ARTIFACT: The Sleeping Mexican
AKA: Pancho, Pedro, Ramón, the Lazy Mexican, the Sombreroed Dozer, the Dreamer, the Resting Worker, the Siesta Motif
FOLKLIFE: Occupational Folklife, knickknack, stereotypes, cultural icon, borderlands, Chicanoculture, indigeneity, Mexico
As the rhetoric about “dangerous migrants from the southern border” gets increasingly vitriolic, and as we head into the summer—when the desert heat becomes deadly for those traveling across it—I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sleeping Mexican.
You know him. Or her. Usually male, but not always. Also known as Pancho, Pedro, or Ramón, the Sleeping Mexican may just be the quintessential–if not infamous–icon of the US Southwest and Mexico.
For many, the icon brings up memories of life in the idyllic Mexican countryside–the campesino who rises early and goes to work in the milpas, thus well-deserving of a quick “power nap” mid-afternoon. Yet others cannot help but cringe when confronted with the image, which seems to multiply ad infinitum all over the Southwestern United States and beyond.
Pancho sits, bent knees, head lowered, shaded under a broad-brimmed sombrero. He wears sandals, loose pants, and a sarape, or striped blanket or poncho, and is often depicted leaning against a saguaro cactus, the other famous icon of the Southwest. If you live in the borderlands, he’s most certainly close by. But if you don’t, he’s probably in your town or city, too—as a figurine in a thrift store, on an old t-shirt, or on the sign of your favorite Mexican restaurant.
In Tucson, he leans against a cactus on a bright sign over El Minuto Café, a popular restaurant near downtown, and sleeps in neon to advertise the Siesta Motel. And there are over 2,000 other examples of him in a Tucson collection kept and studied by Dr. Maribel Alvarez, a folklorist at the University of Arizona and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the icon.
Alvarez was gifted the bulk of the items from hobby collector, Jill Janis, who started collecting the icon in 1978. She’d find them in thrift stores, mostly, Alvarez says, in every form possible: as salt and pepper shakers; figurines of plaster, wood, ceramic, tin, onyx, and plastic; napkins; placemats; dish towels; dishware; ashtrays; bookends; candy dishes; jars; planters; picture frames; and so much more.
I wondered what kind of perspective the Panchos–in all their familiar, stereotypical, and aesthetic forms–might offer present-day debates on immigration in the borderlands and beyond. So I recently accompanied Alvarez to visit them.
Todos los Panchos
Inside the mid-town Tucson storage unit, nearly every inch of the hand-built shelves is covered with Sleeping Mexicans. The first one Alvarez picks up is printed on a ballcap. He wears a bright yellow hat and is sprawled out, leaning against a green cactus. The words “100% Borracho,” float above him. Spanish for “100% Drunk.”
“That’s really blatant, right? It’s assumed that he’s drunk. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s also a racist humor, the kind that is always on the edge of making you uncomfortable,” Alvarez says. “If you ask around, the average American would tell you it’s just a cute figurine, nothing to be alarmed about; there’s a widespread disavowal of the negative messages that could be implied. But things that are funny to some are offensive to others.”
As often the case with ethnic symbols that circulate widely through popular culture, the Sleeping Mexican is caught in a web of conflicting interpretations. And there many dimensions to its history, use, and significance that circumvent the racist ideology that surrounds it.
Like aesthetics, for example. Alvarez picks up a ceramic white dish, porcelain, made in Italy. “Look how far and off the path of the Southwest these things go,” she says.
Pancho faces forward, sitting cross-legged, his lap forming the dish. She notes the painted gold of the serape design. “What a beauty. “There’s a composition. The sitting position is more meditative.”
“Compared to this,” she picks up the drunken ballcap again. “There’s only so much rationalization you can do. Everyone gets the joke, but how funny is it?”
The Sleeping Mexican has drawn plenty of ire over the years, particularly from Chicano and Mexican intellectuals and activists, Alvarez says, who have interpreted the icon as derogatory, one that suggests laziness, drunkenness, and apathy.
But for others—the group of Mexican American parents and Mexican immigrants Alvarez recently spoke to at a school on Tucson’s south side, for instance—there’s a different interpretation. “When I showed them the icon, they said, ‘It’s pretty obvious it’s a campesino who woke up early to work and is taking a rest.’”
And when she mentioned the stereotype of drunk and lazy, “They looked at me, like ‘What kind of perverted mind would think that? That’s a total contradiction. When have you ever seen a Mexicano who’s not working?’”
“That’s the interesting thing, how something that is so factually contrary to the reality Mexicans live in the United States can gain such traction as an ideology. Mexicans have always been workers in these lands. And they continue to be the primary source of cheap labor for the United States, from every restaurant, office building, and field. And yet this is this prevailing value imputed to them.”
None of this makes any sense, she says. “Unless one accounts for a larger, more perverse reality of power and empire, intent on devaluing exactly the ones who add most value to your society.”
From Mexico to the World
Deeper into the shelves, we find a plaster figure big enough to fit into two hands. It’s different from the other Panchos somehow.
“I always like to ask, ‘What are the essential elements that have to exist for the icon to be recognized?’ Alvarez says, then points out the blanket, the seated posture, the hat.
Unlike others, this figure’s face looks up, his hat brim not hiding his face. “This piece is the prototype in many ways,” she says.
The original Pancho? Who was he?
“He is the peon from the Porfiriato era in Mexico, where the formation of the haceindas brought in a lot of farmhands and workers agricultural workers form the indigenous communities to work in less than ideal conditions,” Alvarez says.
Descriptions of indigenous Mexican workers appear in early 19th century travelogues and photographs. Those references were neutral, simply noting the presence of workers in the plaza, say, taking a rest. But as the image traveled north, it entered a context of political and economic injustice, and began to be read and presented differently, Alvarez says.
We step further into the stack to find a pair of salt and pepper shakers made of clay. “Based on the material and style, these are probably from Guadalajara in the 1940s,” she says.
Around this time, Mexico begins to use the Sleeping Mexican in its hospitality industry. “It’s a way of evoking a sense of rest, a place of relaxation, a place where you can get away from the hustle and bustle. That becomes part of the narrative of Mexican tourism, which of course benefits Mexico and artists and artisans and handicraft markets,” Alvarez says.
For a time, Pancho appeared on the label for Kahlua, Mexican coffee-flavored liqueur, though he later was removed.
We look closely at a set of tea cups painted with a pastoral Mexican scene, complete with Pancho, the cactus, pottery, and mountains in the distance. “These valuable cups and saucers become part of an era of nostalgia for the rural at height of industrialization and modernity. Mexico becomes backdrop for romantic, rural, authentic. You might see these in a fine home of someone who maybe went to Mexico and can boast of traveling.”
Alvarez picks up a ceramic figurine and shows me the bottom, reading aloud. “Made in Occupied Japan.”
“This is perhaps the most interesting of them all,” she says. After World War II, from 1947 to 1952, there was an explosion of handicrafts with an “ethnic” aesthetic in American society. And Japan becomes the producer of the items and images that helped modern Americans display that.
“Middle class white Americans begin to fill their homes, their garage, the area on top of the television set, the shelves in the living room with these representations of foreigners,” Alvarez says. “You see the Negress. You see the Chinaman. You see the little Chinese boy and girl, ceramics. These are all very collectible.”
This curiosity can be read as gauche or insensitive, but it also signified a desire for worldliness, Alvarez says. “This was a sort of working-class aesthetic of trying to demonstrate to your friends that you did have the openness to be internationalist. There was that sentiment of wanting to come across other cultures and feel that you were honoring them somehow. It’s very twisted… and complicated.”
Pancho Loses His Context
The story of the Sleeping Mexican icon and its various interpretations feels eerily familiar. The hard-working laborer travels far from home and finds a measure of acceptance, in some places, but also enters territory where he’s greatly misunderstood.
One of the strategies that advances any stereotype is what Alvarez calls “a strategy of disavowal.”
Decontextualizing the image makes opportunities for misunderstanding, caricature, and even harm. “So much of the meanings of dominant culture are based on strategies of extraction. You extract the context of hospitality, of conviviality, of restfulness, of enjoying ‘el placer de la vida’ and then you turn all of that material into something negative,” she says.
Like laziness. Or drunkenness.
Elizabeth Eklund, a doctoral student in the University of Arizona’s department of anthropology who is helping Alvarez archive the materials, says she’s seen plenty of examples in the collection that uphold those stereotypes—or worse.
“Some of the objects are extremely problematic, with overt comments about drinking, being drunk, or strong imagery of bottles, to reinforce that view. Some of the stereotypes are horrifying, with overly large toes … others with cartoonishly large hands. Other stereotyping implies face and head do not matter, where Pancho has no face—he’s a faceless man,” Eklund says.
But for every negative stereotype in Alvarez’s collection, there is a positive icon. Eklund says within the collection are appliqués or stickers that appear again and again on plates, wooden plaques, and photo albums, “implying this is a way an individual wanted to decorate or convey some aspect of self.”
For Eklund, the most individualized pieces—perhaps ironically—come as simple, rough-hewn piece of wood, cut with a bandsaw or jigsaw. “These works may not match the fine craftsmanship of Japanese ceramics, but they were not likely meant to sold in the first place. Instead, someone, maybe a student, made it for themselves or their family, and a piece of them is carried in that handicraft.”
Artists and activists have played with the Sleeping Mexican icon, shifting or re-visioning the aspects of the figure as a way of debunking stereotypes. Judy Baca’s Pancho Trinity, for example, captures the dangers and sacrifices of Mexican migrant journeys to the United States on the body of the figure itself. “She’s attempting to recapture that body as a canvas of history of social memory. That work is pretty powerful and very compelling,” Alvarez says.
During the Unidos movement in Tucson, which protested the elimination of ethnic studies at Tucson High School, students wore T-shirts of the Sleeping Mexican. “But this one had his head in a book, and you see that what he’s reading is one of the banned Raza studies books,” Alvarez said.
Tucson printmaker Alex Jimenez’s print “Trabajadores” depicts the Sleeping Mexican and the various types of labor he or she might be engaged in. For her, the name “Sleeping” or “Lazy Mexican” has never felt right. “Either interpretation is incongruous with the reality of the hardworking Mexican laborers I see around me and in my family.”
Jimenez says she designed the print to feel active, drawing the eye from one thing to the next. “The viewer can feel the rhythm of ‘work-rest, work-rest, work-rest’ that flows through the piece,” she says. “On a deeper level, the icons I chose represent the many forms of domestic labor that immigrants are employed in, labor they take on so their wealthy employers can ‘rest’.”
The Real Pancho
If we follow the history of real traveling Mexican workers, one of the places we end up is the Bracero Program (in Spanish bracero means “one who works with his arms”). This joint program of the State Department, the Department of Labor, and the Immigration and Naturalization Services brought Mexican laborers to the U.S. from 1946 to 1964 to address labor shortages primarily in the agricultural industry. Though arguably it created economic opportunity for millions of Mexican workers, the program was rife with inequities and injustices, including sub-standard housing, lack of food, and low wages. Many workers never received full payment for their work. These challenges eventually led to the creation of United Farm Workers, which sought to improve those conditions and wages.
Mexican immigration into the U.S. today looks different than it did during the second half of the 20th century, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Many new immigrants from Mexico have college educations and speak English. Apprehensions at the border are lower than they have been in 40 years. More immigrants from Mexico are returning to their home country than are coming to the US.
Nonetheless, were Pancho to head north from the agricultural fields or universities of Mexico today, he would find himself at the edge of a “crisis,” pushed up against a proposed wall conceived and designed to keep out thugs, rapists, and criminals—all of which might represent a similar decontextualization, a similar strategy of disavowal.
Before we leave the storage unit, Alvarez retrieves a tiny Sleeping Mexican made of wood. She opens her palm to show me. “’It’s just a little figurine,’ people say. But no thing is just the thing itself. Everything is complicated.”
In reality, Alvarez says, Pancho “is a multi-dimensional being.”
An interview with Maribel Alavarez about the Sleeping Mexican by the author was broadcast on KXCI’s The Saguaro Minute podcast in September 2016.
Latino USA did a radio story on the icon in March 2016.
Gustavo Arrellano’s piece about Pancho, Alvarez, and Janis in the April 12, 2012 edition of the Tucson Weekly offers much history.