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Does San Diego State’s Aztec Mascot Perpetuate Racism?

An SDSU lecturer says it does after exploring the mascot’s origins

It’s endured student petitions, campus referendums and an NCAA ban on Native American mascots. Now the San Diego State University Aztec is coming under fire again.

In 2009, San Diego State University sanctioned the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter on campus for hosting a party with a cowboys and Indians theme.

Ozzie Monge, a lecturer in the school's American Indian Studies Department, says that's a problem for the university.

Does San Diego State's Aztec Mascot Perpetuate Racism?

GUEST:

Megan Burks, KPBS education reporter

Transcript

"Wait a minute. The university punished a fraternity for having a party where students were dressed like Indians, while the university maintains a mascot that is a student dressed like an Indian?" Monge said.

He knows the mascot has in the past endured student petitions, campus referendums and an NCAA ban on Native American mascots. But this spring Monge presented university administrators with an exhaustive look at the Aztec mascot's history. He said the mascot was born out of racism and should be canned.

"This really is a relic from a time when the country was so openly racist," Monge said, "when white supremacy was treated as a fact."

Monge is sharing the Aztec birth story with student groups on campus. He said he hopes they spark a dialogue on campus — if the administration does not.

Recently, Monge spoke as a guest lecturer in a freshman writing class about his findings. He started with the early 1900s, when SDSU was known as the Normal School. Back then a teachers college, the campus tradition drew heavily on Father Junipero Serra and his legacy of teaching Christianity to local tribes people.

Monge said that's when the university's fascination with indigenous cultures began.

The problem for Monge: While Serra’s missions symbolized education to some, it also symbolizes colonialism to Native Americans.

"There's a school song that stems from those early days that talks about native people as naked heathens. 'Serra brings naked heathens to his knee,' and teaches them," Monge said.

In the 1920s the school had a cat as its mascot, presumably inspired by an actual cat that roamed its California mission-inspired halls. When the school merged with a junior college to become San Diego State University, students staged a contest to come up with a new one.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Prospective students and their families walk past a statue of Monty Montezuma gifted to the university in 1937, April 11, 2016.

"I call it, 'Le coup de chat,'" Monge said.

The Aztec mascot was born.

"The sports articles take on a whole different life, because now the coach becomes the chief, the athletes are warriors," Monge said. "When they go on the road, they're on the warpath. When they win, they massacre."

In 1937, the graduating class gifted the university the Aztec statue that still sits today in the school's Prospective Students Center. It became known as Monty Montezuma. Archival footage of the dedication ceremony shows a student dressed as Father Serra proselytizing to students dressed in loincloths and headdresses. They're stomping around in circles.

Monge likes to pair that video with a 2014 video of students dancing around a bonfire with the Aztec mascot, their faces painted.

"You know, acting the savage," Monge said. "That shows you the continuity of this particular form of racism."

An animated photo created by Ozzie Monge shows San Diego State University students dressed up as Native Americans in 1937 and as Aztecs in 2014.

The first time a student dressed up as the Aztec mascot, called Monty Montezuma until 2000, was in 1941. It was homecoming and Art Munzig ran onto the field from a teepee, chasing women clad in buckskin.

"And the MC grabs him by the arm and says, 'Monty, what are you doing? Why are you chasing those young ladies?' They're playing the Pomona Sagehens. And Monty says, 'Me thinkum them mighty fine sage chickens,'" Monge recounted in a cartoonish voice.

"That is the birth of the mascot at San Diego State University. That is the actual acknowledged — even by the university website — birth of the mascot," Monge said. "The thing they always leave out, though, is the details."

SDSU President Elliot Hirshman did not want to be interviewed for this story but said in a statement the university welcomes the conversation and that past discussions resulted in an Aztec mascot that is more historically accurate. Here's the statement:

"San Diego State University has a long and successful tradition of shared governance. As such, when a policy issue arises, the university engages in a broader discussion of the issue through the appropriate and responsible democratically elected body (e.g., Associated Students, University Senate, etc.). The Aztec issue is not new and, in fact, went through that deliberative process just last year, resulting in a 24-1 vote by the Associated Students to maintain the current status.

"By way of background, the university also went through a broadly based, thorough and thoughtful process in 2000-2003 to study, discuss and revise the university logo and mascot in a manner that is a fitting and appropriate affiliation with Aztec culture and history. The changes were overwhelmingly confirmed in a student referendum then, and again confirmed by an AS resolution in 2006.

"That process — led by a task force of students, faculty, staff, alumni and experts in Aztec culture – provided important guidelines on how best to represent Aztec traditions, build communal spirit and honor specific facets of Aztec culture reflecting the virtues of valor, determination and community-building."

In 2014, the students in the campus' Queer People of Color Collective challenged the mascot. In 2000, the student government voted to get rid of the Aztec, but a student and alumni vote overturned the decision.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: 10News

The current Aztec Warrior mascot is shown in 2014.

Fred Pierce, an active SDSU alumnus and donor, was part of those discussions in 2000, when the more stylized Monty costume was retired. (His company was the lead developer on a 1990s SDSU redevelopment project that included the building where KPBS is located. The station's license is held by SDSU.) Pierce said he isn't upset or surprised the issue has come up again.

Photo credit: Carlos Gutierrez

Carlos Gutierrez is shown wearing the Aztec mascot uniform in 2004.

"Universities, by their very nature, are places where debates are supposed to happen," Pierce said. But he said the university has done its due diligence when it comes to the mascot.

"Many of the issues that are raised aren't relevant. They aren't coming from stakeholders, because the fact is there are very few who could claim to be of direct descent from the Aztec nation," Pierce said. "The true stakeholders aren't organized in a place where they can be asked their thoughts, so we turned to historical scholars for historical accuracy."

Carlos Gutierrez wore the Monty uniform beginning in 1990 and said he consulted with an expert in Mexico to design the Aztec Warrior uniform currently seen at games — bare chested with a feathered helmet, a conch shell and ancient symbols for learning.

"People here in San Diego are very grateful to have the name the Aztec," Gutierrez said. "It's been here for so long and is representative of strength. That's what I believe it represents. If you ask a lot of people, I think they would say the same thing."

He was right. Several students that KPBS interviewed on campus said the Aztec symbolizes positive traits, such as valor.

But students who heard Monge's presentation on the history of the mascot had a different take. Esmeralda Quintero, 18, didn't know Monge before he spoke to her class as a guest lecturer.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Esmeralda Quintero, a San Diego State University freshman, discusses the SDSU Aztec mascot, April 11, 2016.

"I'm, like, 100 percent persuaded by his presentation," said Quintero, who was wearing an Aztec baseball cap. "I agree with everything that he said. It's hurtful. It's an act of racism. It's hidden from the students."

Monge said he doesn't want students like Quintero to feel ashamed. He just wants them to hear the full story.

"There are all these opportunities for us as a group, as a university, to sit and teach this lesson about racism, and we keep hiding it, and hiding it, and hiding it to protect the mascot," Monge said. "That is what's offensive. That is what is the wrong."

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