Sombrero silliness or cultural stereotyping?

A university in England has banned students from wearing sombreros after they deemed the Mexican hats to be “racist.” 

Is this another case of political correctness gone mad, or do they have a point?

According to news reports, the student union at the University of East Anglia asked a Mexican restaurant in Norwich hosting a freshers’ party not to hand out sombreros to students because they said it would be “offensive” for anyone other than Mexicans to wear the hats.

A Mexican student in Guadalajara informed about the ban this week could not contain his surprise.  “Who cares,” said Jonathon Paredes of the University of Guadalajara. “Whenever there’s a party or celebration, everyone uses sombreros, It doesn’t matter where you come from. We Mexicans aren’t offended. It’s just a hat!”

The UK university union’s ruling over the wearing of a sombrero at a Mexican restaurant shouldn’t be confused with the unacceptable cultural stereotyping that sometimes occurs when revelers in the United States and elsewhere dress up in full Mexican costumes on Halloween or at raucous, drunken parties.  It’s not just nuance – it’s pretty obvious when the limits of  civility have been exceeded.

So what kind of cultural connotations does the sombrero have that might give  foreigners pause for thought before plunking one down on one’s head.  Some might argue that the classic image of a campesino wearing a sombrero while taking a nap has all too often been used to characterize Mexicans as lazy – a stigmatization that anyone who has lived in this country for a length of time will know is far from the truth.  Also, the sombrero was still worn widely in cities at the start of the 20th century and was essentially a badge of class. The middle classes religiously shunned them. 

Today, however, only mariachis in urban areas wear sombreros in public and most Mexicans simply regard them as party pieces. Vendors do a roaring trade in the hats on September 15 as the nation boisterously celebrates independence from Spain, and gleefully sell them by their thousands to tourists. Foreigners visiting this country are often actively encouraged to wear them, especially at parties.

Where do we go from here? Should we now reprimand cruise line passengers who return to their ships with sombreros proudly adorning their heads after a day on shore at a Mexican port of call? And should everyone who is not a true Irishman refrain from wearing leprechaun stovepipe hats on Saint Patrick’s Day?  And should baseball hats be an exclusive mode of attire for Americans, who of course invented the sacred game?

Of course not. As Paredes puts it, “Hey, if wearing a sombrero makes people take more notice of Mexico, that’s fine with me.”