By Alyshia Gálvez
I did not sign any of the petitions I received protesting Amazon, Target and other retailers’ sale of an “illegal alien” costume. This, even though I spend much of my time writing, studying and teaching about the discrimination directed at undocumented immigrants and advocating for immigrant rights and reform of immigration laws, including the broad based path to legalization for commonly called amnesty. Even though I felt a visceral turning of my stomach on first glance at the ad for the costume, I do not wish for retailers to remove it from their Halloween offerings. I do not even mind if they sell a few of the costumes.
Why? The costume provides one of the best opportunities I’ve seen yet for a public debate about, and I hope, mockery of the very term illegal alien and its use in our current political and social landscape. The “illegal alien” costume that has now been removed from the websites of Amazon and Target features an orange jumpsuit, reminiscent of those used in immigration detention centers, the words “illegal alien” emblazoned across the chest and a mask of different stereotypical “alien,” the kind from space. Many people and institutions protested over the past week to the costume’s maker and retailers who, in many cases have withdrawn it from sale, citing concerns that they had no wish to offend their customers.
However, in forcing the removal of the item, protestors have directed a large amount of energy and ire to an ill-conceived target. The withdrawal of the costume is likely as amoral an act as its sale: the retailers calculated that the business they could potentially lose due to the controversy exceeded the potential profits from sales of the item. I do not believe that these retailers have any inherent interest in offending immigrants or their allies, they want simply to sell their goods and generate profits. I wish that the many letters of protest and petitions could, instead, have been directed to the much more common and much more offensive use of the term “illegal alien” in official and unofficial public discourse. The costume—its advertisement, sale, and even use—could have forced a broader discussion about the use of the term which might have generated greater change than protests against it.
Halloween is as close to Carnival as our historically rather Puritan-minded country gets. In Medieval Catholic Europe, Carnival was the opportunity for a reversal of the usual hierarchies of society. The poor dressed as kings while the nobility would dress as clowns and be subject to flying tomatoes and insults. In this “world turned upside down” a laughing stock would be made, even if only for the brief period of the festival, of the usual constraints and inequalities in which the poor and oppressed lived and labored. However, as many scholars have documented, carnival always held the potential—and this is what made it really fun for the lower strata of society and genuinely terrifying for the powerful—for a permanent reversal of society’s order. Literary scholar Mikhail Bakhtin argues that what defines the carnivalesque is the expression of subversion through the ludic– play. Still today, in many parts of Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain, Carnival and patron saint festival revelers dress as the lowliest of the low from the present and often mythical past (slaves, “sambos,” “redskins,” Chinese miners). When asked, they say that by occupying the persona of the most reviled members of society they can better access the blessings and grace that come with the sober devotion that follows the party.
While in the United States, Halloween has become so commercialized and diluted that it has more to do with candies and plastic jack-o-lanterns than revolution, the history is there, and not so deeply buried. The donning of a ridiculous, even offensive costume depicting what is arguably the lowliest and most reviled member of this society: the undocumented immigrant, can perhaps induce some real inversions to occur. While those of us who advocate for immigrants rights have been talking until hoarse about immigrants’ contributions, perhaps the unsettling image of a faceless, nameless “illegal alien,” as foreign and unknowable as the extra terrestrials with whom he is being associated can plant the seed of a more humane depiction. The term “illegal alien” is absurd, perjorative and dehumanizing, but it is the term used by the government, the media and much of the public. It is even often reduced (against the rules of grammar, I might add) to “illegal,” an adjective referring to specific unlawful actions, transformed into a noun, used to refer to people as a class. To insist on use of the word “undocumented immigrant,” as I do, has become characterized by Lou Dobbs and his ilk with the equivalent of wearing a hat that reads “open borders advocate.” Perhaps the “illegal alien” costume can reveal this manipulation of language for what it is: ridiculous, comical, ludicrous bigotry.
Professor Alyshia Gálvez is a cultural anthropologist (PhD, NYU 2004) and Assistant Professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies at Lehman College/City University of New York. She is author of Guadalupe in New York: Devotion and the Struggle for Citizenship Rights among Mexican Immigrants (NYU Press).