Though they may chant the unofficial fight song every chance they get, many University of California, Santa Barbara students and alums probably don’t know the origins of their mascot, the Gaucho. In reality, a Gaucho is an Argentine cowboy, and many students have come out against it, citing cultural appropriation.
“No modern incarnation of the gaucho is as prominent as UCSB’s nickname, especially as the university’s teams continue to succeed in multiple sports across the country,” said Paul Rivas in a 2009 article for The Independent.
According to UCSB Sports, the university has used the eponymous Argentine cowboy as a nickname for over 70 years. The mascot was allegedly inspired by the performance of actor Douglas Fairbanks in 1927 film “The Gaucho.” In the film, Fairbanks played a charismatic leader of a band of outlaws who saves the day. UCSB students voted to change the mascot from the original Roadrunners in 1936.
Ariana Rodriguez, second-year film and media studies and communication double major, recently put on an event at the LPC discussing the history and controversy of UCSB’s masked mascot.
“The [students] wanted a Spanish name along the lines of the Dons of Santa Barbara High School,” Rodriguez said. “They thought that a roadrunner was weak and wanted something more fearsome.”
Thus, the Gaucho became more and more popular. So popular, in fact, that Gaucho basketball fans became nationally notorious in the mid-1990s. Around this time, the practice of throwing tortillas onto the court had become a Gaucho tradition. At one particularly rowdy basketball game televised for ESPN, attendees threw so many tortillas that the head coach was ejected from the game.
Though tortillas have become a Gaucho tradition at UCSB, they are not a genuine gaucho tradition. A real Argentinean gaucho would likely have no knowledge of the flat corn or flour tortillas of the type thrown onto the field during UCSB sports events.
Rodriguez held the informational event in the hopes of seeing what the general student body thought of the mascot. She wanted the forum to serve as a space to voice opinions on the mascot and what it stands for as well as seeing student thoughts on changing the mascot.
“Gauchos are South American cowboys,” Rodriguez said. “[UCSB students] have come to the general consensus that we’re just not a part of that culture.”
Rodriguez stressed the difference between appropriation and exchange and the unclear space the Gaucho has on this spectrum.
“Appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” said Rodriguez. “Exchange [involves] some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect. [It is] engaging with a culture as a respectful and humble guest.”
In 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a controversial advisory opinion that called for stopping the use of Native American images and team names by non-Native schools. Rodriguez believes that many people think of Native South Americans differently.
“The Gaucho hasn’t been targeted [as cultural appropriation like that of other sports teams] because they’re wearing clothing that is aesthetically very different than headdress and traditional Native clothing,” said Rodriguez. “The gaucho culture is different. It doesn’t fit the mainstream idea of a redskin or the public image of an Indian.”
Rodriguez acknowledges the controversy around UCSB’s mascot, and she encourages students to maintain a dialogue about cultural appropriation and exchange. Ultimately, even if the students did want to change the mascot, they would face many difficulties. According to Rodriguez’s research, Arkansas State University spent approximately half a million dollars to change their mascot to something that was not cultural appropriation.
“So many people think that it’s impossible to change the mascot, but I think it’s possible,” she said. “The Gaucho came about because of a petition and the same thing can happen so that we’re not culturally appropriating the gaucho.”