SAN DIEGO, Calif. - San Diego State University Native American Student Alliance president Manny Lieras feels like an Aztec facing a conquistador.
His organization has taken a stance against his school's use of "Aztec" as sports team nicknames and has found some formidable opponents.
The Native American Student Alliance is trying to get the school to drop not only the "Aztec" nickname but also school mascot "Monty Montezuma," a caricature depiction of the 16th century Aztec leader who lost his empire to Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez. Many American Indian students have complained the depiction is racist and offensive.
The issue has been brewing for several months and culminated with the Associated Student Council recommending the measure be put to a vote before the entire student body in a three-day election Oct. 23-25.
Faced with the prospect of losing the nickname and mascot, used respectively since 1925 and 1941, several high profile San Diego State alumni lent their voices to the "Save Monty" campaign.
Included in this group are the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, the San Diego State Alumni Association and San Diego Padres superstar outfielder Tony Gwynn.
There also is considerable opposition on the San Diego State campus. A group of students posted a "Save Monty" web site and plans to hold a rally before the election to gather support for their cause.
Leiras says fraternity groups are leading the movement.
Lieras says he is having trouble getting through to the student body at large. He reports there have been several incidents where students yelled pro-Aztec sentiments at his drumming group while it was rehearsing on campus.
In terms of student sentiment, Lieras says the nickname and the mascot are two separate problems. He feels most of the student body supports dropping the mascot, but want to keep the Aztec moniker.
"We feel the mascot is demeaning. We don?t have a problem with the name "Aztecs" as such, but the mascot is shown as semi-human and barbaric. Since it would be difficult to have the name and not the mascot, we feel they should just get rid of it," Lieras says.
The Native American Student Alliance members have been invited to go on several campus radio shows, but Lieras says every time he shows up there are "like 50 people" who show up to shout him down.
To try and get support for their cause the alliance contacted several area tribes. Lieras says the tribes have either said they are not interested in getting involved or have not returned calls from his group. He declined to name the tribes.
Sources at the alliance say they received some support from various organizations including their own Associated Student government, the campus chapter of Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (M.E.Ch.A), and the Associated Students at San Francisco State University, a sister campus.
Anthony Ciccati, president of the inter-fraternity council at San Diego State, thinks the issue is not so black and white. He says that while his organization opposes the name change, he agrees with the Native American Student Alliance that the mascot should go.
"I changed my mind when we had a forum with them (the alliance). I think they made a good point about how the mascot runs around like a savage as something that's offensive. I mean, I'm Italian and I wouldn't want them to represent my ethnic group this way," Ciccati says.
Ciccati denies his organization has taken any active steps to keep the mascot and says a group of individual students is primarily responsible for the "Save Monty" movement. He is hopeful a middle ground can be reached and says his organization is trying to work out a compromise that will satisfy both sides.
San Diego State President Stephen Webber has yet to take a stance on the matter. University Spokesman Jack Beresford says Weber will await the results of the student vote and a Nov. 7 faculty senate meeting before making a final decision.
"We feel that this is a valid issue and at this point we are welcoming community input. We feel this matter must be looked at from all sides," Beresford says.
He points out the only vote that will count in the end will be Webber's as the Oct. 23-25 student vote will only serve as a non-binding recommendation.
The Associated Student Council at San Diego State passed a resolution in late September asking President Webber to remove the nickname and mascot next year. After a lengthy debate at an Associated Students forum a week later, the council decided to take the matter to the student body.
"Associated Students wants all student and community voices to be heard. We invite everyone to give their input. In the end we'll have to wait to see what the president decides," says Euliza Mahinan, vice president of external affairs for the group.
All sources say they expect President Webber to make a decision before the end of the year.