In a year of 'inclusion,' racism and homophobia on display at Mummers Parade
I tuned into the annual Mummers Parade this year just long enough to see the four groups that opened the parade in the newly formed Philadelphia Division: the LGBT Miss Fancy Brigade, the African American Second 2 None drill team, the Puerto Rican Los Bomberos de la Calle, and the Mexican Carnavaleros de Filadelfia.
I felt an enormous pride in the participants, most of them in their first year of performance in the city's signature parade, and some visibly nervous as they faced TV network cameras and wide public scrutiny. I've long thought that the San Mateo Carnavaleros — humble, working class members of the Mexican community in South Philly — were a natural fit for the Mummers Parade given that they already invest a lot of time and hard-earned money to reenact a fantastically costumed "Battle of Puebla" every May 5 in Philadelphia. They've been doing so for nearly a decade.
I am not a sentimental person, but I found my eyes filling with tears while I watched the Carnavaleros perform. I knew from AL DÍA interviews — which took place from the first suggestion last Jan. 1 that they be invited, to the final determination of when they'd be parading — that they were thrilled to be participating in the city-wide event. I knew how much sacrifice and courage and pride were invested in those moments when the 50 or so Carnavaleros — adults and children — performed for an audience that (mostly) didn't know they existed and had never seen them in their regalia before.
Likewise, I felt enormous pride watching Los Bomberos and their amazing vejigantes; the precision and spirit of the Second 2 None team; and the pride of the Miss Fancy Brigade, the only members of the Philadelphia Division who had performed in previous Mummers Parades.
I'm glad I tuned out right after this Division performed, though. It's not that I don't love other aspects of the Mummers Parade — I think some of the Fancies are spectacular examples of folk art and pop culture tribute, and I quite like the family- and neighborhood-centered, working class roots of the parade — but I cannot watch the parade without girding for the unabashed racism that manifests most often (but not exclusively) in the wench and comic divisions.
And unfortunately, this year had some terrible examples of not only racism, but transphobia and homophobia.
Wench division performers carried Wench Lives Matter and Pirate Lives Matter signs — jabs at the Black Lives Matter movement, a chapter-based national organization working for the validity of Black life — which were clearly intended to offend and provoke. I'd like to make an analogy so even the apologists understand: During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s some people carried "America for Whites" and "Race mixing is Communism" signs to counter those working to secure basic civil rights protections. Is this how you want history to remember you — as someone actively working against justice — because, yes, that's what you were doing as you strutted around carrying those signs.
But back to the Mummers...
Later in the parade came the Sammar Strutters, who decided to don brownface and stereotypic serape-and-big sombrero-lazy-Mexicans-taking-their-siesta garb for their performance — pretty offensive any year but a real slap-in-the-face this year with the groundbreaking participation of an actual Mexican group showcasing an actual living tradition. An analogy so that even the apologists understand: Imagine a non-Irish Mummer group dressing up as stereotypic "drunken Irishmen" performing with nasty, winking bias, after the first Irish group ever to be invited to perform stepdanced their way into parade history.
— Nik-ki G (@NikkiG1011) January 1, 2016
"How can it be that the Mummers are allowed as an institution, year after year, to (disrespect) a community?" Juntos, the South Philadelphia immigrant advocacy organization posted on its Facebook page." Children and men painted with brown paint to represent Latinos, dressed like tacos and piñatas ... Just because they let some of us take part (hasn't) solved the biggest problem: that the Mummers has been, and continues to be, a racist institution."
Most startlingly egregious this year, Finnegan New Year's Brigade did a performance centered on Caitlyn Jenner's transition as a trans woman. A member of the brigade was caught on video yelling a homophobic slur, and after being called out by everyone from Mayor-elect Jim Kenney to the city's director of LGBT affairs, Finnegan banned the individual. But this single action hardly mitigates the performance itself, which was — "Froot Loops" signs to Aerosmith's "Dude looks like a lady" —nauseatingly transphobic. I don't think I have to provide an analogy for the apologists, do I?
The TV announcers were like, “I think we have an inkling of what’s coming up here.” You think? pic.twitter.com/0CDXL69WnY
— Dan McQuade (@dhm) January 1, 2016
"GALAEI (Philly's Queer Latino Social Justice organization) is outraged that this City celebrates the racist, sexist, homophobic Mummers," read a post on GALAEI's Facebook page. "One of the comic brigades just mocked Caitlyn Jenner. How can we claim to be the 'most LGBT friendly' city when this blatant transphobia is not only tolerated, but it's expected and applauded. This is deplorable and it should be shut down."
If Philadelphia is serious about continuing to host the Mummers Parade — which is held to be synonymous with the city — decisive and unequivocal action must take place.
Any Mummer association/club/organization that has engaged in a racist, transphobic or homophobic performance should be suspended from participation in the parade next year. Thereafter, if that association/club/organization wants to perform in the parade and in competition, it should have to audition its planned performance before a diverse city board (empanelled for this event specifically) before being slated for participation. For those who would howl about censorship (and I can already predict who those people will be) I would submit that the organizations in question have earned this kind of in loco parentis supervision from the city by their actions.
I'd also propose if, even after screening the proposed performance, a Mummer association/club/organization (or any of its individual members) slips racist, transphobic or homophobic signage or blackface/brownface/yellowface into the actual performance, the organization should lose its non-profit status and permanently lose the privilege of participation in the parade.
I don't want to see the Mummers Parade shut down, but I also don't want Philadelphia's character — as a city, as a people — to be judged by the disgraceful Sammar Strutters or Finnegan New Year's Brigade performances of 2016. And I can't believe that anyone who loves the grand and good parts of Mummer tradition would want that either.
Edited to add transphobic to racist and homophobic in the descriptions of Mummer association/clus/organization performances.