Excited to go to Mexicana tonight? I’m sure you are. Leisure’s Mexicana event is a long running tradition; a fresher’s first taste of what it feels like to be in a drunken stupor at a university event whilst surrounded by other students both young and old in a similar state. That is surrounded by other mostly white, mostly upper class students wearing sombreros who probably don’t know how to pronounce fajitas correctly. That is, students who can wake up the next morning and suffer from a hangover, not oppressive, xenophobic government policies. That is, students who can laugh and make memes about building a wall to divide the United States and Mexico because their family have not been shot at trying to emigrate.
Cultural appropriation involves taking an aspect from a culture that you don’t belong to and use it outside of that cultural context, without understanding its cultural significance and often changing its original meaning. It can often trivialise violent historical oppression, spread reduced and stereotypical representations of marginalised cultures, contribute to racist undertones and implicit oppression, and allow dominant power groups (i.e. white people) to freely do what the oppressed (i.e. people of colour) minority group was actively punished for doing.
It’s something the UWA Student Guild have said they don’t support. The UWA Student Guild’s Equity and Diversity Guide for Clubs and Societies states that organisers should “consider the unintended result of using a popular racial or cultural theme” and make sure that people at the event do not “rely on stereotypes or inaccurate and offensive depictions of that culture.” The guide also encourages organisers to “choose a theme that does not encourage offensive costumes” and “educate (themselves) on what costumes are not okay – e.g. cultural appropriation.”
The section on cultural appropriation is exceptionally applicable to Mexicana, as the UWA Student Guild has approved this event in spite of Mexicana being an example of exactly what not to do. This is ironic given the Guild’s social media posts emphasising inclusivity, equity, and diversity. The Guild preaching about how progressive it is means nothing if they enable events such as Mexicana to continue under their jurisdiction.
However in my opinion, what is without a doubt the most shocking factor of Leisure’s Mexicana event is the flippant attitude towards Donald Trump’s verbal and systemic marginalisation of Mexican people. It is no secret that Trump is openly racist; it was after all the platform of his presidential campaign and ascent to power. Trump’s promise of a wall to ‘protect’ Americans from Mexican “terrorists”, “cartels”, and “illegal immigrants” paints a fictional image of Mexican people as threats. Of course, it can be argued that Mexicana is making fun of Trump, but using Trump as a ‘joke’ ultimately falls flat, because the people making these ‘jokes’ are largely rich, white, privileged Australians who don’t actually have to deal with Trump’s racist policies. Many Latinx artists have used satire against Trump as a way of coping with the constant barrage of racism and xenophobia and as a tool of political resistance – to convert satire into a way to stereotype Mexican people is frankly lazy and appalling. The glorification of Trump as both an emblem of whiteness and source of comic relief have been utilised in Leisure’s Mexicana events since 2017. This includes producing a video in 2017 which juxtaposed UWA students partying in highly insensitive costumes with a backing track featuring Trump’s remixed voice completely degrading Mexican people and saying, “I will build a great wall.” To be blunt, Leisure has celebrated a man who has degraded and discriminated against women, the LGBT+ community, African Americans, Latinx folk, and Muslim folks. Treating this discrimination as a joke isn’t funny at all.
The racism surrounding Mexicana has already affected some Latinx students on campus. An Argentinian PhD student had these words to say regarding Mexicana:
“I found the Facebook event of Leisure’s Mexicana party, whose event description involved a pun using Mexico’s name that mentioned battles and sacrifices that took place 500 years ago. It was being used to sell the party and referenced the exact time of Spanish colonisation, a historical event that is still a wound in our history and identity. I decided to take action and bring these facts in the most educational way possible – I wrote in the Mexicana event and shared some links about Aztec history…and then I waited for its approval to be published. To my surprise, I received a hollow, PR-driven message from the Leisure Club’s current president that seemed insincere, telling me how sorry they were about the misunderstanding, but that they didn’t have any understanding of Mexican history and that the comment was not intentional, and they remarked how committed they were in celebrating Mexican culture and making the party a safe space for the Latinx community.
Trying to make sense of the idea of having real commitment for a culture’s respect they simultaneously do not have a clue of, I gently replied to them that I appreciate their efforts, but that all I want is my comment to be published, and for my voice not to be silenced. To this they warned me that if my comment gets published I will potentially receive public backlash and negative comments towards me or the Latinx community, so they strongly suggested that I not do it. So it seemed I had found the true spirit of the Mexicana party after all, a “celebration of Mexico“, one of the most amazing Latinx cultures, but held by people proud of not only not having the slightest clue about the country at all, using icons and themes of traumatic experiences for Mexican people, and joined by people thrilled about having another excuse to dress up and drink. The true spirit of Mexicana was bullying Latinx voices who wanted to voice a complaint.”
I also reached out to Hispanic University Group (HUG) to ask for their thoughts on Mexicana. Their response was interesting as they acknowledged Mexicana’s problematic aspects, but also expressed that they were pleased to have been contacted by Leisure’s Welfare Officer in the lead up to the event, saying “We here at HUG love a great party and having fun with our friends. Members of our committee have attended previous Mexicana parties and our experiences have been good and passed without complaint. However, we do acknowledge the problematic aspects of the annual Mexicana party.”
Although it is great that Leisure engaged with HUG to ensure that Mexicana was conducted in a fun and supportive way, this does not negate the fact that Mexicana does not authentically celebrate Mexican culture or people. Hint: it does the opposite.
If the Guild wants to take inclusivity, equity, and diversity seriously, Mexicana needs to be drastically improved and shifted from cultural appropriation to cultural appreciation.
UWA has a growing relationship with Latin America and has taken steps to provide for this; the formation of the Hispanic University Group (HUG) in 2015, the implementation of a Latin American Engagement Strategy in 2016, the introduction of Spanish Studies in 2017, as well as postgraduate scholarships for students from Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and Argentina. Thus, the disaster that is Mexicana is clearly a discussion that we need to have.
Some simple ways that Mexicana could be revolutionised to be a positive example of cultural exchange include serving traditional Mexican food such as tamales, fajitas, pan dulce and tostadas (especially by hiring Mexican-owned businesses), taking a leaf out of Curtin’s book and co-hosting an event with a Latinx group such as Friends of Mexico in WA, celebrating Mexican history and culture positively, dressing appropriately, and so much more! These are just some brief ideas, but taking steps like these would be a great and simple way to make Mexicana an educational and appreciative cultural experience.
However, for these changes to occur effectively, it is crucial that they are done out of genuine respect for Mexican culture. I mention this because in the few days before Mexicana, Leisure has removed any trace of Trump and cultural appropriation from its event page. This is suspicious given that Mexicana’s parties in 2017 and 2018 were excessively marketed in a manner that promoted Trump as the main icon of the event. Perhaps, word got out that Leisure was going to be called out for their behaviour? The whole event page has been overhauled to remove any evidence of past wrongdoing, in order to make Mexicana look like the epitome of positive cultural exchange. Is this a good thing? Absolutely, but why couldn’t have this been done from the get go? Why has it all been changed days before the event? It has been changed because Leisure is covering their tracks, and their faux-progression will only get them so far.
If they truly, really, and sincerely wanted to respect Mexican people and their culture, they would’ve done it from the very beginning, and not just when they got caught out.
After publishing this article, The President of Leisure messaged the Pelican FB page to let us know that Leisure is already serving traditional Mexican food such as tamales, fajitas, pan dulce and tostadas (especially by hiring Mexican-owned businesses). They also sat down with Assistant Director of Student Services, Chloe Jackson, and Guild President, Megan Lee, to ensure the event was culturally appropriate, not because of any suspicions of a Pelican article.