As early as late September temporary Halloween stores begin to fill the empty shells of closed businesses everywhere. Lured by promises of low prices and a decent selection, I stopped in one such store called “Halloween Store” recently to see if I could find anything good. Flimsy interior walls with costumes half-heartedly hung on them; makeshift dressing rooms; that sweet, musty smell of plastic.
Somewhere past the wigs was the women’s costume section – perhaps better called the “Sexy [insert noun] section”. Among these overpriced synthetic articles of disappointment was this, a “Border Control Babe” costume. Really?? Really.
…Yet perhaps more offputting to me was this “Mexican Man” costume, of which I have seen different versions under a few other names, such as “Hombre”.
Full moustache? Check. Flimsy straw sombrero? Check. Multicolored poncho? Check. Some vague relation to a revolucionario and/or tequila? Check and check. Oh, also sorpresa sorpresa, there is a sexy women’s version of it. And in case reducing Mexican people to some cluster of stereotypes wasn’t enough for you, you can also reduce them to a food in the form of a taco costume…that you can wear with a sombrero. You could also be slutty Asian take-out.
I realize Halloween is a time for fun, candy, parties, etc. In many countries especially this one, it is a day when people can dress up like someone or something to different effects. You can be scary, sexy, funny, whatever you want. However, just because Halloween is supposed to be fun doesn’t exempt it from all political and social implications – and it does not mean that some costumes are not just plain offensive. A lot of costumes are considered “good” costumes because they are recognizable and culturally relevant.
For instance, in order for a zombie or ghost Amy Winehouse costume (which I anticipate seeing many versions of this year) to be a viable choice a person must think that enough people know who Amy Winehouse is and that she passed away this year. By next Halloween it’ll be like who cares. The Mexican Man/Hombre costume exists because people recognize stereotypes about Mexicans and find them relevant or amusing – and marketable. Dressing up like a person who represents ([negative] stereotypes of) an entire race – even if it’s “funny” or “accepted” – is pretty racist. You are not dressed up as Diego Rivera or one of my tios – you are just dressed up as a stereotype of a Mexican man and simultaneously every Mexican man.
A student campaign targeting Halloween racism has been getting some attention on the interwebz. It was organized by a group at Ohio University called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS). Below is an example of a PSA poster, in which a Latino boy holds a picture of another version of the “Hombre” costume.
This campaign is trying to raise awareness about what could be termed “covert racism.” I based this on prominent linguist Jane H. Hill’s term “covert racist discourse,” which she defined as invisible or often overlooked and accepted forms of racism in language. I think the covert nature of racism can also paradoxically be applied to cultural appropriation and depictions of other races in images as well as in language. This article in response to the STARS campaign puts it simply when its writer says, “Racism is so much stealthier now. It doesn’t announce itself, and it’s complicated.”
Just wondering about something as seemingly trivial as Halloween costumes makes this statement’s truth obvious. Does the continued disenfranchisement of Native Americans have any moral bearing on whether being Pocahontas or any general Native American is ok? If a person dresses up as a quasi-historical depiction of, say, an American revolutionary is it okay because they are all dead now and they were powerful men while they were alive? Is a costume of a fat American tourist offensive even though it’s not called “American Man”? To what degree does cultural appropriation and stereotyping need to occur in order for something to be offensive and racist?
I think in if anything at all, our history and current political and social situation directly relates to if a costume depiction is offensive. I found the Border Patrol and Mexican Man costumes bothersome and offensive respectively because I know racism against Mexicans and undocumented immigrants has been institutionalized such as with HB56 in Arizona. I’ve seen the way people throw around the word “illegals” to refer to human beings. Calls for U.S.-Mexico border security has resulted in increased border militarization and violence; the killing of people trying to cross this border via an electric fence was somehow a serious discussion topic in the most recent GOP debate. For years there have been questions raised about the possible prejudices utilized by the TSA in security checks at airports. But there also could be other reasons…
Ok ok, I’ll stop being such a Mr. Buzzkillington (costume idea!). I really do like Halloween though; I guess I just want it to be fun, but also respectful so that as many people as possible can enjoy together. Maybe it’s the Mexican in me, but I like to think that Halloween celebrations could include a little more of a Day of the Dead vibe. It’s good to celebrate the lives of our families, friends, selves and those who we admire and make us laugh or scare us. It’s good to celebrate together and remember the past – and that that past is a part of you. So maybe don’t be an “Hombre,” but be Emiliano Zapata! History is fun! But just to be safe I’d try to avoid changing my skin color as a part of that costume. Hey, once I was a really brown Snow White and no one seemed to mind.