Last week, Coachella Valley High School came under fire for the name of its mascot — the Arab. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent a letter to the school, complaining about the way the mascot depicts people of Arab descent. The complaint made the school national news.
At Coachella Valley High School last Friday — a game day — instead of getting ready for kickoff, students were stopped by television camera crews as they left campus. One by one, in their team jerseys and painted faces, they defended their mascot.
"It's pure pride, you know?" said Sergio Ortega, a freshman at the school. He plays on the school football team. For him, the Arab mascot is all he knows. "My parents, my grandparents, they've been Arabs, and I don't see nothing wrong with it! It's just to show us that we're strong. We're strong Arabs, you know?"
But here's the thing; they're not Arabs. Or even Arab-Americans. The student body of Coachella Valley Unified School District — and most of the entire region — is 99 percent Latino.
Rich Ramirez, the Coachella Valley High School Alumni Association president, talked to the news crews outside the school as well. He says they actually weren't always known as the Arabs.
"We were called the Date Pickers," said Ramirez. "The Desert Rats."
But after a big win, they got a new name: "Officially, Oct. 16, 1931, during a game that we had against Hemet High School in football, it was penned afterwards in the sports section, the galloping Arabs."
Ramirez says the name had a double meaning. First, the sportswriters thought "Arabs" was a good description for the strong, brave play the team showed on the field that night. Second, Ramirez said the team had no home field at the time, so they were nomads.
Pushing Dates In California
Abed Ayoub is the director of legal and policy affairs at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the group that came out against the mascot. "He looks very angry, very, very mean," says Ayoub. "One mural has an Arab on a magic carpet with a woman next to him. You look at their halftime show, they have a belly dancer that comes out dancing for the Arab male."
If you dig back far enough, this makes, at least, a little bit of sense. The mascot's history can be traced back to a fruit found in the Mideast — the date.
"Around the turn of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture sent agricultural explorers to the Middle East and Northern Africa to bring back dates," says Sarah Seekatz, a doctoral student at the University of California, Riverside, studying the history of dates in the Coachella Valley. "And they found that the Coachella Valley was one of the best places to grow them in the United States."
So, dates came to California. But there had to be a push to make Americans want to eat this new, exotic fruit.
"In order to boost date sales and also to boost tourism to the region, they decided to tap into the romance around the Middle East," says Seekatz. Never mind that few Arabs ever moved there.
Seekatz actually has a name for all of the Middle Eastern imagery found in the Coachella Valley: Arabian fantasies. There are a lot of them. "The date festival. The town of Mecca. There were other towns: Arabia, Oasis, Thermal. The streets are named Cairo."
The annual date festival that Seekatz mentioned features camel rides and a pageant where girls dress up as Arabian princesses to compete for the crown of Queen Scheherazade.
The recent controversy didn't seem to change anything at the big Coachella Valley High football game Friday night. The cheerleaders still spelled out A-R-A-B-S, and it still excited the crowd every time. Fans stopped the Arab mascot to tell him how proud they are of him and to keep up the good work.
Catalina Rojo, the belly dancer for the night, was there in full gear, proud of the school mascot. "Every time you see an Arab, [the fans] scream. They don't say boo or anything. We're not trying to make them feel bad or anything. We're just trying to represent our school," Rojo said.
Rojo — and pretty much everyone else at the school — wonder why all the fuss now. Seekatz thinks they have a point. "Coachella Valley is a poor school district," she says, "and they don't always get the fair playing field. And so I think that they may feel like they're being unfairly targeted, especially with the other mascots that are elsewhere — and especially because they didn't choose the mascot."
Coachella Valley Unified School District Superintendent Darryl Adams says he's open to changes for the mascot. "I am an African-American from Memphis, Tenn., the Deep South," he says. "So I understand people's sensitivity to anything that stereotypes or discriminates."
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is coming to a meeting with the district later this month to talk. Neither side has actually said the name "Arab" has to go.
Oh, in case you're wondering, the Arabs won Friday night's game against crosstown rival Indio High School. Indio's mascot is the Rajah, an arms-crossed, turbaned Indian prince.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.