. California State University, Sacramento, President Alexander Gonzalez responded with a campus message Tuesday in which he called the promotional material “a highly offensive flier” that was “misguided and culturally insensitive.”

“This incident shows we still have more work to do – and we are committed to doing this important, ongoing work,” Gonzalez said, referring to efforts by his campus unity committee to promote cultural sensitivity.

Such incidents create a hostile environment for students, said Crystal Marich, program coordinator for the UC Davis Cross Cultural Center. She said people on campus were “very hurt, very upset and very angry” when the lacrosse team photo came out.

Teresa Gould, the university’s interim athletic director, has met with students about the photo and the campus has held forums, including one Thursday, to address the issue, Marich said.

Officials at both universities have opted not to punish the students involved. All have apologized.

“The young women involved in this have been profoundly impacted by it,” Gould said of the lacrosse team incident. “They have taken ownership and responsibility and will walk away from this experience as different people.”

Marich says the students should be held accountable. “It’s very contradictory that UC Davis is a premiere center of higher learning, but we are graduating people like this – who are culturally insensitive.”

Gould and the lacrosse team have sent letters of apology to the The California Aggie student newspaper. The team explains in its letter that players were taking part in a tradition in which they dress up for a senior picture based on a play on words – in this case, “seniors.” The women said they didn’t intend to disrespect anyone.

“We lost sight of how we represent our community as a whole,” the letter stated.

At Sacramento State, the Green Army posted an apology on Instagram, calling the posting of the flier “misguided” and saying it included “insensitive imagery that hurt a great number of fellow students for whom we care deeply.”

Commenters on Instagram responded with more support than condemnation. Some said the offended students were too sensitive and that Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican culture.

But Fernandez said Cinco de Mayo, which isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico, has been co-opted by Americans for commercial purposes and normalizes Mexican stereotypes.

“People take down the fliers and they apologize, but it still continues,” she said. “The stereotypes continue.”

UC Davis had a Cinco de Mayo controversy last year when employees of the student-run Coffee House at UC Davis promoted a Mexican-themed drinking party. The Facebook event page for “Cinco de Drinko” included a picture of four male students wearing sombreros and trying to hop a chain-link fence while two female students in Border Patrol attire were smiling. The event heightened racial tension on the campus and resulted in a sit-in at the Coffee House and an online petition demanding that the university hold organizers of the party responsible.

Officials at both universities have used the term “teaching moment” to describe their response to this year’s episodes. The CSUS athletic department has planned more “inclusion training” that promotes tolerance of others, Macriss said. He also has directed all students in the Green Army to attend “Deconstructing Cinco de Mayo Stereotypes,” a forum that had already been scheduled for Tuesday at the school’s Multicultural Center.

At UC Davis, Gould is considering adding an employee who will be in charge of diversity awareness as part of his or her athletics job.

Marich would like UC Davis to require cultural awareness training for all students. “We shouldn’t be waiting until it is too late to try to scramble to address the issue,” she said.

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.

“Deconstructing Cinco de Mayo Stereotypes”

A discussion about the cultural stereotypes attached to Cinco de Mayo.

WHEN: Noon, Tuesday

WHERE: Multicultural Center, Sacramento State, 6000 J St., Sacramento