FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Allegory of the Crabs

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.

More articles by:

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.

November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range
Patrick Howlett-Martin
A Note on the Paris Peace Forum
Joseph G. Ramsey
Does America Have a “Gun Problem”…Or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?
Weekend Edition
November 09, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Louis Proyect
Why Democrats Are So Okay With Losing
Andrew Levine
What Now?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Chuck and Nancy’s House of Cards
Brian Cloughley
The Malevolent Hypocrisy of Selective Sanctions
Marc Levy
Welcome, Class of ‘70
David Archuleta Jr.
Facebook Allows Governments to Decide What to Censor
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Zika Scare: a Political and Commercial Maneuver of the Chemical Poisons Industry
Nick Pemberton
When It Comes To Stone Throwing, Democrats Live In A Glass House
Ron Jacobs
Impeach!
Lawrence Davidson
A Tale of Two Massacres
José Tirado
A World Off Balance
Jonah Raskin
Something Has Gone Very Wrong: An Interview With Ecuadoran Author Gabriela Alemán
J.P. Linstroth
Myths on Race and Invasion of the ‘Caravan Horde’
Dean Baker
Good News, the Stock Market is Plunging: Thoughts on Wealth
David Rosen
It’s Time to Decriminalize Sex Work
Dan Glazebrook
US Calls for a Yemen Ceasefire is a Cynical Piece of Political Theatre
Jérôme Duval
Forced Marriage Between Argentina and the IMF Turns into a Fiasco
Jill Richardson
Getting Past Gingrich
Dave Lindorff
Not a Blue Wave, But Perhaps a Foreshock
Martha Rosenberg
Dangerous, Expensive Drugs Aggressively Pushed? You Have These Medical Conflicts of Interest to Thank
Will Solomon
Not Much of a Wave
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Yemeni War Deaths are Five Times Higher Than You’ve Been Led to Believe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail