No doubt you’ve seen the famous caricature of a Mexican man napping under his sombrero, usually by a cactus. You may not know that the caricature has a name. He is known as Pepe Siesta (“Pepe Nap”). Recently, while traveling around window-shopping in Central Oregon, I happened upon a Mexican-themed art store and saw a talavera statuette of Pepe Siesta. Of all places, I did not expect to see Pepe in Central Oregon, nearly one thousand miles from the nearest Mexican border city, Tijuana, where the famous figurine is sold all over the place.
Seeing Pepe activated something deep within me, and I decided to snap a quick photo of him because I wanted to be reminded of my exact emotions as I looked at the ornament. Every time I see a replica of Pepe Siesta, I find myself wondering what’s going on under his sombrero. Is he dreaming? Does he have any clue as to what is happening around him as he naps? It struck me, at that very moment in Central Oregon, that I should write Pepe Siesta a letter, just as I would do for Oregon Humanities’ Dear Stranger project. My goal is not to get answers but to delve within myself and examine what some would call an iconic image and others would call a racialized trope. The following is my letter:
Dear Pepe Siesta,
You do not know me, but I see you almost everywhere, and in the strangest of places. I have seen you in Central Oregon; East Los Angeles; Chicago; Victoria, British Columbia; and, of course, Tijuana and Michoacán. All over the place. I have seen so many caricatures and depictions of you that I feel a need to get to know you better, or at least ask you some questions. You may or may not want to answer, which is totally fine. It is your prerogative whether you indulge my curiosity while you are taking that nap you are so famous for. Perhaps, unbeknownst to you, someone thought it wise to capture you in a moment of complete vulnerability, in a deep slumber. Or maybe you were caught in a moment of profound reflection. My hope is that somebody at least asked your permission once you came to, and that you allowed your likeness to be shared, recreated, and cast about all over the world. Far too often I have witnessed people use your likeness and cast aspersions or judgement upon you in a manner that I find quite troubling.
Just so you know, there are way too many people for my liking who tend to think of you—and, by association, Mexicans—as people who do not want to work. All because this one image was captured in one moment of your life. It's unfair, but extreme prejudice is sometimes thrust upon you and, by proxy, the Mexican people, because of a likeness based on one moment of your vulnerability. Completely unfair, I know.
Every time I see that caricature of you, a Mexican man, with his sombrero pulled over his eyes, hunched in the shade, it makes me question myself: Why am I so bothered by this? Is it that someone took advantage of you? Or is it the conclusions people jump to that strike a nerve within me? I have come to realize that I just do not like stereotypes about my people, or stereotypes about anyone.
I wonder if anyone has ever asked you for an explanation of why you were so tired and in that position in the first place. (As if you owe anyone an explanation.) I like to believe that you were practicing self-care—something gringos have come to perfect as an explanation for a much-needed break or rest. Taking a moment to look after your own well-being is now called self-care. Did you know that? Can you believe it? It is quite the rage nowadays. It’s an evolution—and, dare I say, a revolution. We mexicanos have known about siestas and self-care for hundreds of years, and yet we were judged for it. And now, all of a sudden, gringo culture has discovered what we, the people from the global majority, have understood for a lifetime. Imagine that. Better late than never, I guess, right?
I’m afraid some people have chosen to take liberties and use ugly interpretations about what you were doing in your moment of solitude. Perhaps you do not know, but massive judgement has been placed on our people thanks to your image. By no means is this your fault. Some have said we are lazy; that we are inefficient and we view time as leisure, rather than valuing time as a commodity, as something to be monetized. The phrase “time is money and money is time” comes to mind. These impositions and aspersions too often come from a loud and select few who are not historically from where our ancestors called home, originally. These would-be critics have very little cultural understanding of the value we place on relationship over time. Those who would negatively judge have come to occupy our ancestral homeland while feeling at liberty to critique us and our people's work ethic, all the while comparing it to their own. It’s really quite remarkable if you think about it, Pepe.
Nah, I choose to see you, Pepe Siesta, for who you are. I see, hear, and feel you. Do you want to know why I say this, Pepe? Because my father is you. My grandfathers were you. My great-grandfathers were you. I am you, Pepe.
All worked to the bone, with very little recognition other than from a foreman who was looking for praise from his boss, for his workers, who included mi papá. Instead of praise, my father heard the boss’s boss say, “Good! Work'em! They got families to feed.” No appreciation for his exhaustion, his sweat, or his broken body. Nel, nada. All mi papá got was a disabled body and oppressive, judgmental, borderline-abusive hostility that in turn was directed not only at him but at our people. Those who feed this great nation that once was ours. Essential yet unwanted other than for the labor we produce.
Every time I see the replica of you with your sombrero pulled over your eyes, huddled in the shade, resting, be it under a cactus or the shade of a half-constructed wall at a worksite you’ve been on, I know, and people need to know, that you are taking care of yourself. You are resting after shouldering the weight of a nation that would soon crumble if not for you, for us, the gente that do the jobs no one else wants to do.
So I say this to you, Pepe: rest well and take your siesta. You have earned every second your body needs to heal and recover.
TagsIdentity, Race, Work
4 comments have been posted.
Thank you for this amazing letter. I grew up in rural New Mexico and this imagery was everywhere. It was used to judge and label Mexican people and culture in the secluded white areas that I lived in. The idea that rest and care for oneself only becomes "okay" when the white majority says it's "okay" was a revelation for me. I appreciate your letter and thank you for teaching me.
Cole Evans | September 2021 | Astoria, OR
Powerful. Thank you.
Tricia Gates Brown | September 2021 | Yamhill
My oldest friend, George Rede, sent me your “letter” to Pepe. I also used to wonder why I was so irritated when I saw that caricature of the people my family derived from and you helped crystallize the basis of that irritation for me. I never thought it was in sympathy for having someone take an unauthorized photo and then monetized it, most likely w/out giving Pepe the residuals he was due. Thank you for bringing this out into the open!
AlRod | September 2021 |
Thank-you! I LOVE that you are currently part of GAPS in this awful, decisive time. I’ve taught at SAHS over 30yrs, I’m definitely raised “WASP” and have tried to “wake up” since my childhood. Thank-you for being, for writing & for getting into a system (I imagine) in the hope to help change it ❤️❤️❤️ I teach at SAHS & live in Eugene. My heart is in the struggle to create change, Holly
Holly Garrow | September 2021 | Albany/Eugene