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A Never Ending Story

The Allegory of the Crabs

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

There are reoccurring themes in Chicana/o history such as the Sleeping Giant that echo the aspirations and frustrations of a community.  This expression says that somehow we are going to wake up as a people and become a political force, and consequently get equal opportunities.

The Sleeping Giant is a sort of modern day version of the Rip Van Winkle tale. It was popularized in the 60s because for years Mexican Americans were the nation’s second largest minority group, but they were invisible to policy makers who did not take them into account.

The origin is unknown, but I have heard some say that it once referred to volcanoes that slept until the day they suddenly erupted.  I searched the web for an answer; however, the results were far from conclusive.

An interesting version is that it was first spoken by a Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto  during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In a 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!” the admiral says “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” referring Americans reaction to the attack.

During the 1960s, the expression was popular among Mexican American leaders who took ownership of the narrative. Although I cannot pin down when and where I first heard it, the best explanation is that Chicanas/os first used it in Crystal City, Texas during a 1963 electoral victory celebration.

Hundreds of Mexican Americans gathered near a statue of Popeye the Sailor, and celebrated the takeover of the city council. Although Mexican Americans outnumbered whites by two to one, the gringos had controlled all five seats on the Crystal City Council.

As a consequence of a highly successful voter registration drive Mexican Americans won control of the council. Albert Fuentes, who led the voter registration campaign, reportedly declared, “We have done the impossible. If we can do it in Crystal City, we can do it all over Texas. We can awaken the sleeping giant.”  The victory raised hopes nationally that the system would finally pay attention to Mexicans.

As chignon as the expression sounds, Mexican Americans were probably not the first to use the Sleeping Giant metaphor.  A better explanation is that it is the minority’s version of a political epiphany. It leaves unanswered the question of what we were going to do once we awoke from the nightmare.

Another allegory that is frequently used by Chicanas/os was the crab mentality, which referred to the problems Mexicans had in organizing a movement. Dr. Ernesto Galarza once said, referring to the infighting amongst Chicana/o leaders, “I don’t know why it is so hard to organize Mexicans, there are plenty to go around,” adding “you take 50 and someone else takes on 50 and so on.”

Invariably the crab mentality is used as an explanation for a lack of unity.

This stereotype is not exclusive to Mexicans. It has been popular among most minorities for some time. My cursory research says that the phrase was first popular among Filipinos, who attributed it to writer Ninotchka Rosca who made reference to crabs in a bucket. Rosca describes a way of thinking, which he summarizes as “if I can’t have it, neither can you,” using the metaphor of crabs in a pot.

When I was a kid my father would use the expression envidiosos (envious people)) or celosos (jealous people). In conversations, the elders would say “No tengo enemigos simplemente los envidiosos me odian por como soy” (I do not have enemies only the jealous people hate me for what I am).

The moral of the story is that individually the crabs could easily escape from the pot and escape their collective misery, but instead, they grabbed at each other and prevented anyone from escaping ensuring that they remained in the bucket. Likewise humans “pull down” or minimize the importance of any member who achieves success beyond the others.

It was a theme in Oscar Lewis’ The Children Of Sanchez. When the protagonist Jesús Sánchez, living with his family in a Mexico City ghetto, wins the lottery and prepares to move out of it, his former neighbors and friends shun the family.

The metaphor has been used frequently in novels, describing workers or small towns. It criticizes short-sighted and non-constructive thinking versus unity.  It generalizes that there are individuals or communities attempting to improve themselves, but that neighbors and co-workers work against each other. This behavior also occurs between ethnic and racial groups such as competition between Chicanas/o and African-Americans who sometimes fight each other over crumbs instead of fighting those in power.

Dr. José Angel Gutiérrez used the crab metaphor in his book A Gringo Manual on How to Handle Mexicans Americans (1975) where he took a tongue and cheek swipe at those breeding internal dissention. Columnist Frank Del Olmo in 1989 wrote in the Los Angeles Times “Latino Power and the Last Cliche: Accomplishment Overtakes the Crab-in-a-Bucket Fable.”

Del Olmo rebutted the stereotype and the criticism of Latino efforts at unity because “It presumes that Mexican-Americans can’t work together (or Puerto Ricans and other Latinos),” can’t work together.” He adds that “As far back as the 1920s, Mexicans who sought refuge here during the Mexican Revolution organized themselves into self-help groups centered on their community churches. Some even formed labor unions to organize Mexican workers on the farms and in the mines of the Southwest. If those movements failed to achieve all their potential, it was usually because employers, farmers and other powerful interests did all they could to repress them.” Del Olmo called the story of the Mexican crab simplistic.

During my over 50 plus years of activism I have found both of these expressions a bit irritating not so much because they lack some validity, but because they always seem to be betting on the come. The Sleeping Giant presumes that numbers and unity will solve all of our problems without considering the growing class gap in our community. It also assumes that the right way is to work within the system.

The Sleeping Giant has problems. Recently some of my colleagues on the left have resurrected the National Question assuming that conditions are the same as they were in the 19th century. I consider this trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. There are so many more variables today such as the differences within the disparate Latino groups, class and race to name a few.

In any event the Sleeping Giant is anesthetizing. My feeling is that the only thing that has anchored us is the Immigrant Question, and even then we are divided on strategy with some of us blindly cheerleading for President Barack Obama. The issue of education seems to have gotten away from us, and we fail to articulate how the state has manipulated us into thinking that we have won when we get a favorable court ruling, forgetting that this can be erased by the Supremes in white robes. In other words, we are grateful for the crumbs.

The crab allegory is probably the one with the longest life. The cellos and the pettiness seem to have increased especially among small inbreeding groups within academe. Within Chicana/o academic circles some people are jealous because someone else publishes a book. It is all too common for those doing nothing to take pot shots at those who are on top thinking that in some way it will make them their equal and give them a slice of fame.

This is not to say that we should not criticize – criticism is the basis for correction. But the criticism should be constructive offering alternatives and a path to a conversation. Too often people sit around in academe labeling themselves progressives and doing nothing about building a foundation so people can escape the bucket.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.