Two years ago, officials at California's second-largest college banned a bare-chested, spear-wielding character nicknamed "Monty Montezuma" from representing the school at sports events. Now, in an unusual twist in the annals of racial sensitivity on campus, a divided San Diego State University is on the verge of giving the mascot a makeover and restoring him to his cheerleading duties.
This week, despite cries of racism in some quarters, students and alumni are expected to overwhelmingly approve a newly renamed "Aztec warrior," complete with a historically accurate costume, nontoxic face paint and, yes, a spear.
But few expect the binding referendum to end the debate. A coalition of minority groups and student leaders plans to ignore a yes vote and demand a non-human mascot. (Animal rights advocates have not weighed in yet on that prospect.)
The debate at San Diego State is part of a broader national discussion about sports team symbolism, which extends beyond race to include issues such as gender, as in a recent decision by the University of Massachusetts to keep its Minuteman logo.
Not all Latinos, many of whom trace their heritage to the Aztecs, find the warrior image offensive to their heritage. But critics vow, it the vote goes against them, to follow the lead of American Indians who are taking on unsympathetic sports teams in court.
"We're saying enough is enough. In this area of American life, you don't use us as targets," says Suzan Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, an Indian rights group that is suing the Washington Redskins over the pro football team's trademarked nickname. The institute is appealing a court ruling that threw out a decision in its favor.
On the sports front, Indian groups can point to plenty of success over the past three decades. Since the University of Oklahoma dumped its unofficial "Little Red" dancing Indian mascot in 1970, some 2,000 teams have eliminated Indian-based nicknames and mascots. Last summer, the NCAA asked its colleges to reconsider Indian nicknames, and newspapers from Portland, Me., to Lincoln, Neb., have banned the names from their pages. "We're on the downhill side," Ms. Harjo said.
But an estimated 1,100 teams retain Indian names and mascots, including the red-colored, grinning, big-nosed "Chief Wahoo" of the Cleveland Indians and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's "Chief Illiniwek," whose fate is currently being decided.
Up until this week's vote, the San Diego State mascot saga followed the usual course of community protests and official action. The school, whose football team is a perennial also-ran, has been mascot-less since 2000, when the university president scuttled "Monty Montezuma" after minority groups complained, despite overwhelming student support. But the president left room for a new mascot created - in the best university tradition - by a committee.
The proposed "Aztec Warrior" wears an eagle headdress, a red "armor garment," arm and leg bands, and a "hip cloth" designed to reflect "modern modesty and wearer comfort." Real feathers will line the costume, but they won't come from the bird used by the Aztecs because the cara cara is endangered.
The mascot fight has so energized alumni that they raised $55,000 in a single year and hired the former mascot to attend games in a new costume. Many alumni understand that the "Monty" nickname had to go, says accountant Rulon Jenson, who watches over the funds. "If there was a Mexican or Canadian team that called themselves the Georgie Washingtons, I'd probably be offended," he says. "A historical person shouldn't be made fun of." But the critics go too far, Mr. Jenson says, when they make claim that a representation of an ancient civilization is degrading.
Indeed, the Aztecs, like the Trojans and Spartans, are history. "All of Mexico today is generically and culturally a blend of native peoples and European elements, along with Africans who were brought over as well," says New York anthropologist Michael E. Smith. While some Mexicans still speak the Aztec language, "there's no sort of contemporary indigenous group that would call themselves Aztecs."
Native heritage, however, remains a powerful force among American Indians and Mexicans, who have joined forces to fight the Aztec mascot. On the other hand, many Latinos - including a young advertising executive who hopes to morph from Monty Montezuma into the official Aztec Warrior - clearly disagree with the drive to chuck the mascot. The critics "have nothing better to do," complains journalism student David Guzman, a Latino, as he plays ping-pong at a student center filled, like the campus itself, with mission-style arches.
Other minority groups are divided too. Bryan Spencer, a lanky Filipino student from Georgia, says many students are simply uneducated, as he was when he didn't realize that the Atlanta Braves infamous "Tomahawk Chop" cheer was offensive. Spencer, wearing an oversized Braves jersey, says he'll vote against the mascot because it's wrong to present "something that's sacred to a culture at a football or basketball game." And he may support efforts to continue battling the mascot. "The fight will go on."