Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A Texas mayor, a mural and a Mexican stereotype

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
March 23, 2012 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has struggled, along with his citizens, over the implications of re-creating a controversial mural.
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro has struggled, along with his citizens, over the implications of re-creating a controversial mural.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: San Antonio mayor among most prominent Latino officals
  • He says Julian Castro struggles with controversy over planned mural showing sleeping Mexican
  • Navarrette says Castro sees mural image as historic, not currently resonant
  • Navarrette: Image is offensive, but it's time to let this one go in today's booming San Antonio

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Los Angeles (CNN) -- Julian Castro is not cooperating. The mayor of San Antonio knows full well what I want to talk about, and yet he is determined to change the subject to what he believes is a much more pressing story. Where I want to drag him, my friend refuses to go.

First, you might be asking what the mayor of America's seventh-largest city is doing in the second-largest city. He's in town on business, and I've come up from my home north of San Diego to have lunch with him. But Castro is not out of place here: He went to college up the highway at Stanford University, and he has plenty of friends and supporters in Southern California.

Besides, as one of the most prominent Latino elected officials in the country, he is a national figure. In fact, now that the Texas Democrat has been named one of 30 national co-chairmen for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, we can expect to see him dispatched often over the next several months to some of the most heavily Latino cities in California.

For the 37-year-old, life is about hustling and constantly being in motion. As if to prove it, Castro has run the Rock 'n' Roll half marathon (13.1 miles) each time the race has come to San Antonio.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

So how ironic that what we are talking about is a proposed artistic re-creation in his city that would depict, among other things, a Mexican sleeping against a wall.

Oh, him again. That popular and yet offensive image: a Mexican in a big sombrero asleep against a wall or, more often, under a cactus. He's the Mexican-American community's Charlie Chan, our cigar store Indian, our black Sambo.

He personifies and perpetuates the wrongheaded idea that the reason Mexico lost half its territory in the land grab known as the U.S.-Mexican War and the reason that Mexican-Americans have been mistreated and discriminated against in the century and a half since then is, well, because they were inattentive, passive, asleep.

In San Antonio, city officials have launched a project to re-create the historic marquee of an iconic drive-in movie theater. The problem is that the marquee in question, installed in the late 1940s, depicted the images of a Mexican in a sombrero asleep against a wall and another Mexican with a burro.

Right. We can't forget the burro.

Local activists are not amused, calling the images demeaning and racist. They're demanding that the proposed re-creation leave out the offensive images. Apparently, people in San Antonio have a lot to say about this controversy. You know who hasn't said anything publicly? Julian Castro.

As a Mexican-American, Castro is much more interested in painting a picture of San Antonio as a city that never sleeps. There ought to be a picture of him in the dictionary next to the word "positive." He's no one's victim. And that's probably one reason that The New York Times has referred to him as "the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician."

For the most part I admire that about him, but I also understand why non-Hispanics fancy the idea that a prominent Hispanic official isn't peddling victimhood. It's because many of them must realize that, these days, Hispanics are being victimized. If our leaders start beating that drum, there's no telling what could happen.

At first, when we sat down, Castro resisted saying anything about the controversy over the sleeping Mexican. Then he relented.

"I certainly understand the hurt feelings," he said. "Because it speaks to the negative perception of the Latino community as lazy and unambitious that has hampered it through the years. But, at the same time, we have a majority-Latino city that was just ranked as the top-performing city last year, we have more and more college graduates every day reaching their dreams, so I'm going to spend my time on the positive."

That positive includes the Milken Institute's 2011 ranking of San Antonio as No. 1 out of 200 metropolitan areas in terms of performance, in terms of "creating and sustaining jobs and economic growth." And plans for a $150 million performance arts there center are off the ground. There is a $600 million bond measure coming before voters. And the city's unemployment rate is 6.9% -- compared with the statewide rate of 7.3% and the national figure of 8.3%.

Still, I couldn't get the sleeping Mexican off my mind. I asked Castro if these recurring racial battles are important or merely a distraction?

"In some people's minds, the community is still limited to that perception," he said. "To the degree that addressing it helps us heal, then it's important."

He added: "What's interesting about this issue is that they wanted to preserve something that historically had been there. ... It's historic preservation vs. cultural sensitivity. If you go full historical preservation, you're going to do it warts and all. You have to balance it. More than anything, you just feel unfortunate that you're in the pit to begin with."

So I said, "You're like, 'I don't want to feed this controversy. ...' "

Castro interrupted: "But I understand it. I respect it. I agree that I don't like that image. I understand how it makes people feel, especially for the older generation. It's a sense of, 'Oh man, here we go again.' When there is a perceived slight, they're more attuned it. They catch it."

To hear him describe it, the proposed re-creation depicts a sleeping Mexican all right, but not as the centerpiece of the marquee. It's just off to the side. The more I think about it, the more I decide this whole controversy is a whole lot of nothing. So, I ask, why is there a problem?

"It's symbolic," Castro said. "It's symbolic of how the Latino community has been perceived. There's a frustration there that we haven't moved beyond that. But I will also say that it's frustrating because we don't see Latinos projected in the media positively. So you feel like: 'Well, if you had all this great press and people who have become astronauts and done other great things regularly in the news ... then there wouldn't be a problem.' If there was a balance, I don't think it would strike people so negatively and we could move on."

This is a wake-up call. Let's put to rest the protests over this image. It's offensive, but it doesn't sting. Not anymore. We know the truth. Time to move on.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT