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Mascot Monty Is No More

School: San Diego State's red-faced Aztec warrior, seen by some as racist, is reborn as Montezuma, a dignified ambassador.

January 24, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Before a group of admiring elementary school students, San Diego State University's new campus ambassador made his debut Wednesday, after months of controversy about longtime mascot Monty Montezuma.

Monty Montezuma, the bare-chested, spear-throwing macho mascot, is no more.

In his place is Montezuma the diplomat, wearing a tunic rather than a loincloth, the result of a compromise that university President Stephen Weber hopes will calm a campus controversy that has flared since fall 2000.

"I'm an educator, not an entertainer," said Alberto Martinez, the student selected to portray the 16th century Aztec ruler. "There is a lot of difference between an ambassador and a mascot."

For $10 an hour, Martinez, 21, a political science major from Mission Viejo, will give lectures at schools and make a variety of public appearances in his carefully constructed regalia. He will be at Saturday's basketball game between the San Diego State Aztecs and the Runnin' Rebels of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I'm very proud of my culture and heritage and I want to share that with everybody," said Martinez, whose parents were born in Mexico.

At athletic contests, he will be a greeter and regal presence and will not, as Monty did famously for decades, exhort the crowd to cheer for the Aztecs. He will not race wildly along the sidelines at Qualcomm Stadium beating his chest and bellowing to the sky to excite Aztec fans.

"This has nothing to do with being politically correct," Weber said of the change. "It has to do with the responsibility of a university to be historically and anthropologically correct. . . . We're trying to give an accurate portrayal of a great, great civilization and possibly spark the imagination of these students."

A San Diego State group called the Native American Student Activist Organization issued a statement to the campus newspaper, the Daily Aztec, calling the new Montezuma as unacceptable as the old one.

"The former San Diego State mascot should never have been promoted as the new university ambassador," the statement said. "The new ambassador only reminds Native Americans that we are treated like second-class citizens and are represented without dignity."

Montezuma's debut at Rosa Parks Elementary School in the racially diverse City Heights neighborhood was not accidental. Rosa Parks is one of several inner-city campuses involved in a program run by the university and San Diego school system to raise test scores and encourage students from low-income families to aspire to college.

"He was a president, a general and a priest, all in one," Martinez explained to a gathering of wide-eyed first-grade students. "Pretty amazing, wasn't it?"

Details about Montezuma's new costume, designed by a professor from the theater department and one from Chicano studies, had been a closely guarded secret.

Montezuma's cape is made of regular leather and suede, with a design at the edges that was permitted to be worn only by the most exalted of warriors, said Holly Poe Durbin, an assistant professor of costume design. His jewelry features metallic gold, jade, molded brass and composite green stones.

Even in seeking historical accuracy, some bows had to be made to modernity. The headdress is made of turkey, duck and pheasant feathers. The real Montezuma wore a headdress of quetzal feathers, but the quetzal is an endangered species.

After months of debate, Weber opted to keep the Aztecs' nickname for the school but revamp the Montezuma figure. Still unknown is whether the new Montezuma will prompt another clash between Native American activists who said the figure was a racist caricature and the alumni and students who thought Monty was a cherished tradition.

"What the alums wanted was to preserve the Aztec tradition," said Tamara McLeod, president of the San Diego State Alumni Assn. "I hope alums will see this Montezuma as continuing the tradition, but with a lot more substance."

Still to be decided is the tricky issue of how to portray Montezuma on souvenirs and logos. The scowling, red-faced warrior was seen as historically inaccurate.

Weber is also deciding whether the university needs a mascot to adopt the traditional yell-leader role at sporting events and, if so, what he/she/it should look like.

Martinez has been coached on the appropriate behavior for a ruler king.

"I'm not doing any cartwheels, no throwing flaming spears," he said.

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