It was recently reported that stallholders of “Tex-Mex” restaurant, Pedro’s, were asked to stop handing out sombreros during a Freshers’ Fayre at the University of East Anglia.
The UEA student’s union campaign and democracy officer, Chris Jarvis, reportedly said
We try to ensure that there is no behaviour, language or imagery which could be considered racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or ableist.
So, apparently, you can find places outside Mexico where wearing sombreros (or giving them for free) could be discriminatory or racist. Wearing a sombrero may be stereotypical, but it is very dubious as to whether it really is discriminatory or racist.
Among the wide variety of sombreros worn around the world, wide-wing sombreros are particularly associated to Mexico. Here, a sombrero is usually headgear used for protection, decoration, fashion or to keep the hair tidy. They come in different materials, sizes, and shapes according to weather and purpose, and include different colours and endless ways of decoration. Popular ‘Mexican’ types of sombreros are Vaquero or Texano, Zapata, Charro and Chinaco. The making and naming are also tied to the colonial era.
What does it means to wear a sombrero?
In Mexico, these types of sombreros are very useful for outdoor activities, since sunny weather is common and the heat is high. Mexican sombreros are worn when playing Mariachi music, for parties, celebrations, dances (like jaripeo or banda), charreadas (horsemen sport), and of course, agricultural and livestock work. Nevertheless, some people use them for protection from the sun in everyday circumstances. Though, the type of sombreros and usage is, in some cases, indifferent.
Of course, everyone might be tempted to stereotype, not all Mexicans are short, fat, wear wide-wing sombreros, boots and a moustache. In the same way, not all English people are white, tall, and wear suits with fancy hats. Curiously, in Mexico and Latin America, all types of hats (except the wingless, which are usually gorros) are called sombreros, but in other countries, a sombrero is a wide-wing type of hat.
In Mexico, you could see people wearing sombreros who are poor or rich, dressed up or informally dressed, driving a motor vehicle or riding a horse, white-skinned or dark-skinned, buyer or merchant, men or women, child or adult, dancer, entertainer, or someone at a Mexican-themed party, festival or restaurant?
Is it a matter of who can and who cannot use a sombrero?
At some big events in Mexico, such as weddings and quinceañeras, sombreros are given or shared among attendees, sometimes to dance particular songs . Not all people choose to wear them.
On the other hand, an individual or group might stereotype “all people who wear a Charro sombrero are… poor/working class/ridicule/stupid” and it is still harmless. Even though it is an erroneous assumption, it deserves freedom of expression. But, when one or more individual(s) take action against it, that is when the discrimination begins.
In Mexico and abroad, you could find a number of Mexican folklore events, including dancing, playing music, performing for a play or a mix of those, usually accompanied with proper apparel. However, professional performers do not own any type of “right-to-wear a sombrero” licence. Yet, when people from other countries or cultural background try to engage somehow with any expression of this folklore, it is widely seen as acceptable or as a “celebration” of the culture. There should still be room for freedom of expression, (or using imagery) either to professionally represent, or attempt to represent or even mock anything. In any way, a misrepresentation of Mexican (or maybe other) culture or people is seen as ignorant or stupid.
How to justify this (discriminatory) action?
When a specific act or representation with this type of apparel or ‘symbol’ might be misused is arguable. Also, it is unclear how the students were using the sombreros when it was decided to stop the stallholders from giving them out.
Well, to make the case, imagine the following. A number of people are wearing a kilt given to them for free in a similar event by a Scottish-themed textile (or even food) company -based in England if you wish- for promotion, would that be removed from them too? Would it be breaking the policy also? Now, imagine the clothes (or food) is terrible. What would the Scottish think or feel about it? Some of them wouldn’t care, some would be very disappointed and embarrassed this company exists, some would also feel offended and ashamed that they’re giving away kilts as celebration of this culture. Is this an ‘appropriation of the culture’? Where is the line?
At the end of the day, is it a requirement to be Mexican to wear sombreros? Or to be Scottish to wear a kilt? And by the way, assuming the first food you have in X country-themed restaurant does not necessarily means all of the restaurants and food in X country are bad, does it?
Some people argue that, since this could eventually lead to racist behaviour or misrepresentation, it can be offensive for a whole country or group or minority. But, what does this mean? A British-themed restaurant banned for giving away bowler hats and umbrellas? An LGBT society banned from giving away rainbow flags? A Burger King banned for giving away crowns? Maybe the mistake was to hand them, instead of placing them around so that people can wear them if they want, like Burger King does. What is certainly true, is that the event was taking place on the university premises, which is different to that taking place on company-owned premises.
Consulting few Mexican people on the matter, they say things like “you can’t be that thin-skinned!” or “what a stupid thing to do!”
Stereotypical expression is not necessarily offensive or harmful, it could be an invitation to know more about a culture or simply express that you share, agree or consent things about that particular culture. If you think wearing a bowler hat is ridicule you’d know it and you might be tempted to discriminate someone who is wearing it, perhaps be curious about it. If you think wearing it makes you comfortable or good looking, you would feel it, you might be very tempted to engage with others wearing the same and you might also, again, be curious about it. This is the same for the ‘Mexican’ sombreros and other clothing garments.
Collins dictionary defines discrimination as “unfair treatment of a person, racial group, minority, etc; action based on prejudice”. In this particular context, the only discrimination based on nationality or subculture identification possibly seen was committed by those who took the discriminative action. But, who were discriminated when these sombreros were worn?
Were the Mexicans discriminated in general? Were the students who wouldn’t have a free sombrero because the number of sombreros available were not enough for all of them? Were the Mexicans who wear Mexican sombreros? Were the people who want to wear a Mexican sombrero? Are we all discriminating when we wear our costumes at fancy dress parties?