Monday, March 05, 2007

"Mexican Parties" are as American as Nachos

The Fratboy News Daily College Column
By Gustavo Arellano, The Los Angeles Times

IF SOMEONE asked you to attend a Mexican-themed party, what would you wear? Would you sport long hair, spiked bracelets and a tattered T-shirt of rock en espaƱol dinosaurs Caifanes? Maybe visit Brooks Brothers and mimic the sartorial splendor of Antonio Villaraigosa? A snug gown a la Salma Hayek for the mujeres? Jeans, surely?

No. You're going to don a sombrero, glue on a fake mustache and act like a poor, despicable louse. You'll probably belt out a couple of lusty arribas for good measure. And you'll laugh. Really, what else could you do?

No one would recognize those other examples as Mexican, even though muchos Mexicans fit those descriptions. Not only that, but anyone who dresses up for an ethnic-themed fiesta wants to stand out, which means stereotypes: exaggerated takes on reality, some decades old, others as immediate as your office janitor. More important, cultural nuances at parties tend to disappear under a haze of bong hits.

It's important to keep the above in mind when discussing the recent spate of mexcellente bashes held by our nation's emerging scholars. The latest occurred in January, when students at Santa Clara University in Northern California were invited to a "South of the Border" party and attendees arrived as cholos, janitors and pregnant Latinas. The small campus — previously best known as the alma mater of NBA god Steve Nash — is in an uproar, and the national media have swooped in to cover the latest front in the immigration wars.

A college Mexican party — usually held under the auspices of the Greek system — is nowadays as much a part of university life as the Thought Police.

Two years ago, Alpha Epsilon Pi's USC chapter held a party titled "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," at which attendees passed through barbed wire and curious Latino onlookers were told to — yep — go back to Mexico.

Each case was followed by the same ritual of hand-wringing: accusations of racism, rebutted with claims of ignorance or harmless fun, followed by protests and town hall meetings and an eventual half-hearted apology from the culprits. Peace was restored on campus — until the next opportunity to mock Mexicans.

So why do these incidents crack me up? Maybe it's the power of history. Americans have enjoyed dressing like ethnics at bacchanals since the days of the Boston Tea Party. Blackface, togas, sweat lodges, Oktoberfest, St. Patrick's Day, Tommy Bahama — the list goes on, even in this age of supposed racial acceptance.

Participating in such events seems to liberate otherwise placid souls from propriety and excuse momentary transgressions, all while lampooning the Other — a party mix more alluring than jungle juice.

No matter how many diversity workshops or school-sanctioned multicultural festivities universities may hold, these parties will continue. They're as American as nachos.

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