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‘Galactic Fiesta’ kerfuffle used as a ploy to increase ethnic studies funding at UM


The University of Minnesota wasn’t responding to any campus outcry when it formally apologized for a “Galactic Fiesta” party that it claimed was offensive to Latinos.

Rather, it may have been trying to pacify an outside activist who was using the party to demand more funding for ethnic studies, according to The College Fix’s review.

‘Wasn’t Really Any Uproar’

A voting member of the student government told The Fix that “perhaps” a third of students even knew about the glow-in-the-dark bowling party, sponsored by the student government, which featured sombreros, ponchos and the school mascot, Goldy Gopher, dressed in traditional Mexican garb.

Students received a puzzling email from Danita Brown Young, vice provost and dean of students, on Nov. 12 that claimed the party “caused concern among several members of our campus community.”

Young said student planners “were unaware of the impact” the theme might have, so the administration has “taken the opportunity to educate them about stereotypes, disrespectful appropriations, and the political complexities of representation.” She apologized in particular to “Chicana/o and Latina/o” students.

Young and Maggie Towle, director of the Student Unions & Activities department, which sponsored the event, declined to comment, referring The Fix to Young’s email to the community. Latino campus groups La Raza Student Cultural Center and the Latino International Student Association did not respond to requests for comment.

The student government member told The Fix he only knew about the event, hosted at the “less active St. Paul campus,” because of his interaction with students who were “informally” advertising the Galactic Fiesta.

There “really wasn’t any uproar on campus” before Young’s email, he said in an email: “At first I really had no idea what prompted the apology,” and no one he knew had complained or “had a major issue” with the party.

The student only learned what was considered offensive two to three days after Young’s apology: A letter written by an alumna was making the rounds.

Shows That ‘Racism Is Acceptable’ at UM

“Sent this email to UMN administrators, [let me know] if you’re down to send an email in support, I’ll share email addresses,” says the letter from Idalia Robles De León, a doctoral student in “Chicana and Chicano studies” at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

Though De León initially posted her letter on her Facebook profile and references it in her email, she has since changed her privacy settings to hide her posts from the public.

De León, who was not at the Galactic Fiesta, said she learned that “people were encouraged to wear zarapes [a kind of Mexican shawl], sombreros, and sugar skull makeup,” used in Dia de los Muertes celebrations.

(Elle offered a Halloween tutorial on sugar-skull makeup, and Cosmopolitan recently featured a collection of “beautiful and haunting” sugar-skull creations from Instagram.)

De León said the party featured a photo booth where students were encouraged to dress as “a mariachi and what can only be described as a racist Spanish fantasy depiction of a Mexican woman.”

The party is indicative of “the lack of racial and ethnic sensitivity I experienced as a member of the UMN community,” De León said. She had complained as a student in 2011 that a white student wearing a white suit and sombrero had been named “SuperFan of the Game” at a Gophers game, accusing the school of “celebrating his practice of cultural appropriation.”

The Galactic Fiesta was just one example of the university’s message that “racism is acceptable, and that extracting cultural elements is not only accepted, but encouraged,” De León said, decrying the “dehumanizing caricaturization and stereotyping processes that hurt so many” students.

Just A Fight Over Departmental Funding?

De León may have shown her deeper agenda with a suggestion about how the school can respond to the imbroglio: by hiring a new full-time faculty member in the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies and restoring “the Community Liaison position to at least a 75% appointment.”

The Minnesota Daily reported this week that the department is “running on fumes,” with only one full-time faculty member after another left for Arizona State University in the spring. The department didn’t make the list this fall for which could hire new faculty.

According to the Daily, department faculty have accused the school of shortchanging diversity by underfunding the department.

In addition to De León’s letter, student Kenneth Gonzales wrote an op-ed in the Daily suggesting that Young’s letter to the campus – not any homegrown outrage – was the spark that created a controversy.

“There are too many racial offenses that go under the radar. See to it that this will not be one of them,” Gonzales wrote, saying the Student Unions and Activities department lacks “cultural understanding and sensitivity.”

While the student government member told The Fix he thought the Galactic Fiesta “crossed lines with the photo booth and make-up,” the name of the event and Goldy Gopher’s attire were “within allowable grounds.

“For Halloween, Goldy usually … changes into at least 5 costumes, as well as different outfits,” the student said. “Thus, it was not unexpected that Goldy would come in some sort of clothing or costume for these types of events, and is usually encouraged to for these events.”

Students at the party apparently didn’t see any offense. Student Unions and Activities official Teri Jungels posted an Instagram photo that recalls Three Amigos – subsequently criticized in a tweet as #culturalappropriation. Jungels has since removed the photo.

Another student tweeted that extraterrestrials could have also taken offense.

Would a Narcocorrido Be Less Offensive?

The response to the Galactic Fiesta raises questions about vague academic and political notions of diversity.

Should people be allowed to incorporate elements of other cultures in social gatherings? Or should diversity simply mean cultures are to be fostered from a distance, reduced to nodding heads and silent gazes?

The response of administrators and activists, now on the hunt for “microaggressions,” suggests there’s a dangerous line between glow-in-the-dark bowling in a T-shirt and doing the same in a poncho.

The offense was easier to see in an infamous off-campus party that was thrown by Northwestern University students in 2012. Dubbed the “Racist Olympics,” the party featured students dressing as various ethnic cultures and drinking heavily; Northwestern started requiring students to take a diversity course the next year.

Judging by the photos that have emerged from the Galactic Fiesta, though, nothing remotely crude or mocking happened at the party.

Perhaps the Galactic Fiesta organizers should have tried to recreate “The Ballad of Heisenberg” from Breaking Bad – a narcocorrido celebration of drug trafficking – as a more authentic example of Mexican culture than sombreros and zarapes.

College Fix reporter Curtis Chou is a student at Northwestern University.

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IMAGE: Idalia Robles De León

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About the Author
Curtis Chou -- Northwestern University