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San Diego State to Vote on Mascot

Foes of the suggested icon say it's a religious symbol

November 18, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — In a bid to settle a divisive issue involving symbolism, tradition and cultural sensibilities, students and alumni at San Diego State University will vote next month on whether the university should adopt a character named Aztec Warrior as its official mascot.

The vote, arranged by San Diego State President Stephen L. Weber, is the latest round in a four-year controversy over how the university should deal with its historic affinity for the culture of the Aztec empire that ruled much of Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Aztec Warrior character, unveiled Monday morning on the university's Web site, would appear at football and basketball games. San Diego State teams are known as the Aztecs.

The university has been without an official mascot for three seasons since Weber, despite protests from students and graduates, banned the longtime mascot Monty Montezuma, whose spear-throwing, chest-beating routine was a fan favorite.

Weber banned Monty, and later had his image removed from trinkets sold on campus, after Native American and Latino students complained that Monty Montezuma was culturally insensitive and historically incorrect. They also felt it racist to have a cheerleader dressed in a costume meant to represent a king.

Monty's banishment, however, did not sit well with alumni, including many in positions of political and economic power in San Diego.

In September 2002, a private group introduced Aztec Warrior as an unofficial mascot. Although banned from the playing field, Aztec Warrior roamed the stands, to the delight of fans.

With support for a mascot remaining strong, Weber decided to put the issue to a vote and abide by the results.

As a condition, he had the Aztec Warrior character revised by scholars to be more historically accurate than the figure created by the Aztec Warrior Foundation. Also, he noted that the new Aztec Warrior is a warrior, not a king like Montezuma.

With that revision complete, Weber scheduled the vote for Dec. 3-5, with results to be announced by Dec. 11. For the new Aztec Warrior to be approved, a majority of students and a majority of alumni will have to vote in favor.

"The lesson here is the power of symbols," Weber said. "You take people's symbols away from them, and they don't like it." As they have been since 1999, the sides are split.

"San Diego State needs a mascot," said Rulon Jenson, an accountant, San Diego State graduate and a director of the Aztec Warrior Foundation. "Aztec Warrior will only bring pride to the university, something to cheer about. Who can object to that?"

The Native American Student Alliance and the San Diego chapter of MEChA, a Latino student association, oppose Aztec Warrior as strongly as they did Monty Montezuma.

"Aztec Warrior is just a new Monty Montezuma and just as objectionable," said Christina RuizGoldberg, president of the MEChA chapter. "Having a religious symbol at a football game, around alcohol, is very disrespectful of our culture. This is terrible."

The character of Monty Montezuma, played by a succession of muscular undergraduates, had been a fixture at San Diego State games since 1941, when Monty appeared at the halftime of a game against Pomona College. The university's teams have been called the Aztecs since 1925.

In anticipation that the Aztec Warrior will win approval, the university alumni association has already signed a contract with Carlos Gutierrez, who played Monty Montezuma from 1990 to 1998, to play the role.

In banning Monty, the university introduced Montezuma the ambassador, a more subdued figure who visited schools to provide instruction about Aztec culture. But after only a year the ambassador figure is no more, the victim of budget tightening.

Although Monty Montezuma is gone, his constituency remains. All five members of the county Board of Supervisors, for example, are San Diego State graduates with fond memories of Monty darting along the sidelines.

"My hope is that the [Dec. 3-5] vote will determine once and for all that the culture and the spirit of the Aztec belong to us all, not a vocal few," said Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "You cannot take this tradition away from the thousands of people who have passed through San Diego State."

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