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San Diego State's Aztec Mascot Provokes Battle

Dispute: Indian group says image of Monty is racist. But community support for the longtime figure is strong.


SAN DIEGO — The discussion at Montezuma Hall in Aztec Center was about Monty Montezuma. It was intense.

The hottest topic this term at San Diego State University is not the presidential election or some civic or academic matter.

The issue that has the student newspaper and Student Council abuzz is controversy over the future of the sports mascot.

Since 1941, a succession of Montys, eager undergraduates dressed to suggest the Aztec emperor Montezuma II, have entertained fans at San Diego State football and basketball games.

Even when he is not dancing menacingly and waving his flaming spear, Monty is a big presence on campus. Students can buy snacks at Monty's Market, eat lunch at Monty's Patio and down a beer at Monty's Pub. Monty's likeness is on a long list of souvenirs, from sweatshirts to mugs.

But now there is a drive by the Native American Student Alliance to ban Monty as racist and culturally retrograde.

"Our native people will no longer be portrayed as a mascot," said alliance leader Ray Soto. "Mascots have given us an image. Our kids are suffering from that image. That is morally wrong."

This, of course, is the same dispute that has roiled professional sports--with teams like the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians--and various colleges and universities in recent years.

The anti-Monty forces are urging San Diego State to join Stanford, St. John's University and Dartmouth in dropping the Indian motif.

The same dispute flared here three years ago and was settled in a compromise after being studied by an 18-member multiethnic committee: Monty would remain but would act less cartoonish, and his costume and likeness would be more historically accurate.

But three years on a university campus can be a lifetime, and so Monty is again a divisive figure.

This week the Student Council is set to vote on whether to recommend that Monty be retired. The issue then goes to the University Senate, a group of faculty members, administrators and students.

The decision-making buck stops with University President Stephen Weber, who has yet to reveal his views.

If Weber moves against Monty, he will do so at his own peril. Possibly more than any athletic coach, and certainly more than any administrator or faculty member, Monty has a constituency in the community.

San Diego State graduates play a major role in the local media, business sector and political leadership. All five members of the county Board of Supervisors are San Diego State graduates. A succession of mayors, police chiefs and city managers have been alums.

A poll by the student newspaper, the Daily Aztec, found 90% of students favoring Monty's retention.

The local sports media and even the San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial page have rushed to Monty's defense. Radio sportscaster Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton calls the anti-Monty campaign "utter ridiculousness."

Although Monty did not make his first appearance until halftime at the San Diego-Pomona College game in 1941, the school's athletic teams have been called Aztecs since students selected the name in 1925. Before that, teams were called the Staters, the Professors and the Wampus Cats.

For decades Monty sat as a regal presence on the sidelines atop a pyramid. In the 1980s the athletic department decided Monty should be more active, leading to his current routine, in which he enters dramatically through a stadium tunnel in a cloud of smoke, waving his flaming spear.

"We find it hard to believe that anybody would find disrespect in the symbol [of Montezuma]," said Fred Pierce, head of the Aztec Athletic Foundation.

Monty brings big money to the university and the athletic department in souvenir sales. His likeness is a brand that the university has spent considerable time and money promoting.

"The position of the athletic department has been to treat the mascot and the logo with dignity and cultural correctness," said Steve Schnall, director of marketing for the athletic department.

In addition to concerns about the use of a cultural icon as a mascot, critics say that, despite the compromise of three years ago, the figure is not historically accurate in dress or demeanor and the use of his likeness on jerseys and other things is insulting.

"Montezuma was an emperor, not a half-naked savage," said Mateo Camarillo, a prominent business owner, San Diego State alum and former executive director of the Chicano Federation. "I have seen Monty running around Qualcomm Stadium [as a spear thrower]. That was not what Montezuma was."

Rene Nunez, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies, says that unless students are Native American or Latino or Mexican they cannot understand why Monty is deeply offensive.

"When you walk in their moccasins, then you can say what offends them," Nunez said. "But not until then."

There is little indication, however, that Nunez's dictum is changing many minds among Monty's supporters.

"I'm a minority myself: a Jew," student Scott Cross told the Montezuma Hall gathering. "If the mascot was a Jew, that would be great. A . . . little old man with a yarmulke--great."

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