When Cultural Appropriation Is Really Cultural Adoption

Last Friday Latino Rebels reported a story from the campus of Washington State University, where a Latino student group protested the school’s athletic department for appropriating “an important cultural symbol to many Chicano/a Latino/a students” — the luchador mask.

When the students of WSU’s Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (M.E.Ch.A) reached out to the athletic director about cancelling his plans to give away thousands of red “Cougador” masks and capes at the football game on Halloween night, the director wrote back saying that he’d given the issue “careful thought and consideration,” but that he was going forward with it anyway.

As M.E.Ch.A’s petition on Change.org explains, “By taking this symbol and using it as a marketing gimmick the WSU Athletics marketing department is devaluing and decontextualizing a part of the Chicano/Latino cultural identity.”

While the students have a tiny point, this is mostly a case of political correctness run amok.

Unlike with the Washington Redskins, there’s no racial name calling. There’s no slapstick stereotyping like with Warner Brothers’ Slowpoke Rodriguez. And there’s not nearly as much cultural appropriation as there is with the twerking (and top-selling) Miley Cyrus.

In fact, ever since the WWF took the United States by storm in the 1980s and Eddie Guerrero stepped on the scene ten years later, not to mention movies like ‘Nacho Libre’ starring Jack Black, it’s hard to call lucha libre, or at least the lucha libre mask, strictly a Mexican thing.

Even so, at most the WSU promotion is simply another example of something Americans have been doing since time immemorial — cultural adoption.

Just last week nationally syndicated columnist Esther J. Cepeda wrote about America’s recent adoption of tortillas and tortilla chips, which now outsell hamburger buns and potato chips.

“In topping hamburger and hot dog buns,” she writes, “the tortilla emblematically re-enacts past fears of the Germanization of America. Once upon a time, Americans feared that a scourge of German immigrants, with their ethnic foods and stubborn preservation of their mother tongue, would be the country’s undoing.”

When we see white Americans eating chips and salsa, or if a sports team were to offer free tacos to the first 7,000 fans, no one would accuse them of cultural appropriation. At least, I hope no one would.

Plus that cultural appropriation charge is a two-way street. If non-Mexican Americans are prohibited from dressing up as luchadores for Halloween, then there’s a whole list of white-American cultural icons off limits to Mexican Americans and all non-white Americans. That means no Mexican Pilgrims around Thanksgiving (English-American), no Puerto Rican Santa Clauses come Christmastime (Dutch-American), no Cubans dressed up as Vikings at the Metrodome, and no Latino Frankensteins (English-American), Draculas (Irish/Romanian-American) or mummies (Egyptian-American) on Halloween.

The fact of the matter is, cultural exchange is what the United States is all about. Whenever a new group of settlers comes to America, they put their culture on the table next to the cultures that are already here. Then they get to choose what to adopt from the other cultures and what to preserve in themselves. But they don’t get to choose what the rest of America adopts or preserves.

Look around you. Most of what’s American came from somewhere else. Even the all-American cowboy is just a Mexican vaquero with white skin and a Texas twang. Did 19th-century Mexicans post a petition on Change.org to get the white boys on the other side of the Rio Grande to stop dressing and acting like them? (Well, they went to war, but you get my point.)

I get that lucha libre may hold  a special place in the hearts and minds of Mexicans and their American descendants, but just because something means a particular thing to you doesn’t demand that it mean the exact same thing to everyone else. Lucha libre may represent the epic battle between justice and corruption for many Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but in all likelihood, those WSU fans simply view it as a cool new import, just like James Bond, Jackie Chan, Chinese food, the Beatles, the Stones, ‘The Office,’ Ricky Martin, hot dogs, pizza and Lorde.

The world sends America everything it’s got and says, “This is what it means to us over here, but do whatever you want with it over there.” Then America makes her changes, and 50 years later, it’s as American as apple pie (which is originally English).

Any Latino group that would protest a sports team passing out lucha libre masks to thousands of its fans and adopting the luchador image is fighting the very thing most Latinos want in America — not only acceptance, but adoption. The message WSU fans sent this past Halloween by donning luchador masks is, “Hey, you know those lucha libre mask are pretty cool? We should wear some here in America when we’re cheering on our heroes.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty cool.

And I’m glad to see enough Mexican Americans agree with me. Like Fernando Gonzalez, a sociologist and educator at a local high school, who told me, “It’s sad that,with all the social, economic and educational problems in the Chicano and Mexican communities, sensationalist zealots, representing a great organization with historical roots of genuine struggle such as M.E.Ch.A, are starting, like the saying goes, ‘una tormenta en vaso de agua.’ Come on, people. Being radical doesn’t mean that we have to find senseless things to bring attention to.”

I couldn’t agree more.

There are real issues threatening the Chicano, Mexican-American and Latino communities, but as far as I can tell, college football fans wanting to wear lucha libre masks and call themselves Cougadores isn’t one of them. In fact, it seems like the opposite of a problem.

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